Is Intermittent Fasting Safe for Women? The Ultimate Guide to Women’s Health

intermittent fasting women's health

Intermittent Fasting is currently all the rage, but it isn’t a new concept. Humans have fasted for since they evolved as a species – often as part of an overarching spiritual path. What is new is the burgeoning mainstream popularity of intermittent fasting and the scientific validation of the health benefits.

As research continues to confirm the positive health benefits of fasting, many different fasting schedules have developed. Although none of these fasting protocols claim to be the only correct way to fast, they don’t take into account the differences between male and female physiology. And that’s a mistake.

Here’s why.

Male and Female Bodies Do Have Some Differences

On a purely physiological level, women and men have some differences. If you’re female, your response to intermittent fasting will be slightly different than a man’s in some scenarios. Your unique physical traits play a role in how you’ll respond to intermittent fasting. 

However, from a chemical standpoint, men and women respond similarly to IF. Your individual response to IF will depend on many variables, so it’s vital you pay attention to your body if you decide to incorporate intermittent fasting into your lifestyle. As a woman, IF may work well for you, but it does have the potential to trigger a chain reaction of adverse chemical and hormonal reactions. So, if you’re female, you might be wondering if fasting is right for you.

Intermittent Fasting, Hormones, and You

As a female, you’ve evolved in a way that your reproductive system is intricately entwined with all aspects of your health. If you’re like most women, you’re extremely sensitive to hormonal fluctuations, and small changes in your lifestyle or environment can have an enormous effect on your reproductive hormones. Long-term fasting can have a powerful effect on all your hormones – and an imbalance in one may lead to an imbalance in others.

For you, intermittent fasting can create issues that your male counterparts won’t experience, like an estrogen imbalance. 

Estrogen is one of your primary female hormones, and it’s intimately connected to reproduction and your physical characteristics. 

An estrogen imbalance can cause:

  • Lack of energy
  • Weight gain 
  • Lower bone density/brittle bones
  • Loss of muscle 
  • Poor cardiovascular health
  • Impaired blood glucose control
  • Infertility

Extreme or uncontrolled intermittent fasting can affect your cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and lead to anxiety, insomnia, and sugar cravings — hello, weight gain! And it can affect your thyroid, growth hormone levels, and gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). When imbalances creep into this cocktail of hormones, you can suffer from depression, anxiety,  weight gain, thinning hair, dry skin, and irregular or absent menstrual periods.

How Fasting Affects Your Fertility

GnRH and estrogen are both vital to your reproductive cycle and to fertility. GnRH is the first step in your ovulation process; when your body releases GnRH, this signals your pituitary gland to secrete two substances called luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicular stimulating hormone (FSH). 

This process triggers your estrogen and progesterone production, so your ovaries will release a mature egg for fertilization, and so your body will create an environment that can support a pregnancy. It’s a delicately-balanced chain reaction, and if anything upsets this balance, you could experience infertility.

So, what does infertility have to do with intermittent fasting? Your GnRH production can be easily disturbed, and fasting is one of the many environmental factors that affect it. 

A study, published PLOS One, found intermittent fasting disrupts the reproductive cycle of female rats after 10–15 days. LH levels drop dramatically and estradiol (an estrogen) skyrocketed. The study rats were on a restrictive alternate-day fasting schedule where they ate every other day. Alternate-day fasting is a stricter protocol you’re likely to stick with., In 2016, the Journal of Mid-life Health published a study that discovered intermittent fasting may be beneficial if you have fertility issues because you’re overweight. So, if you’re on the larger side, you might find the weight you lose by intermittent fasting could improve your fertility.

When Fasting Causes Stress

You probably already know stress is detrimental to your physical and mental health. But did you know stress is a contributing factor to most chronic diseases, and chronic stress can lower your immunity and make you more susceptible to acute illnesses like colds and flu? Even things you don’t consider stressful can affect your health negatively if your brain registers them as stress.

fasting women's health

If you severely restrict your calories, change your eating habits dramatically, work-out too hard, or don’t give yourself time to recover, your stress hormones can kick in. And stress hormones can start a  chemical domino effect and sabotage the effort you’ve put into integrating IF into your lifestyle and the beneficial effects you might expect to reap.

Live Longer – Age Slower

Studies show extended fasting, intermittent fasting, and prolonged moderate calorie restriction may all increase longevity and decrease the effects of aging. There’s evidence that IF decreases inflammation, reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease, improves your metabolic health, and increases your cognitive function.

