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Why Nurses Should Consider Intermittent Fasting

Aug 1, 2019
Sarah Gray, RN

How I Added Intermittent Fasting to My Daily Routine

I’m a day shift nurse, so my days start as early as 5:00 am. In about an hour and 45 minutes, I typically go to the gym, shower, and am walking into work with semi-wet hair and a mug of green tea. Over the last 5 years, I’ve practically experimented with every form of a morning routine for work days.

I’ve finally landed on one that works best for me: intermittent fasting. Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s just look at what it looks like in practice (for me).

I work three 12-hour shifts and do this for 3 days of the week. I eat dinner the night before a shift sometime around 6:00 pm (the later I eat, the earlier I become hungry the next day). Ideally, you want to stop eating a couple hours before bed. I don’t consume a single calorie again until around 12:00 pm almost mid-shift (this means I have a 16-hour eating window).

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Not too long ago I thought the same thing: it sounds nuts (and isn't breakfast the most important meal of the day?). But hear me out! I’m a sucker for scientific evidence and have been fascinated by the science of intermittent fasting since I first learned about it through Tim Ferriss. There are some crazy health benefits – and far beyond weight loss!

This doesn’t mean going straight-up NPO. There are plenty of non-caloric beverages that are perfect for mornings and nurse life: water, coffee, and tea! I think I initially gave it a shot just as a test of self-will and discipline. And because alternative mornings would go one of the following ways:

  1. I eat before work between 6:00-6:30 am. This doesn’t work because I’m somehow always hangry again within 2 hours, max. And with no time to eat in that 2-hour range (because meds and VS), I’m not an optimally fun or nice nurse.
  2. I could wait and eat around "normal breakfast time" between 7:30 – 9:30 am. This doesn’t work because on a mixed acuity medical-surgical with high turnover, 7:00 am – 11:00 am is hellish. You’re lucky if you can sit down or chart an entire set of vital signs. Especially given my increasingly packed shifts, it can be hard to fit any snacks in.

So, I created a third option:

  1. Forgo breakfast altogether and make that the norm.

What is Intermittent Fasting?

In short, it is a cycle between fasting and eating. We all do this every day in our own ways. We fast while we’re sleeping at night, between meals (unless you’re snacking), during certain religious holidays, or when we go for long periods of time without access to food. Hey, our NPO patients inadvertently do this often.

How does it work?

There are quite a few different perspectives or ways of doing it, but essentially it’s abstaining from any form of caloric intake for 12-18 hours. The length of time for optimal results lands around 16 hours. Which means that it’s also a fairly short window of time that you are actually consuming food – ideally about 6-8 hours per day. If you’re committed to sleep and manage to get somewhere between 7-8 hours of sleep a night, that leaves a few hours that you’re awake and foregoing food.

"But a growing body of research suggests that the timing of the fast is key."

When your body and brain know not to expect food, it adjusts. You don’t become nearly as hangry as you’d expect. I definitely do go through some mild hunger spells but I’m often running around like a crazy person (as most nurses in the first few hours of their shift are) and don’t have much time nor mental bandwidth to give it much thought.

A typical shift:

  • 05:30 – 6:30am: gym workout/shower
  • 07:00am: work + green tea
  • 08:00 – 10:00am: 16 oz water, black coffee
  • 11:30-12:00pm: snack and/or lunch (depending on what time my break is)
  • 15:00pm: snack
  • 17:30-18:00pm: dinner and/or snack (depending on how crazy the end of my shift is)

What's the science behind it?

Well, mostly because of the reality of my shifts, it's difficult to maintain a regular meal schedule. So, when I tried Intermittent Fasting, it made things far less complicated, and it turns out that there are quite a few additional benefits (from losing weight to addressing chronic diseases).

Sleep

Eating dinner at work has been a game changer. Otherwise, I come home and park myself in the kitchen making trip after trip to the refrigerator until I’ve consumed a weird combination of every leftover in there. Now, I don’t eat when I get home. It’s pretty simple and makes it way easier to go to sleep. Evidence also supports that you sleep better when your body isn’t busy digesting. If you’re a night owl and go to bed fairly late, try having some herbal (decaf) tea when you get home to curb any lingering hunger.

Digestion

Initially, and due to cues around us, it’s normal to feel slightly hungry between 06:00 – 08:00. Depending on how busy you are,  you might feel slightly hungry again between 10:00 – 12:00. The biggest realization that goes against everything we’re otherwise told, it that it’s normal to feel hungry. And also normal not to feed your body at the first sign of hunger. This was a huge mindset switch for me. Especially since at some point someone hammered into our heads the need to eat every 3 hours and that allowing yourself to go hungry was the nemesis of a fast metabolism. Wrong. It isn’t really normal to feel hungry every 3 hours if you’re eating properly.

When you’re giving your body sufficient time to digest and utilize what it has stored, digestion naturally improves. You’ll be more regular and your liver will thank you. When digestion and associated hormones are optimal, your body’s cue for hunger, satiety, and cravings resets. Find yourself constantly craving sweets or unable to resist the goodies in the break room? You can rid of that sweet tooth!

Energy

You’d think that foregoing caloric energy will deplete your energy levels. Wrong! Once that initial hunger blips subsides, you actually feel newfound energy. I’m no scientist but speaking from consistent experience, I crave the energy bursts I feel after sustained fasting. I’ve completed some of my fastest runs or heaviest lifts or longest endurance workouts after having fasted for 16+ hours. So the last 4 hours of a shift no longer leave me exhausted and dragging. I’m able to be more present and not wonder when the heck I’m going to eat or when I can squeeze in a couple minutes between patient call lights to literally inhale something (which has become a bad habit now any time I eat). I’m also no doctor (ya know, just a nurse)- so listen to your body and what works for you.

Focus

When your body isn’t constantly busy with digestion or your insulin levels are constantly spiking and dipping (which it’s doing if you’re eating every 3 hours), focus and attention are optimized. Once you’ve gotten past the ‘wow I’m pretty freaking hungry’ phase, you feel invincible and hardcore focused. And our job can require some serious focus and critical thinking.

Beyond the positive effects that affect my daily life as a nurse, there are a slew of others, with weight-loss, longevity, and disease prevention as just a few.

Interesting in giving it a try but want a little helping hand along the way? Check out this excellent guide to beginning your intermittent fasting journey!