How Intermittent Fasting Caused My Insomnia and Belly Fat

by Ann Marie Michaels on October 17, 2011

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Fat belly's

I’ve been trying to solve a few health riddles lately, including insomnia and baby fat on my mid-section that won’t budge.

A lot of people like to tout intermittent fasting as a way to lose weight. Turns out it’s not such a good idea, at least in my experience. I know, I know, I’m an n of one. But stay with me.

I wrote a post last week about my revelation that excess cortisol (from hypoglycemia) was causing both problems: Is It Wheat Belly or Cortisol Belly?

Everyone’s badmouthing gluten these days, and it seems like every time I turn around, someone’s telling me that eliminating wheat from my diet will help me lose weight. But what wheat haters typically don’t account for all the other factors at play, including hormonal imbalances and nutrient deficiencies. Hormonal imbalances and nutrient deficiencies can be caused by physical and psychological stress, including skipping meals or not eating enough at meals, and malabsorption.

Yes, there are many people who cannot digest gluten. I was one of those people 15 years ago when I was diagnosed as gluten-intolerant. I spent two years healing my gut and could eventually eat wheat again with no symptoms. For those people who are gluten-intolerant, they do need to avoid gluten. But I don’t believe everyone needs to avoid gluten. Of course, that’s another blog post.

In this blog post, I’m going to focus on my current interest in how skipping meals and latent mineral deficiencies interplay to cause belly fat (among other problems including insomnia, adrenal fatigue, diabetes, etc.)

I’m not aiming to write a post that is a conclusive treatise on the right way to eat for all people. I just want to share what’s been going on with me, the discoveries I’ve been making lately, and how I’m helping myself.

A History of Beating Up My Adrenal Glands

After decades of drinking caffeine, smoking, overworking, skipping meals, and drinking too much alcohol, I’ve really done a number on my adrenal glands.

However… I’m slowly but surely getting on track. I quit smoking in 2007 when I found out I was pregnant (I never smoked a lot, maybe 1-2 cigarettes a day — but that’s too much!). I quit coffee and all forms of caffeine last year.

I quit drinking wine every day a couple months ago (I’ll have an occasional glass of wine now. The last time I had a glass of wine was a week ago when we went out to dinner.) I also stopped eating chocolate and carbs at night.

And now I’m doing my best to try to relax, get enough sleep, and to not overwork.

What Happened When I Stopped Skipping Meals

I also stopped skipping meals a couple of months ago, per the advice of Julia Ross, author of The Mood Cure. Eating 3 square meals per day, along with taking amino acids, is what help me nix my daily wine consumption.

Here’s what is fascinating to me: all this time when I was skipping meals, I thought I just wasn’t hungry. I’d read about how intermittent fasting can help you lose weight, so when I skipped a meal (usually it was breakfast or lunch,) I felt proud of myself for not needing to eat.

When I quit drinking coffee, I immediately noticed that I starting feeling hungry in the mornings. This was something I had never experienced. Duh — caffeine is an appetite suppressant.

But until recently, I still wasn’t really very hungry. I would eat breakfast, but not very much, or I’d skip breakfast altogether. Or I’d eat breakfast but skip lunch.

Some of my readers commented that they thought I wasn’t eating enough back when I posted a log of what I was eating. I protested that I just wasn’t hungry!

Zinc and Magnesium Deficiency

I recently learned that zinc deficiency can cause you to lose your appetite.

I found out that I was deficient in zinc by taking the zinc tally test. (You can order a Zinc tally test online: Metagenics, Zinc Tally, 4 fl oz (120 ml). If the liquid tastes like water, you’re deficient. If it tastes really bad, you have enough zinc.)

Why would I be deficient in zinc? I eat plenty of red meat, liver and shellfish.

Ah ha! Alcohol depletes the body of zinc.

I also learned that drinking alcohol rapidly depletes the body of magnesium (by the way, sugar, including chocolate, caffeine, and white flour do the same thing).

Magnesium is one of the main nutrients needed by the adrenal glands. Magnesium deficiency causes a whole host of other problems including insomnia, insulin resistance and diabetes, and PMS.

It’s actually pretty easy to become deficient in magnesium because our soil don’t have a lot of magnesium, thanks to modern chemical fertilizer. If you are eating low carb, it’s even easier to become deficient. Some of the best sources of magnesium are whole grains (especially wheat).

If you’re eating low carb and avoiding whole grains, you need to make sure you eat a lot of nuts. And they have to be soaked/dried nuts, because unsoaked nuts contain phytic acid which block minerals. If you don’t eat a lot of soaked nuts, other good sources include kelp and other sea vegetables and nettles and dandelion. Not exactly the kinds of things most of us eat every day.

There are lots of other things that can cause magnesium deficiency, including eating a diet rich in saturated fat (uh oh — that would be me!) and being low in vitamin D. I need to write a whole post about magnesium deficiency, what causes it, and how to rectify it.

A Vicious Cycle

Here’s how it would typically go for me: I would skip breakfast or lunch and by 5 pm, I’d be starving. I’d reach for a glass of wine because my serotonin and blood sugar levels were so low. (I used to love to have a glass of wine while I was making dinner.) But my instant fix resulted in long-term damage.

The alcohol crutch caused zinc deficiency and magnesium deficiency. Magnesium is needed to produce serotonin, so now I needed even more alcohol. And the zinc deficiency made me lose my appetite and I’d skip more meals. Skipping meals was making me hypoglycemic, which was stressing my adrenals and producing excess cortisol. Excess cortisol results in weight gain, particularly belly fat.

