Can Fasting Help with Celiac and Gluten Sensitivity?
Intermittent fasting regimens have become increasingly popular in recent years. While many people seek weight loss benefits from fasting and find this approach easier to follow than traditional caloric restriction, the truth is, there are extensive benefits to fasting beyond weight loss. We’re taking a look at this long list of benefits, and what they might mean specifically for those with celiac disease and other gut-related disorders.
What is Fasting?
Intermittent fasting is a dietary strategy that manipulates the timing of food consumption in a pattern that typically trends toward longer breaks between meal times. By having longer breaks between meals, you are allowing the digestive system a prolonged period of time to rest and recover. There are several different types of fasting strategies that are described below.
9 Fasting Strategies
The 16/8 Method:
The 16/8 method involves restricting your daily eating window to approximately 8 hours and fasting daily for 16 hours. This is a relatively flexible method, as it can be implemented as simply as not eating after dinner and skipping breakfast. This method is also known as the Leangains protocol and was popularized by fitness expert Martin Berkhan. It does not require you to restrict calories beyond what you would eat in a typical 24 hour period.
The 20/4 Method:
Similar to the 16/8 method, but more time restricted, this fasting strategy consists of a 20 hour fast followed by a 4 hour window in which food is eaten. Like the 16/8 fast, the 20/4 fast is not a restriction of calories.
The 5:2 method:
The 5:2 diet involves eating a typically caloric intake five days of the week and restricting caloric intake to 500–600 for two days of the week. This approach is also called the Fast Diet and was popularized by British journalist Michael Mosley.
Liquid Diet Fasting:
A liquid fast involves eliminating the intake of any solid food and consuming only liquids, like broth, soups, and juices. The intent of a liquid fast is to reduce the digestive stress on the gut while still taking in a consistent level of calories and nutrients. A liquid fasts works well for people who struggle with indigestion, or those who experience severe gastrointestinal stress no matter what they eat. This method is typically not recommended for a prolonged period of time without medical supervision.
Eat Stop Eat:
Eat Stop Eat involves a 24-hour fast once or twice per week. This method was popularized by fitness expert Brad Pilon and has been quite popular for a few years. The timing is flexible as to when you start and stop (e.g., fasting from 7pm one day to 7pm the next day amounts to a full 24-hour fast) so long as you eat “responsibly” (i.e., stay within reasonable caloric and nutritional limits) during the 24 hour eating windows.
One Meal a Day (OMAD):
The OMAD diet is basically what it sounds like, eating only one meal each day within a one-hour window and then fast for the remaining 23 hours. OMAD benefits are generally centered around weight loss, as caloric restriction happens naturally with this method.
The Warrior Diet:
Similar to OMAD but less intense, The Warrior Diet involves eating small amounts of raw fruits and vegetables during the day and then one large meal at night, within a 4-hour eating window. Foods consumed during the evening meal are consistent with a Paleo approach to eating and are centered around whole, unprocessed foods. The Warrior Diet was popularized by fitness expert Ori Hofmekler.
Alternate Day Fasting:
This method consists of a “fast day” (75% energy restriction) alternating with a “feed day” (typical food consumption/eating to satiety). In alternate-day fasting, you fast about every other day. The research around benefits of this type of fasting is not as conclusive as other methods, and it can also be difficult and unsustainable for many people.
One-day and three day fasts:
Short-term water-only fasts can help reset your digestive system and may also promote autophagy, a process in which your body breaks down and recycles old, potentially dangerous parts of your cells. Note: it’s best to consult with a healthcare practitioner before you start a water fast, and if you’ve never tried it before, I recommend starting with a shorter fast first to work up to a full day fast.
9 Health Benefits of Fasting
Improved Insulin Resistance
Improved Blood Sugar Levels
Studies have shown that intermittent fasting consistently leads to notable reductions in blood sugar levels. In fact, one human study showed that fasting blood sugar was reduced by 3–6% over the course of 8–12 weeks in people with prediabetes. Fasting insulin was reduced by 20–31%. These effects benefit all individuals, but have a particularly relevant role in preventing and managing type 2 diabetes.
Improved blood pressure and cardiovascular health
Fasting can reduce resting heart rate and blood pressure (both systolic and diastolic), leading to improved heart health. In addition, studies have shown fasting to decrease LDL and increase HDL levels and reduce oxidative stress in the cardiovascular system. It also minimizes the inflammatory process that contributes to atherosclerosis.
