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How To Do Intermittent Fasting To Help (Not Hurt) Your Mental Health

JJ Virgin, CNS, BCHN
Nutrition Specialist & New York Times best seller
By JJ Virgin, CNS, BCHN
Nutrition Specialist & New York Times best seller
JJ Virgin is a certified nutrition specialist, board certified holistic nutritionist, certified exercise physiologist, and New York Times best-selling author.
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October 11, 2021

Every day, we're learning more about the benefits of fasting, and the list continues to grow!

It's hardly a new trend—people have been fasting (alternating periods of eating with not eating) as a cultural and healing practice for centuries. Lately, the emphasis has expanded to include weight management, immune support, brain health, inflammation reduction, and so much more.

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Likewise, researchers at Johns Hopkins University report that intermittent fasting may improve heart health, thinking and memory, and physical performance. Fasting can also support the trillions of bacteria in your gut, which in turn promotes immune health. After all, about 70% of your immune system is in your gut.

Many of my clients tell me how amazing they feel when they fast, once they've gotten over the initial hurdle of adapting to this eating lifestyle. But there's still one concern I often hear from those who are still on the fence about it: "I want all the benefits of fasting, but I'm worried it will hijack my mental health." 

How to avoid messing with your mental health while intermittent fasting.

Right up front: If you have experienced any kind of eating disorder, I do not recommend intermittent fasting. If you're dealing with depression or anxiety, I advise speaking with a health care practitioner before you undergo a fasting plan. It's important to recognize that while intermittent fasting can be a powerful tool, it's not necessarily the best (or only choice) for everyone.

If you do want to give it a try but are worried about it being too stressful, I recommend starting with a 12-hour fast. Make this easy on yourself. Wrap up dinner by 7 p.m., close down the kitchen for the evening, and then push breakfast forward the next morning. You will still get all the benefits of intermittent fasting—just at a pace that's right for you and your body.

Can you go till 9 a.m. without breakfast? Score! You've created a 14-hour fasting window—and the great thing is you'll be sleeping for eight or nine of those hours. As your body feels more comfortable with fasting, you can experiment with different types of fasting, to see what works best for you. Just be sure to be mindful of the approach and periodically check in with yourself, to ensure it's not taking a negative toll on your mind or mental health.

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Remember, there can be mental health benefits to intermittent fasting, too.

If you're questioning the mental health impacts of intermittent fasting, it's important to know that IF may have some benefits for your mind, too. In fact, research shows that intermittent fasting can be a powerful mood booster.

Fasting also triggers an important process called autophagy. Autophagy is like "spring cleaning" for your body: getting rid of old, damaged cells and making room for new, healthy ones so we can keep functioning at peak levels. It's especially important in the brain since autophagy helps to helps clear out damaged proteins and promote brain health.

In his book Life Lessons From a Brain Surgeon, Rahul Jandial, M.D., Ph.D., talks about how—and more importantly, why—he's made intermittent fasting a part of his daily routine. "Intermittent hunger clears the mind, awakens the senses, and improves brain functioning," he says. "Going without food for even a day increases your brain's natural growth factors, which support the survival and growth of neurons." 

Immune support, inflammation reduction, plus a brain and mood boost? You can see why fasting can be such a powerful tool in your well-being arsenal. Just be sure to choose the type of fast that works best for you and your body. 

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JJ Virgin, CNS, BCHN
JJ Virgin, CNS, BCHN
Nutrition Specialist & New York Times best seller

JJ Virgin, CNS, BCHN, is a celebrity nutrition and fitness expert who helps clients lose weight fast by breaking free from food intolerance. A certified nutrition specialist, board certified Holistic Nutritionist, and Certified Exercise Physiologist, she is the author of the New York Times best-sellers The Virgin Diet: Drop 7 Foods, Lose 7 Pounds, Just 7 Days and The Virgin Diet Cookbook: 150 Easy and Delicious Recipes to Lose Weight and Feel Better Fast.