You can see how skipping meals can cause belly fat. You skip meals, you ignore your hunger, you reach for coffee or chocolate or wine (or cigarettes or what-have-you) to keep going, and the blood sugar crash and stimulants cause your adrenal glands to pump out cortisol. Excess cortisol = belly fat.

The insomnia is caused by high cortisol at night, which again is caused by not eating enough throughout the day. Insomnia is also caused by magnesium deficiency.

And even if you don’t drink, it can still happen to you. Maybe you’re doing intermittent fasting or skipping meals or not just not eating enough at meals, and you reach for chocolate or caffeine to give yourself an artificial boost. Caffeine and sugar also cause the body to waste magnesium.

Nutrition to the Rescue!

The first step was to stop skipping meals and take amino acids to help me lose the cravings for wine. I was able to do this in a matter of a few weeks, thanks to Julia Ross’s book, The Mood Cure.

I started taking a zinc supplement and B vitamins to replenish what my body had lost. I started taking a multivitamin called Now Foods True Balance, plus extra zinc and a B complex supplement.

I was still trying to solve the insomnia. I found that when I took magnesium before bed, I slept through the night (I have found that Seriphos helps, but not on its own — only when I take it with the magnesium). I’m also going to add this tonight (it just came in the mail): De-Stress 30 Caps – Biotics. (I’ll let you know how it goes.)

I also ordered a chelated magnesium supplement (magnesium glycinate) which just came today. Magnesium citrate is not very easy to absorb and can cause loose stools. (More on this in an upcoming post about magnesium deficiency).

In addition, I’m also taking an herbal adrenal supplement, as well as 5HTP and melatonin in the evening.

High Cortisol and Hypoglycemia

When I discovered that I have hypoglycemia and excess cortisol (verified by a saliva test,) I wanted to learn more about cortisol and blood sugar. I then read a book called The Cortisol Connection Diet by Shawn Talbott.

While I don’t agree with everything in the book (he advocates a lower fat diet,) I decided I’d try eating more often as he advocates in the book. He recommends eating 3 meals a day (as Julia Ross does) but for those of us with messed up cortisol and screwy blood sugar, he also recommends punctuating those meals with balanced snacks.

I think it’s kind of similar to Matt Stone’s RRARF plan of overfeeding in order to restore metabolism.

Eating More Often to Avoid Hypoglycemia and to Lower Cortisol

The idea is to eat more often so you don’t have a hypoglycemic crash. This way you avoid those cortisol surges every time your blood sugar drops. In theory, if you can keep your cortisol from spiking, you can help your adrenals heal AND you can help stop that nasty belly fat from accumulating. And, in theory, when your adrenals aren’t pumping out cortisol in the middle of the night, your insomnia should go away.

Here’s how the diet plan goes:

7 am – Snack
9 am – Breakfast
12 noon – Snack
2 pm – Lunch
5 pm – Snack
7 pm – Dinner

I guess it seems kind of silly to have to remind yourself to eat every 2-3 hours. But for me, this is necessary. I was so used to going for 6 or 8 hours, or even as long as 16 hours without eating (from dinner to lunch,) it’s not easy for me to break away from work and eat. So this schedule really, really helps.

Here’s a sample day*:

7 am – 2 TBS Fermented cod liver oil/ high-vitamin butter oil blend, decaf coffee with raw milk
9 am – 2 eggs fried in butter, 1 piece of sprouted wheat bread with butter and jam
12 noon – 1 apple, 2 teaspoons peanut butter
2 pm – Grilled cheese on sprouted wheat, 1 cup of raw milk
5 pm – 1 banana, 1 handful soaked cashews, 1 cup kombucha
7 pm – Pork sausage, soaked brown rice and lentils cooked in bone broth, sour cream and naturally fermented raw sauerkraut, 1 cup kombucha
9 pm – 1 cup of raw milk

I’m also drinking lots of water, kombucha and decaf herbal tea throughout the day. It’s important to stay hydrated, particularly here in Las Vegas where it is very dry.

Lastly, I’m not exercising except for walking. I’m also wearing a sleep mask at night and making sure I get 8+ hours of sleep. I go to bed as early as I can each night and I sleep as late as I can every day. The whole idea here is to reduce stress.

Reactions and Results

So far I’m absolutely blown away at how much more I am eating. I would have never eaten this much back when I was skipping meals and drinking wine. I feel calm, rested, relaxed, and most of all, happy! I sing and laugh a lot more these days.

It’s so interesting to me because I honestly wasn’t hungry before (see above) and secondly, I thought it was bad to eat all these carbs. I think so many of us have become downright carb-phobic these days. I was forcing myself to skip meals, thinking I was doing something good. No wonder I craved wine and sweets at night — I was starving!

I’m still pleased to report that I have zero cravings for wine or chocolate. Every time I go to the store, I pass the wine and sweets and they hold no appeal whatsoever.

The insomnia is beginning to dissipate. It’s too soon to report on how my belly fat is faring. I measured myself today. However, I think it will take some time.

I’ll continue to keep you posted.

Oh, and I need to order a thermometer so I can start taking my temperature throughout the day a la Matt Stone and Dr. Rind. I’ll start tracking that, too.

* In case you were wondering, I’m not on GAPS anymore (obviously). Neither is Kate. I decided it was too difficult with moving to Las Vegas (we moved last Sunday). Seth is on the full GAPS diet and will stay on it indefinitely. He feels great and has already lost an inch or two. We may put him back on the intro diet sometime down the road when things aren’t so hectic.

Photo credit: Fat belly’s by Yersinia on Flickr
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