Increased metabolic rate
Research shows that short-term fasting can actually increase your metabolic rate and aid in weight loss efforts.
Anti-inflammatory effects of fasting extend beyond the cardiovascular system. Research shows that intermittent fasting can reduce oxidative stress and inflammation throughout the body. As we know, inflammation is at the root of just about all disease, so the potential benefits of lowering inflammation are extensive.
Research related to fasting to benefit chronic pain patients has found fasting to be associated with an improved mood thanks to increased brain availability of serotonin, endogenous opioids, and endocannabinoids.
Improved gut health
Fasting can influence the microbiome in a number of ways. Research shows that changes in the gut microbiome resulting from fasting contributes to the diversity of gut microflora and represents a mechanism by which the gut microbiome can affect one’s metabolism. An extended fasting period can also lead to reduced gut permeability (leaky gut) systemic inflammation.
Activates the SIRT1 gene
Fasting has been shown to activate that SIRT1 gene which regulates metabolic pathways, cell survival and deterioration, and inflammation. It also acts in the pathogenesis of chronic conditions such as diabetes as well as pulmonary, neurodegenerative, and cardiovascular diseases, and has been reported to play a key role in the progression of tumors as tumor suppressor.
Activates Human Growth Hormone
Human growth hormone (or growth hormone) is an important hormone produced by the pituitary gland that plays a key role in growth, body composition, cell repair, and metabolism. It also boosts muscle growth, strength, and exercise performance while aiding recovery from injury and disease. Research shows that fasting can lead to significant increases in HGH levels.
Risks to Fasting
With such a long list of potential benefits to fasting, you might be wondering – is there any downside? Are there any risks to fasting or is there anyone who shouldn’t try fasting?
In general, fasting is quite safe for most people. However, I always recommend working with a qualified health professional when considering a significant change to managing your health, particularly if you are otherwise actively treating a specific health condition. It is worth noting that the following populations may want to avoid fasting:
- Pregnant or breastfeeding women: Pregnant and breastfeeding women have increased nutrient needs and require consistent caloric intake in order to support their growing babies.
- Diabetics: Those with type I or insulin-dependent diabetics as well as anyone who struggles with blood sugar regulation (e.g., hypo/hyperglycemics) may not respond well to fasting.
- Women with irregular menstrual cycles or trying to conceive: While some women may see hormone-balancing benefits from fasting, others may respond in the opposite way. Caloric restriction and time-restricted eating can influence hormones and contribute to irregular menstrual cycles and/or fertility concerns.
Can Fasting Help Celiac Recovery?
With a long list of benefits, including those related to gut health and gut lining integrity, a reasonable question to ask is whether fasting can aid in recovery from gluten-induced intestinal damage in those with celiac disease and in those with inflammatory bowel disease?
This is an area of emerging research, with a number of very recent studies providing promising evidence to inspire further research.
For example, one study in mice found that time-restricted fasting and intermittent energy restriction (but not alternate day fasting) reversed colitis pathological development by improving the gut barrier integrity and colon length. These fasting methods also reduced colitis-related anxiety-like and obsessive-compulsive disorder behavior and alleviated brain inflammation and oxidative stress. They also altered the gut microbiota composition, by decreasing colitis-related microbes such as Shigella and Escherichia Coli, and increasing anti-inflammatory-related microbes and improving the short chain fatty acid formation. While performed in mice, not humans, this study provides promise for further research that these fasting methods may suppress the inflammatory responses and oxidative stress in colon tissues, which could be partly explained by improving the gut microbiome compositions and leaky gut.
Another study in mice found that those fed a fasting-mimicking diet experienced improved markers of inflammatory bowel disease and gut inflammation. The researchers also observed that average colon length returned to normal, suggesting that fasting may contribute to tissue regeneration. Furthermore, the study found that the mice on a fasting-mimicking diet experienced enhanced growth of beneficial bacteria. Interestingly, the study took this finding a step further and tested whether these bacteria could be linked to improvement in bowel inflammation. The researchers performed fecal transplants into mice with inflamed bowels and found that mice receiving a transplant from the fasting-mimicking diet mice had reduced signs of inflammation compared to those receiving the transplant from mice on a regular diet.
The potential health benefits to fasting are extensive. There are a number of different approaches to fasting, and finding one that works for you will depend on your unique health status, your goals, and your preferences for when and how you prefer to eat. As always, reach out to a health practitioner who is familiar with the types and benefits of fasting for additional guidance.