By now you may know a little bit about how a ketogenic diet can be beneficial for lowering inflammation, improving overall health, and losing weight. But what about our unique health needs as women? It turns out that there are variations of the standard ketogenic diet that may be especially beneficial for us and the health concerns that we face, especially as we get older!
Here’s a breakdown of what it is and how it can be helpful for you.
The Ketogenic Diet and Women
Diving into the details of a diet can be just as confusing as that search to find the right one. I know that was the case for me when I first discovered the ketogenic diet. It can seem daunting at first, so I’ll start with the basics.
The process of burning fat for energy (instead of glucose) is called “ketosis” (hence the term “ketogenic”). There are amazing mechanisms that kick in with our immune system, metabolism, and detoxification pathways when we move into ketosis.
I don’t have to tell you that I have a passion for empowering individuals to eat and live as healthy as possible, so when I learned that following a ketogenic diet could potentially help reverse cancer, I got excited!
Of course, the only constant is change, right? Now that keto has gone mainstream, more research is focusing on how the diet works for specific groups of people. Researchers are discovering that a ketogenic diet can be very effective in healing conditions in addition to cancer, such as diabetes and autoimmune disease.
Experts are also discovering how ketosis works a bit differently depending on gender. One of the primary differences between us ladies and the men is hormones. When our bodies suffer from prolonged stress and poor eating habits, it is often our hormones that bear the brunt of the abuse.
Imbalances in the endocrine system can be the cause of dozens of nasty side effects, all of which can lead to chronic disease.
To get an idea of just how many women are suffering from hormone-related conditions, take a look at these scary statistics:
According to an analysis conducted by John Hopkins University, autoimmune conditions affected roughly eight percent of the U.S. population in 2004. 79% of these cases were women.1
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Kidney Disease, the thyroid autoimmune condition Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is about 8 times more common in women than men.2
Women are also up to ten times more likely to get non-autoimmune related hypothyroidism than men.3
According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer is the number one reproductive system cancer for women and uterine cancer is close behind. In addition, one in eight women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis at some point in their lives.4
Women ages 20 to 34 have a higher rate of type 2 diabetes than men because of the changes that occur during pregnancy, which can lead to gestational diabetes. Gestational diabetes is a risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes later in life.5
According to the American Psychological Association, women bear most of the brunt in terms of self-reported feelings of stress. Adrenal fatigue and burnout, which effects hormonal balance, is largely a result of chronic stress.6
The Cyclical Ketogenic Diet: Why It May be Best for Women’s Health
As you can see by the heartbreaking statistics above, women have unique challenges when it comes to hormones, stress, and chronic disease. That is why many women respond best to modified versions of the ketogenic diet. One version that is becoming increasingly popular is the Cyclical Ketogenic Diet, or CKD.
In a nutshell, individuals who are on a CKD eat the standard ketogenic diet (roughly 20-30% protein, 5-10% carbohydrates and 60-80% fat) most of the week. One day a week, however, they “carb up.” This means they eat a moderate amount of carbs, even lower amounts of fat, and about the same amount of protein as on ketogenic days.
Both the standard ketogenic diet and the cyclic ketogenic diet are based on the concept of “feast or famine,” but in slightly different ways. During ketosis, your body thinks that it is in “famine mode” all of the time. Because of this, there will always be a subtle amount of stress on the body and on metabolism.
If you are a healthy individual and want to employ the ketogenic diet long-term, some research indicates that you may be able to do this safely.7 If you already have hormone-related issues, a ketogenic diet’s anti-inflammatory and mitochondrial-boosting effects can help you as well, but you’ll need to monitor how you feel more closely and take it slow. Gradually introducing your body to the CKD can do this.
The CKD allows your body a rest with a feasting day when you eat more carbs. The rest of the week can be spent eating a standard ketogenic diet. I recommend starting out slow by cutting down on your carb load and then pushing the envelope just a little every week until you are in ketosis most of the week.
Another important tip to keep in mind with CKD is that carb-up days are not a license to eat junk. On feasting days, you still don’t want to go wild with the pasta and bread! Continue to eat healthy, whole, organic foods and keep the sugary foods out of your diet. I like to make one meal on my feasting day moderately carb-heavy and the other two meals and snacks keto-friendly.
And here is a little hack if you decide to give CKD a try: Slow-carb foods like sweet potatoes and quinoa are great for feasting days. In addition, sprinkle a little apple cider vinegar on your food or drink some with water 15 minutes before eating a meal to help with blood sugar issues. I have done this on many occasions, especially on super busy days when I know I need a boost.
Intermittent Fasting and the CKD
Intermittent fasting (IF) became a big deal after a 2012 study from the University of Hail in Saudi Arabia made headlines. The study found that IF during Ramadan increased immune system cell growth and lowered proinflammatory cytokines in healthy individuals.8 In fact, research on the benefits of IF is now widespread. A 2013 study conducted by Thomas Jefferson University discovered that IF slowed the growth of primary cancer tumors and also decreased the number of new ones in breast cancer patients.9
Many experts also advise periods of intermittent fasting throughout the week on both your ketogenic days and feasting days. Intermittent fasting is gentler on the body than going through a regular fast. And in my opinion, gentler is better for us women, especially if you suffer from hormonal imbalance or high stress levels.
Most people follow the 16/8 rule: they do not eat from roughly 8pm in the evening through 10am the next day. If it is difficult for you to go that long without eating, shoot for a 12 hour fast including sleep time.
