A Functional Medicine Expert's Top Strategy For Calming Inflammation & Food Cravings

Photo: Michela Ravasio

Most of the health problems plaguing our modern world have one thing in common: inflammation. Heart disease, autoimmune conditions, arthritis, diabetes, cancer, digestive problems, anxiety, depression, brain fog, and hormonal problems can all be traced back to the inflammatory response—in one way or another. And as a functional medicine doctor, I see the impact inflammation has on the health of people around the world every single day.

In the past, I've shared my favorite foods, elixirs, mind tricks, and science-based tools to balance out inflammation, and now I want to share with you another powerful tool to drive inflammation levels down. I personally use this tool on a weekly basis and have seen it work for countless patients. That tool is intermittent fasting (IF), and it has the health blogosphere all abuzz. Here's what you need to know.

What is intermittent fasting and how can it fight inflammation?

Intermittent fasting is a general term for a period of time in which you limit food intake or don't eat at all. Why would anyone want to put themselves through periods of starvation? Well, studies have shown that IF could significantly bring down markers of inflammation. In fact, research is showing a few fascinating ways that intermittent fasting calms different types of inflammation:

1. Brain inflammation.

Mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and brain fog are on the rise, and studies are showing that IF improves brain function and mood, having a sort of antidepressant effect. Neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's—as well mood disorders such as depression and anxiety—are known as neuroinflammatory conditions and IF looks promising for these as well. Other studies have shown that IF may actually protect neurons from genetic and epigenetic stress factors, meaning it can essentially slow down brain aging!

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2. Lung inflammation.

In one study, fasting every other day was shown to decrease asthma symptoms and markers of oxidative stress and inflammation.

3. Hormone-signaling inflammation.

Intermittent fasting decreases insulin resistance, a hormonal problem that affects a staggering 50 percent of American adults! It also increases production of beneficial enzymes that increase your body's ability to adapt to stress and fight chronic diseases like diabetes.

4. Chronic pain inflammation.

Intermittent fasting improves something called neuroplasticity—or the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections in response to new information—which researchers are studying for the role it may play in managing chronic pain.

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5. Cancer.

Various studies have looked at the promising connection between intermittent fasting and reducing the risk of breast cancer.

6. Autoimmune conditions.

Fasting every three days has been shown to reduce symptoms of autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis and lupus.

7. Gut inflammation.

In my practice I've seen what a great tool IF can be for inflammatory bowel issues like stomach pain, IBS, colitis, diarrhea, and nausea. Research also reflects the benefits of fasting therapy for gut health.

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8. Heart inflammation.

IF has been shown to lower cardiovascular disease risk in part because of its ability to raise protective HDL cholesterol and lower triglycerides and blood pressure.

9. An unexpected benefit of intermittent fasting.

Our culture is obsessed with food and we eat all the time. And the overwhelming majority of us have lost touch with what it means to feel physical hunger. As my patients explore intermittent fasting, they learn more about their body and their emotional relationship with food. And it's often through the different protocols of intermittent fasting that they truly gain freedom from cravings and eating out of habit or for emotional reasons. Physically, consistent intermittent fasting transitions their metabolism from an erratic sugar-burning roller coaster to a slow and steady fat-burning machine.

What are the best ways to fast?

I have been using various intermittent fasting protocols for years in my functional medicine health center, as well as in my own life. Here are five of my go-to ways to intermittent fast:

The 8-6 window plan.

One simple way to IF is to try eating just from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. This window allows for a longer fasting time that stretches from the early evening to a reasonable time in the morning.

The 12-6 window plan.

This is the one I personally do during the workweek. It's the same as the last option, only this one extends the fasting period until lunchtime, when you'll have your first meal of the day. I drink lots of water and herbal tea in the morning and enjoy lunch so much more!

The modified 2-day plan.

Another way to intermittent fast is to eat a regular clean diet for five days a week and then pick any two days of the week to restrict your intake of food to less than 700 calories. This caloric restriction still activates many of the same benefits as a full intermittent fasting day.

The every-other-day plan.

For this intermittent fasting protocol you would fast fully every other day. This plan is a bit intense but can be great (and very effective) for some people.

The 5-2 plan.

Another relatively simple intermittent fasting protocol is to completely fast for two whole nonconsecutive days in a week. For example, fast on Monday and Wednesday but eating regular clean foods the other 5 days.

What do you eat between intermittent fasting windows?

It's important to remember that you can't intermittent fast your way out of a bad diet. If you want to try intermittent fasting out for yourself, you will want to make sure your diet is one that complements your intermittent fasting endeavors. Focusing on healthy fats, safe carbs, and clean protein is super important.

Is IF right for everyone? No. It's all about what works for the individual. My experience is that patients with adrenal fatigue and other circadian rhythm issues don't usually do well with a lot of intermittent fasting. People with blood sugar issues will also want to start off very slowly. Jumping from the standard Western diet to IF may not be the best idea, but with that said, transitioning into intermittent fasting can be a great tool to reverse insulin resistance and balance blood sugars.

Want to learn more about intermittent fasting? Here's why IF isn't for everyone and how it can help you burn fat.

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