Intermittent fasting, for both women and men, may also help reduce the effects of aging — including staving off fine lines and wrinkles. How can that be? IF can help improve your body’s ability to defend itself against free radical damage — one of the primary factors behind aging skin.

Intermittent Fasting and Menopause

If you’ve entered menopause, you’re no longer getting monthly visits from your Aunt Flo, and you’re likely experiencing at least some menopausal symptoms, including hot flashes, mood changes, slowed metabolism, and weight gain. 

The evidence is clear that intermittent fasting can be an effective tool in helping you to lose weight and maintain a healthy weight. And numerous studies show IF can improve your health on many fronts. 

A study of postmenopausal women found intermittent fasting can have a significantly positive impact on your fasting glucose, which means your body can be made more sensitive to insulin. Higher insulin sensitivity is beneficial for your health and for your weight.

Intermittent fasting is excellent for your brain health since it can help protect your neurons from deterioration, improve your mood, and improve your memory – even if you’re over the age of 60

Intermittent fasting can help minimize some of your menopausal symptoms. Whether you’re just entering h menopause or you’re a seasoned veteran, consider intermittent fasting to achieve your weight goals,  balance your mood, and improve your memory.

Women’s Health: Precautions for Intermittent Fasting

When it comes to fasting and your health, moderation is essential. Start slow and build up to a 24-hour fast if that’s your goal. Begin a moderate exercise protocol and gradually increase the intensity of your workouts as you become more fit. That way, you minimize your risk for amenorrhea, and your periods will stay regular.

Get the most  benefits from IF and avoid potential challenges with these tips:

  • Eat enough during your eating window: Intermittent fasting isn’t about cutting calories or going hungry, so make sure you eat plenty of highly nutritious, healthy food. You may find yourself gradually eating less, and that’s OK. 
  • Eat wisely: Fuel yourself with big nutrient-dense meals and avoid overly sugary or salty food. Healthy food will make fasting easier to stick with and it’ll improve your overall health.
  • Begin with a 12-hour fast. Let your body and mind get used to intermittent fasting before you try an extended fast. Eat a late breakfast or an early dinner and do most of your fasting while you sleep.
  • Fast gradually: When you’re ready for a longer fast, choose two or three days per week for your extended fasts, and take a day or two in between to recuperate. 
  • Begin with moderate workouts: Save your intense workouts for non-fasting days until you’ve adjusted to fasting.
  • Take a break when you’re menstruating.

intermittent fasting for women

Despite the possible downfalls for women, intermittent fasting can be extremely beneficial to your health and wellness. It’s an undisputed tool to help you lose weight and improve your insulin sensitivity. Fasting can have some effects which are exclusive to you as a female; it can improve your risk of polycystic ovary syndrome, and reduce your menopause symptoms.

Please consult your doctor if you:

  • Have a history of anorexia or bulimia.
  • Are currently pregnant or who want to get pregnant in the near future. 
  • Are breastfeeding. Breastfeeding requires even more energy than pregnancy, and a fasting lifestyle may not meet these needs.
  • Have a sleep disorder. If you have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up in the morning, your body is experiencing abnormal stress levels. Fasting could add additional physiological stress.

Go for It

Countless women have successfully incorporated intermittent fasting into their lifestyle with no ill effects. However, it isn’t for all women, and some do report problems related above. What does that mean for you? 

 Be aware of the possible side effects and start gradually with fasting. Listen to your body and ratchet your fasting schedule up a notch gradually by adding one hour to your 12-hour fast. Give it some time and see how you feel. If it’s working for you, add another hour. Eventually, you can work your way up to a standard 16:8 protocol. 

But if you don’t feel well, or you develop the symptoms of a hormone imbalance, return to a shorter fasting period or even stop fasting altogether.

You’re a unique individual and your response to intermittent fasting will be as different as you are. Listen to your body. If you feel fantastic on an intermittent fasting protocol, terrific. If you don’t, modify your protocol, take a break, or eliminate fasting altogether. 

Author's bio

Linda Endicott

Linda Endicott

Linda is an experienced health and wellness writer, a proponent of intermittent fasting. For several years, Linda focused her writer on diabetes and nutrition, and she joined the Simple team to contribute to spreading knowledge about healthy eating habits.