Once upon a time the nutrition blogosphere I enjoyed participating in was lit with a debate on whether or not fasting was hurtful to your metabolism. The age old adage that eating six meals a day was better for your metabolism was spit on by the intermittent fasting (IF) enthusiasts. They argued that short term fasting had no effect on your metabolism, because in the long run you would be receiving the same amount of nutrition.

Theories are wonderful, but if they don’t hold up in practice, they are useless. Theories like these are rampant in the nutrition science world but real life practice will tell you what works best.

Maybe the theory is true. But what if there are other factors that lower metabolism that are affecting the intermittent fasting enthusiast? It is still useless to hope that the theory will work because those other confounding factors need to be sorted out.

Here’s a little bit of a backstory:

I swallowed the intermittent fasting bug whole. I started fasting for 18-22 hours (sometimes 24) five days a week. The successful IF trainers however seemed to advocate 16 hour fasts. By the 16 hour period, I decided that I could go longer. I had a lot of energy. This was because my body, young and fresh, had a lot of reserves, or yin. Whether or not you like the concept of yin and yang, it’s a nice model for what’s about to happen.

With time, I had less and less energy from fasting; my yin was being depleted. I talk about this in an old youtube video of mine (enjoy the ponytail look I am sporting).

I remember the FIRST DAY I tried intermittent fasting. I was apprehensive and honestly a little bit nervous (I know pretty innocent and cute back then). I was scared of not eating for so long.

After a few hours, working at the grocery store, I exclaimed in my head: “this is like crack!!!” (I was probably 18…me and my friends thought jokes like that were funny but I guess my sense of humor is much more refined now…I sound like a snob don’t I).

I felt so energized. Stimulated. Intense. Excited. Scattered but I felt focused. I never felt anything like it.

That feeling was my fresh young body, relatively unstressed, living a simple life under a steady roof, activating a healthy stress response to the stressor of fasting. This stress response serves to tap into existing energy stores (adipose tissue and glycogen) to raise blood sugar levels.

From an energetic perspective this makes a whole lot of sense. If you don’t have food at the moment, you need to find some or you will die of starvation eventually. Being able to have MORE energy from fasting is a pretty cool way to deal with not having food.

I regularly started fasting for 18-22 hours. The more the better I figured. But I didn’t want to fast for too long because I was afraid of losing muscle mass and strength. Unlike other IF’ers, I didn’t take any amino acid supplements to prevent muscle breakdown. I wanted to be all natural. My stubbornness taught me some important lessons about health and about myself.

Working Out While Fasting

My goal with IF was body recomposition, or getting shredded. I wanted abs and muscle. I also was intensely focused on improving my vertical jump and 100m dash times. My training involved low-rep strength training and explosive lifting emphasizing my lower body. Deadlifts, squats, lunges, and various plyometrics were my mainstay. For my upper body I just lifted everything heavy, including bicep curls which didn’t make my arms any bigger (my arms really don’t grow easy…my ideal physique is a well-built athletic look…basically Andy Whitfield in Spartacus).

After 16-20 hours I would work out TRAIN. I released a lot of aggression in the gym in my college days. I looked forward to working out intensely and posting on this forum about my progress.

Eventually, the high from fasting faded. My workouts became less aggressive.

Energetically it felt like I was getting beat down from these workouts and the fasting whereas previously I felt like I was on TOP.

This little distinction may not make much sense scientifically, but that’s exactly what I felt. I would perform my deadlifts calmly and try to survive the weights more instead of destroying the workout metaphorically.

Fast-forward to the present day and heavy weight lifting sometimes makes me lightheaded. I am intolerant to the training regimen I had before that kept me at 10-11% body fat with decent abs and some impressive lifts.

The Stress Equation

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The rigors of school, a part-time job with a commute, and some financial stress meant that I had a lot more stress than a full-time athlete. In addition I didn’t have regular massages or sports medicine doctors taking care of me. I did everything myself which takes more energy. I trained however very often and very intensely, and I would have trained even harder if I had more time. I had the drive of a champion, and this led to me burning out completely to the point where I literally became intolerant to intense exercise.

Even playing some tennis would make me lightheaded after a while. The mechanisms are beyond the scope of this post, but I can share some theories. When you lift heavy, your blood pressure rises a LOT. The systolic value gets to the 400s (reference definitely needed; I read it a while ago). Something in the nervous system is responsible for raising that blood pressure adequately. Without adequate recovery, that thing in the nervous system got tired. I was not able to raise blood pressure as much and started feeling light headed. I never came close to passing out but I had to sit down and sometimes I saw stars.

I would also experience some lightheadedness from simply standing up. I knew I had a problem so I eventually lowered the intensity and frequency of my lifting and solved those problems. I haven’t attempted any heavy deadlifts in a while and don’t plan to still. I remember my resting blood pressure declined to 100/55 mmHg back in those days of adrenal fatigue. Now I’m back at around 120/80 and have more energy.

