Should You Try Intermittent Fasting if You Have an Autoimmune Disease?
June 3rd, 2018
Have you heard of intermittent fasting? It’s the latest craze in the world of health and fitness, boasting tons of health benefits! Studies show that intermittent fasting, which has been practiced for thousands of years, has the potential to prevent and reverse chronic illnesses such as obesity, hypertension, and asthma.1 It even shows significant promise for improving autoimmune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. So if you have an autoimmune condition, you may be wondering if you, too, could benefit from intermittent fasting. Here’s everything you need to know before diving in.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting (IF) is a catch-all term for eating patterns that cycle between periods of eating and not eating. There are many different methods of IF, with fasting periods that last from 12 hours up to three weeks! The most common intermittent fasting methods, however, typically involve daily 16-hour fasts, or fasting for 24 hours once or twice a week.2 With a daily fast you would designate an 8-hour “eating window,” where you would only eat between the hours of 12pm-8pm, for example.
Fasting has a long history in cultures around the world, many of whom practice fasting for religious or spiritual purposes including followers of Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. Periods of fasting were also a natural part of our evolution. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors could not always find food to eat, and so our bodies adapted to function for extended periods of time without eating. It is only recently that the scientific community has begun to research the various health applications of IF, with studies showing the potential of fasting to reduce oxidative damage and inflammation, optimize energy metabolism, and boost cellular protection.
Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
While many people use intermittent fasting for weight loss, its benefits extend far beyond maintaining a healthy weight, including:
- Improved insulin sensitivity
- Increased Human Growth Hormone (HGH) levels for fat loss and muscle gain
- Cellular repair (autophagy)
- Changes in gene expression related to longevity and disease protection
- Reduced oxidative damage and inflammation
- Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
- Cardioprotective benefits, including reduced hypertension and obesity
- Delayed aging
- Cancer protection
- Relief from symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis
- Reduced seizures and seizure-related brain damage
As you can see, intermittent fasting has a long list of health applications that have been demonstrated in both human and animal studies. In the next section, we’ll take a look at how IF can be particularly beneficial for autoimmunity.
Intermittent Fasting and Autoimmune Disease
Studies have shown the potential benefits of IF for rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, mixed connective tissue disease (a combination of lupus, scleroderma, and polymyositis), and multiple sclerosis. When you fast for an extended period of time, your body has the chance to rest and recover since it is not busy digesting food or defending against inflammatory agents in food. This state of rest can be especially helpful for taming autoimmunity for a number of reasons.
1. Repairs a Leaky Gut
Incredibly, intermittent fasting has a profound effect on your gut barrier function. IF reduces intestinal permeability–otherwise known as leaky gut–the precursor to all autoimmune disorders.3 By “sealing the leaks” in your mucosal lining of your intestines, you can mitigate the symptoms of autoimmunity that are triggered by environmental factors such as undigested food particles, microbes, and toxins.
2. Initiates Autophagy
“Autophagy” is a term derived from Greek words that literally means “self-eating.” Fasting induces autophagy, which is essentially your body’s clean-up crew, breaking down damaged cells, dead cells, debris, and amyloid beta plaques (which are implicated in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis), meanwhile encouraging new growth of healthy cells. Autophagy also increases your body’s ability to resist internal stressors that may exacerbate autoimmune conditions, such as pathogens or infections.4
3. Reduces Inflammation and Pro-inflammatory Cytokines
Inflammation is at the root of nearly every chronic illness, including autoimmune disease. The more inflammation you have, the further up on the autoimmune spectrum you fall, inevitably leading to a diagnosis of full-blown autoimmunity if you do not take action to reduce your inflammation. Fortunately, intermittent fasting is shown to lower levels of systemic inflammation and pro-inflammatory cytokines, cell signaling molecules that make disease worse.5 Patients with rheumatoid arthritis experienced less inflammation and joint pain when put on a fasting diet.6 IF also significantly reduces leptin, a type of pro-inflammatory cytokine that is elevated in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, type 1 diabetes, autoimmune hepatitis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, and ulcerative colitis.7
4. Improves Immune and Stress Response
Research shows that intermittent fasting can support a balanced immune response by suppressing autoimmune reactions.8 This may be due in part to the fact that while fasting, you are not intaking proteins that contribute to inflammation, allergic responses, or other immune reactions caused by certain foods (as in the case with food sensitivities). IF can also help modulate your body’s stress response, which is important given that stress is a major trigger of autoimmunity.
5. Kickstarts Ketogenesis
Intermittent fasting initiates ketogenesis, the production of ketone bodies that occurs during a metabolic state known as ketosis where your body burns stored fat for fuel rather than glucose. You’ve probably heard of the “ketogenic” diet, in which people drastically reduce carbohydrate intake to mimic a starvation state and induce ketosis for weight loss, heightened energy, and other health benefits. Keto diets have long been used for treatment of patients with epilepsy, and are now being looked at for possible benefits for autoimmunity as well. Not only does ketosis help modulate your body’s immune response, it also increases your levels of glutathione, the body’s most potent detoxifier, which is notoriously low in patients with autoimmune disorders.9
What You Need to Know Before Trying Intermittent Fasting
Although intermittent fasting has many potential benefits for autoimmunity and other chronic illness, IF is not for everyone. Whether or not you should try intermittent fasting depends on several factors. If you are a woman or are dealing with hormonal imbalances, thyroid issues, or adrenal fatigue, IF may not be the best option for you.
Fasting can throw your hormones out of balance and mess with your menstrual cycle and sleep patterns, resulting in amenorrhea and insomnia.10 That’s why women, particularly those with a lean body type, need to be careful when trying IF because our bodies are much more sensitive to signals of starvation than men. This is especially true if you already have hormonal imbalances or are in perimenopause.
You also need to be cautious if you have thyroid dysfunction or adrenal fatigue. Ketosis brought about by fasting is a major strain on your adrenal glands, which are already out of whack if you have one of these conditions. The added stress from a fast can exacerbate thyroid disorders and chronic fatigue, especially if you are already under a great amount of stress in your daily life.
If you are a woman with autoimmunity or have any of the above conditions and want to experiment with intermittent fasting, be sure to start slow. Maybe try pushing breakfast until 11 a.m. instead of eating right when you get up. See how your body reacts to this “mini-fast” and whether you think you might be able to tolerate a longer or more frequent fast. Another option would be to do a “bone broth fast,” during which you would not eat solid foods, yet would still be supplying your body with the necessary nutrients it needs to balance your hormones by sipping on nourishing bone broth while you fast.
Your best bet is to listen to your body and find what works for you. Intermittent fasting can be very beneficial for autoimmunity and other chronic illnesses–however, if you don’t react well to a prolonged fast, don’t get down on yourself! There are plenty of other ways to balance your blood sugar, achieve an optimal weight, and reduce your disease risk. Optimizing your diet with The Myers Way®, reducing your toxic burden, healing your infections, and relieving your stress are all important steps you can take to reverse your autoimmunity and achieve lasting wellness.
- Fasano, A. (2012). Leaky gut and autoimmune disease. Clinical Reviews in Allergy and Immunology, 42(1), 71-78.
- Hutcheson, J. (2015). Adipokines influence the inflammatory balance in autoimmunity. Cytokine, 2, 272. doi:10.1016/j.cyto.2015.04.004
- Choi, I.Y., Piccio, L., Childress, P., Bollman, B., Ghosh, A., Brandhorst, S., & … Longo, V. D. (2016). A Diet Mimicking Fasting Promotes Regeneration and Reduces Autoimmunity and Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms. Cell Reports, 15(10), 2136-2146.