Returning to Nature: Time-Restricted Eating

Intermittent fasting is a fascinating and recently expanding topic in the world of natural health. Hundreds of research studies suggest a slew of health benefits from this practice with more human clinical trials needed to better define the human health impacts over the long term. In very simple terms, the prevailing theory goes like this: Our bodies exist in one of two physical modes at any given time. During and following our meals, our bodies are in GO mode, using the food we eat as fuel and taxing our bodies to exert physical work. After our last meal, and after several hours without food or drinks containing macronutrients (i.e., those containing calories), our bodies switch over to REPAIR mode, where our body's resources are geared toward tissue repair, healing, and restoring balance.

Because of our our modern lifestyles, many of us don't stop eating long enough to reap the benefits of a fasting period and instead stay in GO mode far too often. Think of your body as an automobile. Imagine if you drove it for 16 hours a day and rarely had any time to give it an oil change or routine maintenance. The negative impacts on your health would be considerable and compounding over time. This is essentially what many of us are doing. The older we get, the more prone we become to diseases since our health issues are not being repaired as part of our routine maintenance when they're still minor. We're out of balance over long periods of time.

The science of intermittent fasting is consistent with restoring our eating patterns to those we evolved with. Most of us realize the impact of our sleep patterns being out of balance with our circadian rhythm (or body clock) when we pull an all-nighter or experience jet lag, since the negative impact is fairly immediate, but many fewer of us seem to realize the impact our eating patterns have when they are out of sync with our bodies. Ironically, the potential symptoms of this imbalance are abundant: acid reflux, weight gain, brain fog, insulin resistance, diabetes, cancer, lethargy, aging, cardiovascular disease, neurological disorders, etc. These maladies are not supposed to be normal and neither is eating all day long, every day.

Time-restricted eating is just one type of intermittent fasting and it's the one that I personally practice. I prefer it since it's a daily practice and I do better with regular routines. Other popular methods involve fasting every other day, or just 2 days a week (5:2), or even doing a longer fast once or twice a week. However, the typical time-restricted eating regimen has you eating only within an 8-hour time window and strictly fasting within the remaining 16 hours every day. It is best to only drink water during the fast, but some make exceptions for black coffee or tea, which do not contain calories and thus, do not "start your digestive clock," ending the fast. Just make sure not to add cream or sugar!

As can be expected, there seems to be a difference regarding when your 8-hour window is executed. My window is between 10AM and 6PM, but the dynamic changes if I get up at 6AM vs. 10AM (i.e., fasting isn't the same if you sleep through all of it). The dynamic also changes if you go right to bed after your last meal. In my opinion, there should be a few hour gap between your wake up time and breakfast as well as between your last meal and bedtime in order to get the most out of time-restricted eating.

When I first started my time-restricted eating regimen, I had no idea that I would continue it through to the present day, almost 2 years later, without any difficulty. It took some getting used to, of course, but mostly I found it to be easier than my previous habits. Before, I was forcing down a breakfast before I had a chance to be hungry, just so I could get to work on time, then I tended to eat dinner late after coming home and needing to unwind before cooking. Now I just bring a breakfast to work and start eating after I've been there for a couple of hours. The first week was the hardest, since my body was adjusting to a new eating schedule. My stomach rumbled on those mornings as I neared the 10AM starting line. But after that first week, I was relieved to find my body was completely used to it.

Some studies have shown greater cognitive ability during the fasting hours of the morning and they suggest an evolutionary advantage as it once helped us to find and capture food for the day. One of my main concerns before reading up on fasting was that I'd lose muscle mass because my body would start breaking down muscle proteins for fuel. But it turns out that the body has mechanisms that still aren't fully understood for protecting your muscle mass during an intermittent fasting regimen, which even allow for muscle growth. I've personally been able to do just that, but one thing I've been careful of is to make sure I'm not reducing my food intake as a result of the shorter time window for eating. In other words, I compressed my meals into the 8-hour time window; I didn't remove meals or reduce my intake. Those looking to lose weight will find it easier to reduce their intake over the time window, which, when combined with the metabolic benefits of fasting, is a great recipe for healthy weight loss.

There is so much to learn about this topic that I'm barely scratching the surface here. If this sounds like something you want to try, there are lots of books, online videos, and articles to absorb as you start putting your eating habits back into balance with your true nature. For in-depth study on this topic, I recommend following Dr. Rhonda Patrick, who covers a lot of interesting nutritional science topics in detail. In this video, she interviews Dr. Satchin Panda, whose clinical work is at the forefront of understanding the human health implications of intermittent fasting. But to be clear, you don't need to do a detailed study of intermittent fasting to begin a regimen today. Just make sure to consult with a healthcare professional familiar with nutritional science before doing so, to avoid any potential medical interactions.

As always, leave comments and let me know your own experiences. With your permission, I may choose to share them here on Rewire.

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