The point here is that the stresses of intense exercise training compounded the acute stresses of fasting. The amount of cortisol my body had to secrete to deal with that type of training while FASTED was probably very very high.

Not only did that high not feel as good, I felt worse from fasting. I would feel strangely calm, tired, and not as focused. If fasting is good for you why should you feel like shit?? I realized I needed to end my fasts when I started feeling these symptoms. I INSTANTLY felt better. The changes in my mood and energy levels were night and day when I ended those unhealthy fasts in a stressed state and ate some food, no matter what it was.

Incomplete Theories

Fasting and strength training was supposed to be an acute stress. The blogosphere enjoyed this idea of acute stress. It was better than endurance training long term which in theory could evoke a chronic stress response. I swallowed the pill and realized this was a short-sighted view. Clearly for me dieting and very intense strength training became a chronic stress. I knew this wasn’t healthy but I kid you not, I did not know how to fucking stop. I use strong language because this was a very interesting period of my life.

Back to the Main Question: Do Regular Meals Improve Your Metabolism?

This post was supposed to be about regular meals and your metabolism. Unfortunately I am not the type of person that can keep things succinct but I’m working on it.

So, in the short term, not eating any food for a long time can lower your metabolism. At first your metabolism is increased, but after that high goes away, your body will slowly shut down. Then, you will die from starvation.

Similarly, going on a low calorie diet to lose weight also lowers your metabolism. This is manifested by cold hands and feet and a general decline in vitality. It’s a smart thing for your body to do in order to compensate for the reduction in calorie intake. Your libido also slows down because your body doesn’t want to raise a child if there isn’t much energy to do so.

Skipping one meal however probably won’t do much to slow down your metabolism. You will simply want to eat more later.

But if you do it all the time, maybe eating more later won’t be enough. Maybe that chronic stress (assuming that it does in fact become chronic) is NOT adequately balanced by simply eating the same amount of calories later. If you ate regularly, you’d receive the same amount of calories but would you have the same level of stress? I am not sure but I suspect that there would be more stress. I should look into the literature to find more answers to this.

I can tell you this though. I crave sugar after my first meal of the day when I fast. This won’t happen if I eat regularly. Who knows, maybe I eat the same amount of sugar overall in one day, but I crave an Izze or another kind of fruit soda usually after I fast. I’ll eat a meal but my stomach won’t be able to fit too much food so I become hungry quickly after. Then sometimes I need to take a nap.

Clearly something is going on that involves my body trying to undo the damage from the stress associated with fasting. Everyone is different, but my body is a bit stressed out too so maybe it’s more intense.

The Microcosm Within the Macrocosm

I believe that things that happen on a very small scale (the microcosm) resemble things that happen on a very large scale (macrocosm). Something a cell is experiencing may be analogous to something you are experiencing in your body.

Me skipping breakfast today in this example is the microcosm. Me starving to death is the macrocosm. The action of skipping one meal, versus every meal till death, is very different. But it resembles starvation quite a bit as well.

Thus, doesn’t it make sense that on a microcosm there are cellular changes occurring that directly resemble the changes occurring in starvation?

I think it does. It’s debatable for sure but it makes sense to me based on my experiences, which I trust more than the rabbit hole you can go down from trying to understand the literature.

Conclusion

My goal is to STOP skipping breakfast. I don’t want the microcosmic changes of skipping one meal anymore. I feel full but want sugar. I feel like there’s something missing. I am in graduate school and am recovering from years of intense lifting which caused adrenal stress. I need to make a concerted effort in healing my metabolism.

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I don’t skip breakfast anymore to lose fat. I do it due to time constraints and because I know I can handle it and I’ll have a little high off of it. My body just needs more rest than stimulation, so for my metabolism’s sake, regular meals, including even a tasty cinnamon roll I snacked on for breakfast, is better than just the coffee I’d normally drink.

In addition, the regular meals will prevent the fatigue, distractibility, and stress I experience when the hunger from not eating does NOT lead to a seemingly healthy stress response. How can that be good for me? It’ll take a while to have the full answer on that, but for now I trust my instincts on that one.

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For some of of us, it’s more difficult to stop going to the gym than it is to maintain a consistent habit. For these people, taking more than a couple days off is difficult.

Some people may have emotional reasons to exercise compulsively; they may be motivated to go to the gym if they feel guilty, or if they want to reach a certain goal very badly. Others may have a mix of psychological reasons and physical reasons; they may enjoy the feeling they get from exercising so much that even if they feel tired, they crave that feeling.

I’m not sure exactly how I can define that in more detail, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that exercise is a stress to the body and is only healthy when we are able to adapt to it.

We may be able to exercise seven days a week and still be healthy for some period of time, but with other stresses in our lives, such as a calorie deficit or sleep deprivation, we will fail to handle the stress load.

Fail to handle the stress load and you will reduce your quality of life. You will feel tired all the time, will have more mood swings, and certainly won’t be able to exercise like you used to.

