When healing from Lyme disease, what you choose to eat is critical. As I’ve discussed in previous blog posts, the foods you choose to consume can either help or hinder your Lyme recovery process. However, when you eat (and don’t eat) is also vitally important! Read on to learn how intermittent fasting can accelerate your recovery process and optimize your health long-term.
What is intermittent fasting?
Intermittent fasting is an eating strategy in which you eat meals within a specific time period each day and fast the rest of the time. After a minimum of approximately 12 hours of fasting, the human body undergoes a “metabolic switch” - a form of negative energy balance in which liver glycogen stores become depleted and fatty acids are mobilized from fat tissue and converted into energy. (1) This metabolic switch is associated with alterations in biochemical and physiological pathways that lead to a downregulation of inflammation, improved blood sugar control, loss of fat mass (with preservation of muscle), and improved cognition.
There are several ways to go about intermittent fasting. Listed here are just a few examples:
Fast for 12 hours: This strategy requires that you fast overnight from dinner until breakfast the next day (such as 6 pm to 6 am). This strategy is suitable for beginners. However, if you are relatively metabolically inflexible, meaning your body has a difficult time switching from burning glucose to burning fat for energy, you may need to fast longer to achieve health benefits using an approach like the 16/8 method mentioned below.
16/8 intermittent fasting: This strategy, also referred to as time-restricted feeding, requires that you limit your food intake to an 8-hour window (such as from 9 am to 5 pm) and fast the rest of the 24-hour period. This fasting strategy is great for promoting and maintaining general good health.
2 meals a day: This strategy results in longer periods of intermeal fasting. Preclinical research indicates that this approach promotes autophagy in diverse body tissues. This is one of the fasting approaches I recommend to people with insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.
24-hour fasting: This is a more advanced strategy, as most people today have rarely gone without food for 24 hours due to 24/7 food availability. However, 24-hour fasting may offer unique health benefits, including upregulated autophagy in the brain (this process breaks down components of damaged neurons, improving overall brain function) and increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that stimulates the growth of new neurons. (2, 3)
While intermittent fasting has only recently garnered attention in the mainstream media, fasting is anything but a passing trend! Humans have practiced intermittent fasting throughout evolutionary history due to fluctuations in food availability. Mounting scientific evidence indicates that our ancestral heritage has “programmed” our bodies to derive distinct biological benefits from fasting. Many of these health benefits may be particularly valuable to Lyme disease patients.
Intermittent fasting activates autophagy
Autophagy is the process by which cells clean out old, damaged components, improving cellular function. A study published in The Journal of Leukocyte Biology demonstrates that autophagy reduces Borrelia burgdorferi-induced inflammation making it “a potential target for anti-inflammatory therapy in patients with persistent Lyme disease.” (4) While there are many nutritional and lifestyle factors that initiate autophagy, intermittent fasting is one of the most potent autophagy inducers. (5)
Intermittent fasting improves blood sugar control
Poor blood sugar control, characterized by dramatic swings in blood sugar after meals and hyperglycemia, impairs the body’s immune response to Borrelia burgdorferi. (6) Optimizing blood sugar control is essential for Lyme disease recovery, and intermittent fasting is a potent tool for improving blood sugar management.
How does fasting improve blood sugar control? During a fast, your body switches from using glucose as a primary fuel to using fat; this metabolic switch occurs because dietary glucose intake has temporarily stopped, and the body only has limited storage glucose in the form of glycogen. Decreased circulating blood glucose levels reduce insulin secretion and hyperinsulinemia, ultimately making your cells more sensitive to insulin; this phenomenon is referred to as “insulin sensitivity.” Intermittent fasting thus improves insulin sensitivity and may improve your immune cells’ response to Borrelia burgdorferi. (7)
Intermittent fasting reduces brain inflammation
When the body switches to burning fat for energy, it produces molecules called ketone bodies or simply “ketones.” Ketones have been found to preserve brain function when the brain is under stress. Ketones also promote the growth of new nerve cells in the brain. These effects are particularly beneficial for Lyme patients suffering from neurological symptoms such as memory impairment and brain fog.
Intermittent fasting also improves cognitive function by reducing brain inflammation, a common consequence of Borrelia burgdorferi infection. (8)
Intermittent fasting supports gut health
In preclinical research, intermittent fasting has been found to strengthen gut barrier function. (9) A healthy gut barrier is crucial for optimizing immune function and preventing translocation of bacteria and bacterial byproducts from the gut to the systemic circulation, a process that incites systemic inflammation.
What benefits should you expect with intermittent fasting?
As a Lyme disease patient, some of the health benefits you may notice with intermittent fasting include:
Improved cognitive function and mental clarity
An enhanced sense of well being
These benefits are attributed to the effects of intermittent fasting on autophagy, inflammation, blood sugar homeostasis, and gut health.
Enhance Your Fast
There are several strategies you can use to enhance the health benefits of your fast.
Drink coffee. Research indicates that coffee induces autophagy in vivo. (10) Drinking it during your fast may enhance the health benefits of the fast by upregulating the clearance of damaged cellular components from your body. I recommend drinking organic, mold-free, antioxidant-rich coffee such as Bulletproof Upgraded Coffee or Kion coffee.
Exercise. Exercise also upregulates autophagy. It also decrease the amount of time it takes for your body to make the “metabolic switch” from glucose-burning to fat-burning because it uses up circulating glucose and stored glycogen to power muscular activity. If you are not feeling up for vigorous activity, go on a walk around your neighborhood, an easy hike, or practice yoga.
Manage stress. A high stress level may make it harder for you to complete your fast and negate the health benefits of the fast by increasing circulating stress hormones, which impair glucose metabolism and promote chronic inflammation. Reduce stress with meditation. If you are new to meditation, try using an app such as Headspace, Calm, or Waking Up.
Get plenty of sleep! Engaging in a consistent fasting practice while neglecting quality sleep may negate the health benefits of fasting. Aim for 8-9 hours of sleep every night in a completely dark room free of light pollution from streetlights, night lights, and digital devices. Wear blue-light-blocking glasses 1-2 hours before bed to optimize your brain’s production of melatonin, a crucial sleep-inducing hormone.
Best fasting and post-fasting practices
During your fast, make sure to drink plenty of water. I recommend drinking filtered water using a Berkey filter to minimize your intake of toxins found in tap water.
To break your fast, eat a meal containing low-glycemic index carbohydrates balanced with high-quality protein and healthy fats. You can find my specific Lyme disease diet recommendations in my blogs The Role of Nutrition in Lyme Disease Recovery Part 1: Reduce Inflammation and Part 2: Boost Your Immune System.
While intermittent fasting can benefit many Lyme patients, there is an important caveat: If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, underweight, or have a history of an eating disorder, I advise against intermittent fasting because it is a catabolic process that uses up energy reserves, can reduce your appetite, and may promote unnecessary weight loss.