Then work your way up to a longer fasting period from there if you can. You can also eat a small amount of fat first thing in the morning or at night. Many folks swear by a coconut oil-infused bulletproof coffee first thing in the morning.
One of many great options you may enjoy in the evening is a relaxing keto version of the popular “golden milk.” This is a yummy beverage made from frothing almond milk together with healing turmeric, a little cinnamon, a dash of black pepper and ginger, and a little coconut oil. I like to put a pinch of stevia in it to give it a sweet zing. Delicious! I also like the fact that at the end of the day, I am getting a little bit of anti-inflammatory turmeric in my system. The turmeric is warming and encourages a good night’s sleep.10
The best news is that eating healthy fat during your IF period is not really a cheat. It will not pull you out of ketosis on your ketogenic days and can actually help build robust ketones in the body.
6 Reasons Why a Cyclical Ketogenic Diet May Be for You
Here are some situations where a woman may want to consider going on a cyclic ketogenic diet:
If you have a thyroid imbalance. This could include hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism or Hashimoto’s. Introducing ketosis slowly and allowing time for rest through carb-up days keeps the metabolism regulated and conserves thyroid-related metabolic functions.
If you have adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue syndrome is when the adrenal glands are not producing enough hormones to keep up with demand; they never really “turn off.” It is most often caused by chronic stress and can lead to adrenal exhaustion if left unchecked. Staying in ketosis for long periods of time sometimes leads to a reduction in adrenal-related sex hormones and this makes the adrenals work even harder. Taking some time off from ketosis every week allows the adrenals to rest and reset.
If you are going through perimenopause or menopause. Following a CK diet can be beneficial for women going through menopause. Research indicates that aging women as well as men can reap great benefits from the IF aspects of the CKD. Fasting allows for a break from digestion, when the body can focus on repair of all systems, including the reproductive and endocrine systems. Just be sure to watch for energy changes and take a break from IF if your estrogen levels begin to vary too much.11
If you want to lose weight safely (and steadily). When I first did the ketogenic diet, I was amazed at how the weight just seemed to melt off for the first few weeks. Then, to my disappointment, I seemed to hit a plateau. If this happens to you, switching to a cyclic ketogenic diet may kick your metabolism into gear again. Many women also experience success getting off the plateau by choosing a consistent IF schedule, including regular “eating windows”— and then sticking to it! Try different times of day (for example, eating between 10 am to 6 pm first then switching to noon to 8 pm). Eventually you will find the sweet spot where you will start to lose weight again until your body reaches its ideal healthy weight.
You are experiencing some not-so-healthy side effects of the standard keto diet. These could include losing your menstrual cycle altogether, having trouble sleeping, and experiencing brittle nails, among other things. Symptoms may be giving you an indication that you are overstressing our body and may need to switch to the CKD.
If you have type 2 diabetes. Research has proven that eating a ketogenic diet even temporarily can have great healing benefits for most diabetics. This is because type 2 diabetes is caused by too much sugar. The best way to restore insulin sensitivity is to simply stop the heavy sugar load. If you follow the standard keto diet, this takes care of the problem.12
Most experts warn not to jump in to ketosis too fast if you are diabetic. Ease into it gradually by lowering your carb count over a few weeks. It may also be wise to do a shortened version of the CKD by “cycling out” of ketosis every once in a while with a moderately carb-heavy meal. A 2005 study published in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism found that people with type 2 diabetes who were also on the ketogenic diet saw major improvements in insulin sensitivity after just three weeks.13
Type 2 diabetes is an autoimmune condition. Since so many women suffer from some kind of autoimmunity, I would like to say one final word here about these conditions in general. Being on a cyclic ketogenic diet gives you the best of both worlds. You are allowing your body to rest one or more days a week yet lowering inflammation and increasing glutathione levels through ketosis and IF the rest of the week. A 2015 study on individuals with multiple sclerosis found that following a ketogenic diet greatly improved mitochondrial function and increased glutathione levels in the body naturally.14
When Should You Avoid the Ketogenic Diet Completely?
If you are suffering from severe thyroid imbalance or complete adrenal exhaustion, a ketogenic diet can be beneficial later on down the road. However, it would be wise to get your body back in balance before going forward.
In addition, according to the Diabetes Council, if you are pregnant you should not follow a ketogenic diet. When a woman is pregnant or nursing, it is especially important that she eat a well-rounded diet that includes not only fruits, veggies, proteins, and healthy fats, but also healthy carbs like whole grains.15
The Bottom Line on the Ketogenic Diet for Women
From one woman to another, here is my advice regarding a keto diet: start slow. Cutting carbs too fast may cause the “rebound effect” and put more stress on your body than you can handle. And if you decide to take it easy and cycle your ketosis, keep in mind that introducing too many carbs all at once may produce negative effects as well.
Work with a holistic health practitioner or health coach when trying out a new plan and keep a health journal. Weigh the pros and cons of the path you have chosen and then let common sense and female intuition guide you on what to do next.
Be sure to observe how these dietary changes make you feel every step of the way. And most of all, be forgiving with yourself if you mess up.
Our bodies were created fearfully and wonderfully with the power to heal. Remember, you must take care of your health first, before you can take care of others. So continue to take the time you need to learn what works best for your body. And in no time, you’ll be on the way to living your happiest, healthiest life!
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