Why Intermittent Fasting is good for gut health
Why Intermittent Fasting is good for gut health
In the last ten years, the concept of intermittent fasting has really taken off. Studies show it supports healthy ageing, but it has also been found to help people manage their weight without “old-fashioned” dieting. But new research suggests that intermittent fasting also supports a healthy gut in several ways as I shall explain below.
Intermittent fasting has evolved into different styles. I do not believe in a calorie reduced “fast”. The one I recommend and incorporate into my life a couple of times a week is Time Restricted Eating, where there is a 14-16 hour window between meals. For me, I find it simple to skip breakfast so the “fast” is overnight.
Background to Fasting
Our genetic and metabolic make-up has not evolved with the speed of our dietary changes in the past 100 years. Our constant snacking culture is damaging to the digestive system, puts additional demands on the liver and creates an almost constant rise in blood glucose that our body then has to deal with. This goes way beyond a potential diabetes risk to increasing the risk of inflammatory conditions.
As hunter-gatherers, food was scarce. The concept of three meals a day did not exist!
Several studies have used the period of Ramadan, when there is no eating between sunrise and sunset, as a reliable way to gather data on the impact of intermittent fasting.
Recent studies by researchers from China and the Netherlands have found beneficial changes to the gut, including the gut microbiome and gut barrier.
The gut barrier as the foundation of a healthy gut
The epithelial lining of the gastrointestinal tract is replaced every four days due to the wear and tear it experiences with food constantly passing through. If you increase the frequency of food flowing through, this can potentially increase the cell turnover – in turn requiring additional nutrients to do so – that may not be available. Giving the gut a rest between meals and a longer rest overnight can help to repair this important gut mucosal barrier.
The gut mucosal barrier is where many of the essential gut bacteria live and thrive. They feed off the mucus layer.
The research found there were increases in some strains of beneficial bacteria that produce a compound called butyrate. This has many important roles.
The role of Butyrate
Butyrate is a well known fuel for other beneficial bacteria. As we know – these gut bacteria work synergistically together. They thrive as a community.
Butyrate also helps to support a strong and robust gut barrier. The concept of a “leaky” gut comes about due to damage to the gut epithelial cells and gaps can appear. This allows larger molecules to escape through to the blood stream like toxins or partially broken down food. Butyrate helps to support tight junctions between the cells.
Butyrate has important anti-inflammatory properties in the gut, moderating the immune response from going into over-drive. There are potential benefits for those with Inflammatory Bowel Disease to incorporate intermittent fasting for these reasons.
IBS and SIBO
People who experience bloating, discomfort and pain after eating may associate this with IBS, but it may be due to bacteria that are starting to multiply in the wrong place – the small intestines. SIBO – or small intestinal bacteria overgrowth – is now a recognised digestive concern by gastroenterologists.
Why does this bacterial overgrowth occur? 90 minutes after eating there is a sweeping like action, caused by strong contractions, sending the remaining post meal contents along the small intestines and down to the colon. It is known as the Migrating Motor Complex (MMC). It ensures that no debris, waste and bacteria are left behind. But this MMC only works between meals. So snacking hinders this process. If you fail to allow at least 90 minutes between eating, you are turning off the essential gut process.
In addition to avoiding snacking, the longer fasting period overnight also enables this process to be carried out more effectively.
How to incorporate Intermittent Fasting into your Life
Use the Time Restricted (TRE) eating model of an extended overnight fast. Start by adding one extra hour between the evening meal and breakfast. For example, if dinner is 8pm and breakfast is at 8am, move breakfast to 9am OR dinner to 7pm! Try and add an extra hour every few days until you reach a maximum of a 16 hour “fast” between these meals.
Try to eat a balanced lunch with protein and good fats that can sustain you until dinner. Or, have one small snack (such as a handful of nuts) at least three hours after lunch, not before. It is not necessary to do TRE every day, 2 -3 times each week is sufficient.
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