Can fasting cure anxiety?

In this guide we are going to briefly discuss the question of whether fasting can cure anxiety and we will be specifically looking into the impact of Intermittent fasting on mental health.

Can fasting cure anxiety?

No, fasting cannot cure anxiety and there is no research or studies that support this notion.

The first thing to clarify when it comes to anxiety or any mental health disorder is that it cannot be “cured” like other physical illnesses. 

The goal of any treatment is to manage the symptoms of a mental disorder through medication or therapy to a point where the symptoms no longer impact quality of life. 

A person with anxiety undergoing active treatment may still deal with various symptoms but it does not affect their ability to work, maintain relationships, and take care of themselves. 

To effectively treat anxiety, there must be persistent effort to manage the symptoms through the combined treatment plan that involves medication, active therapeutic strategies, and lifestyle changes. 

As if in recent years, intermittent fasting has been highlighted as an effective diet plan for weight loss and has been highly regarded by influencers on social media who have also gone on to claim that it helps them cope with anxiety. 

However, it is important to understand that there is not enough research that backs this claim and there is no ethical practice of using intermittent fasting as a standalone treatment for anxiety. 

It may help you feel fitter as a lifestyle change however, the amount of benefits of this fast is almost equalled by the amount of risks it involves when not done under the guidance of a dietician who can help you make a detailed plan tailored for you.

Let us take a closer look at what intermittent fasting is and its effect on the mind. 

Intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting is a dietary plan which involves a period of food restriction or calorie restriction followed by a period of normal calorie intake or intake without restriciton. This eating pattern is based on when you eat as opposed to other diets that dictate what you eat. 

This form of fasting comes in a variety of forms based on your schedule and your needs. Some of the include:

  • Alternate day fasting: Alternating between days of eating and days of fasting when you do not consume any food or beverages except for calorie-free drinks, such as water or black coffee
  • Time-restricted daily fasting: Limiting intake to waking hours, and fasting for 8-12 hours per day, usually when you’re sleeping. One of the most popular methods is the 16:8 where you eat for 8 hours and fast for 16.
  • Modified weekly fasting: These usually involve fasting for a few days of the week- for example, eating for five days and fasting for 2 days of the week by limiting intake for only a specific amount of calories. 

Intermittent fasting has become extremely popular because of its efficient and quick results in weight loss. There have been claims that fasting has improved their overall sense of well-being but the facts are inconclusive.

Let us take a look at the impact of fasting on mental health and how it affects anxiety. 

Impact of intermittent fasting on mental health

There is no strict consensus of whether intermittent fasting is good or bad for one’s mental health. Some people have reported an overall sense of well-being while others have had a deterioration of their mental well-being after engaging in intermittent fasting. 

Some of the effects of intermittent fasting that has been reported include:

  • Mood fluctuation with more irritability and anger due to a drop in blood sugar levels. There is also a possibility that prolonged hunger can trigger aggression in others.
  • A person who is fasting may also experience high levels of stress due to a rise in cortisol- a stress hormone- when they are extremely hungry.
  • While there has been a study done on rats, that fasting for a period of 24 hours reduces anxiety-like behaviours however, it could be possible that cortisol can increase stress and hence anxiety. 
  • Fasting can improve memory and learning and it has also been hypothesised that prolonged and healthy fasting can trigger the process of autophagy which has been linked to lowered likelihood of disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other neuropsychiatric disorders.
  • It might affect your sleep cycle and decrease the amount of REM sleep due to rise in cortisol levels. A good sleep hygiene is crucial to well-being and it might affect your mood, motivation, and might even cause a decrease in your ability to deal with stress resulting in anxiety. 
  • It can lead to anxiety related to food and cause eating disorders. When you surround yourself with strict regimen related to eating it might lead to diagnosing hunger while being informed about food which can exacerbate into a full blown eating disorder such as anorexia or orthorexia.
  • A study did find that fasting in a group of women did lead to positive psychological experiences such as a sense of pride and achievement  but there is no direct link to well-being. 
  • Fasting can lead you to make more rash, short-term decisions as a decrease in feel-good chemicals in your brain such as serotonin which can impact impulsivity which is why when most people are hungry they tend to overeat or break their fast without control and restraint. 

When it comes to fasting there are plenty of pros and cons however you have to remember that our bodies react to various changes differently. It is not advisable that you jump into fasting with the hopes that it will completely cure your anxiety.

Mindful fasting 

If you do want to give fasting a try, as a lifestyle change to see whether it can help you cope with anxiety here are a few things for you to remember:

  • Consult with a dietician 

If you are going to make any changes in your diet, it is best to consult a dietician who can help you make plans and strategies that can help you fast while meeting your body’s daily requirements of nutrients. 

  • Do not engage in fasting if you have a history of eating disorders

Because of how restrictive this particular fasting plan is, it can lead to you becoming preoccupied with your meals, planning your life around them to debilitating degrees, and might unconsciously begin to deprive yourself of nutrients. It is imperative that you are aware of your relationship with food and your body before embarking on a fasting regimen even if it is done with the intent to cope with anxiety as it might lead to more anxiety regarding food. 

  • Understand that fasting is not going to cure your anxiety

You can use fasting as a lifestyle change to gain the benefits that many people and some research claim but fasting as a stand alone treatment for anxiety is simply not supported by researchers and mental health professionals.

If you want to manage your anxiety, you might have to seek separate treatment for the disorder itself and work closely to not only change your diet but also various lifestyle choices and habits.

  • Be compassionate with yourself

If you quickly notice yourself struggling to keep up with the diet, be kind when you “fall off the wagon”, this is a diet and it is your choice- it is under your control not the other way around. 

If you break the fast before it’s time, be kind to yourself. Instead of beating up yourself for it- enjoy the meal that is good for your body and your mind. 

  • Be aware

It requires self awareness, self understanding to be able to develop a healthy relationship with your diet, food, and your body. When you notice that this diet is affecting the way you treat yourself, the way you feel in a negative way, perhaps it is not for you. There are other things you can do to manage anxiety, so there is no harm in walking away from this diet plan.

Conclusion

In this brief guide we have discussed what intermittent fasting is and how it affects mental health. While it might not “cure” anxiety, it can be a healthy change in lifestyle provided that it is done under guidance of a nutritionist or dietician and the person has no history of eating disorders. 

Frequently asked questions related to “Can fasting cure anxiety?”

Is fasting good or bad for anxiety?

There is no direct answer to whether intermittent fasting is good or bad. It has its pros such as Reduced risk of cancer, diabetes and heart disease however, it has also been found that prolonged hunger can increase levels of cortisol and stress. 

Does fasting relieve stress?

Fasting or prolonged hunger can increase levels of cortisol in the bod which is called the “stress hormone,”. Cortisol causes an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure which can lead to more stress and anxiety symptoms.

Is fasting good for your mind?

Fasting improves cognition, stalls age-related cognitive decline, usually slows neurodegeneration, reduces brain damage and enhances functional recovery after stroke, and mitigates the pathological and clinical features of epilepsy and multiple sclerosis in animal models

Does fasting increase serotonin?

According to some studies on healthy individuals, the levels of serotonin in plasma of people who were fasting were significantly higher than those levels in non-fasting people.

Can fasting regenerate the body?

Research published by the University of Southern California has shown that prolonged fasting can lead to higher regeneration of stem cells of the gut which can be linked to longer lives.

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