There are times when it can be a good idea to take a break from fasting. Many of the health benefits of intermittent fasting come from the mild stress that it puts on the body – a little stress makes us stronger. But a lot of stress is not good.
Times when it might be a good to take a break, or reduce the amount of fasting are when:
You experience persistent hunger – even after eating – often combined with cravings for rich, and usually sugary, foods
You are undergoing severe stress at home or work
While you are suffering from an acute infection with fever
You are recovering from surgery or an acute illness
You are being treated with corticosteroid tablets.
Stress and cortisol
When you are in a highly stressful situation, whether due to pressure at work or a difficult situation at home, the stress triggers release of the hormone, cortisol. Fasting or any calorie restriction is also stressful and further increases cortisol levels. Normally the body can cope with the stress of fasting, but if you add too much stress from other sources, fasting can hinder rather than help. High cortisol levels can slow weight loss, weaken the immune system, worsen insulin resistance, raise blood pressure and affect memory and mood.
The ‘famine reaction’
If, after a period of successful intermittent fasting, you start to feel much hungrier than usual not only when fasting but also at normal eating times, perhaps together with a sense of lethargy and constantly feeling cold, and you don’t feel that you are under any more stress than usual, you might be suffering a ‘famine reaction’. You may also notice that your weight loss has stalled. The term, ’famine reaction’ has been coined by Dr Amanda Sainsbury-Salis, an Australian researcher who has studied how our bodies respond to dieting.1 She has developed the Don’t Go Hungry Diet in which controlled overeating is used to counteract this famine reaction. Of course by alternating fasting and feasting, if you’re following the 5:2 diet or other intermittent fasting methods, you are already helping to prevent the famine reaction. However, a few of our FastDay community members do appear to have experienced these kinds of hunger problems, which may have been due to the famine reaction.
Medical reasons to stop fasting
If you have an infection with fever, nausea or vomiting, you most likely won’t feel like eating, in which case don’t worry about it, but if you do feel hungry, then you should go ahead and eat. After surgery your body needs plenty of food to enable you to heal so you should not be trying to lose weight at this time. Indeed, after any severe illness that requires hospital treatment you should pause your weight loss efforts and allow your body to heal.
Should I stop fasting or just cut down?
If you feel that you have over-stressed your body in any of the ways mentioned above, you should probably at least cut down on how much fasting you are doing. Only you will know how you feel so it is up to you to decide whether to stop fasting for a while or just to cut back.
There are different ways that you can cut back on fasting to reduce the stress without stopping completely:
Reduce the length of your fasts
Allow yourself more calories on your fast days
Change from ADF to 5:2
Change from whole day fasts to an eating window approach.
At the same time as pausing or reducing your fasting, you should pay attention to eating healthily and not give in to cravings for sugary or high carbohydrate foods, which seems to be one of the effects of high cortisol levels. Try to eat well having nutritious foods, including healthy fats and plenty of vegetables.
Returning to fasting after a break
If you’ve taken a break from fasting for whatever reason, returning to fasting is super-easy. Just start! Depending on the reasons for you having stopped fasting, you might think about how to reduce the chances of the same thing happening again. Perhaps you found that your fasting method was difficult to fit into your life, perhaps you developed a ‘famine reaction’, perhaps your stress levels were too high. It is worth considering how best to make fasting a permanent part of your life so that you can reap the health benefits and keep control of your weight into the future. Maybe a different approach to fasting may help. This might mean a different fasting method or eating differently on non-fast days, or perhaps some other lifestyle changes will help.
A visit to the FastDay forum is sure to yield some helpful advice.