In this last post on overtraining syndrome and adrenal fatigue caused by exercising, I will share some of the research findings so you can understand when it’s time to rest. Overtraining can occur from excessive endurance training or from excessive resistance/anaerobic training, but I will treat them similarly as they both involve too much stress.

This information needs to become common knowledge one day so that people stop pushing themselves to the point where they are potentially shortening their lifespan and health.  I would estimate that 100% of all #fitspiration tells people to fight their instincts and never give up; this piece of advice can be very unhealthy. If you did not read the first three parts on adrenal fatigue and exercising, see part 1part 2, and part 3.

Signs that you are overtraining according to the research

Less adrenaline release
Did you ever notice that before you adapted to strenuous training (whether it be marathon training or powerlifting), you initially had more adrenaline during your workouts? Did you notice that when you were training too hard, you felt less of an adrenaline rush? That’s for a good reason. According to research published in The Journal of Applied Physiology, the adrenal glands produce less adrenaline during strenuous exercise in overtrained athletes.

This finding corroborates my personal experiences in the weight room over the past six years; initially exercise stimulated a lot of adrenaline and I felt like Godzilla, but with chronic stress and overtraining, I did not feel the same rush. You can think of that as a survival response: in order to protect itself from the chronic high dose of catecholamines such as adrenaline, the body finds a way to reduce its exposure.

Less energy for daily tasks
A common finding in many studies is a reduced cortisol secretion by the adrenal glands in response adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). It seems that the research isn’t certain if this is due to some type of resistance or negative feedback, but it makes some intuitive sense: if you’re training very intensely and secreting lots of cortisol without adequate recovery eventually your adrenals may not be able to produce as much.

Cortisol abnormalities are complex, but if you’re at the point where your adrenals aren’t producing enough cortisol, you will feel very fatigued and will not have much energy for regular activities. Severe cases of overtraining resemble Addison’s disease, where the body is unable to produce adrenal hormones like cortisol.

At this stage, you may barely be able to walk down the street. You may have thought that overtraining involves high cortisol; that is true but there are different stages. Initially cortisol may be high to cope with the stresses but in the exhaustion phase of stress it will be low.

Reduced exercise performance
Underperformance syndrome (UPS) is a condition where despite two weeks of rest an athlete’s performance fails to improve. Usually a combination of exercise stress and stress from other sources causes this problem. In one small study, overtrained males experienced reduced catecholamine sensitivity from daily maximal weight training; this means the participants had less adrenaline during exercise after overtraining.

Another explanation for UPS is the cytokine hypothesis; prolonged bouts of exercise can produce interleukin-6 (IL-6) concentrations as high as those seen with an infectious challenge. High IL-6 leads to elevated heart rate, cortisol, and sleep disturbances: common symptoms in athletes with UPS.

During my senior year of high school, I wanted to break the long jump record for my school. My program consisted of strength training a few times a week, plyometric training a few times a week, and sprinting a few times a week. My performance hit a stalemate rapidly and I failed to improve upon my previous best form last year. That was my first experience with this. I learned to train smarter but I trained too intensely afterwards and began to experience sleep disturbances: waking up unrefreshed was the first thing I noticed.

A long list of symptoms: 
Symptoms of low cortisol include (taken from this paper):

  • Fatigue
  • Unrefreshing sleep
  • Ill-defined malaise
  • Loss of ambition
  • Increased fear and apprehension
  • Scattered thinking
  • Decreased concentration and memory
  • Short fuse
  • Hypoglycemia symptoms
  • Sugar cravings
  • Slow recovery from illness
  • Allergies or autoimmune disease
  • Increased achiness or arthritis
  • Nausea/no appetite in a.m.
  • Excessive consumption of caffeine or other stimulants
  • Tendency to feel best towards evening
  • Decreased sex drive

From my experience, most of these symptoms are very tolerable: they won’t send you to the ER. Thus, people may continue to exercise or engage in stressful activities because they don’t sense a real danger.

If you’ve experienced any of these symptoms, feel free to share them below.

Although overtraining from endurance training and resistance training are supposed to be different, both involve low cortisol eventually and will share similarities with chronic fatigue syndrome and Addison’s disease. Exercise can improve our ability to handle stress, unless it becomes too much of a stress.

I believe we have enough information to be able to detect when the first symptoms occur; in many cases it’s obvious and very noticeable (hair falling out, or waking unrefreshed), but to know how much exercise it takes and what can prevent this I hope we can learn from future studies. If we had a way to keep track of our HPA axis while in the gym, so that we could detect when we’re at a dangerous level of activation, perhaps we could design sustainable healthy programs. There certainly is a lot of research I haven’t touched on, so in the future I may discuss this again in a new light.

Just use common sense and realize that exercise is a stress that will add to whatever stresses you are already experiencing; if it’s too much, you will feel quite subpar.