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Metabolic Flexibility

Family Taco Meal

At Brooklyn Herborium, we use the idea of “timing of meals” to support metabolic harmony (this means you time your meals to allow your body to make “the right hormones at the right time”), and we use nature’s calendar (yep, the same one we use for planning out your skincare regimen and rituals) to help you step off a food-control cycle and support overall metabolic flexibility. 

Just like with our skin care, our underlying principle is to support health, and to avoid being caught in a “control cycle.” This means we want to give the body what it needs, when it needs it, and then step back and allow the body to “do the work.”

My grandmother’s words, repeated by my mother, that I have often found myself reminding my children: “Eat when you are eating, and don’t eat when you are not eating.”

Isn’t This Intuitive?

The intuitiveness of this method comes naturally to many people, and if you don’t have any metabolic issues, trying to make a big deal out of it could just stress you out more than it needs to. If you do feel like you are exhibiting symptoms of being on the metabolic roller coaster (welt-y bumps or dermatitis on the periphery of your face or your chin, constant nagging feelings of hunger, cravings that don’t behoove you, hormones that just seem out of whack), you may want to look into both the timing of your meals (feasts!) and what you are doing between those meals (fasts!) to see if there is a way you can better support your health.

This method is just one way of finding balance or metabolic harmony. 

On one end of the spectrum, there are methods that just say, “F— it and eat whatever you want until your body figures it out,” and on the other, there are methods that involve getting bloodwork done and using specific foods, herbs, and vitamins (and sometimes actual hormones) to “fix” the problem “at the root.” Although either of these ways must work for some people, I tend to see so many people who have “quit intuitive eating and gone back to yo-yo dieting” because they felt terrible trying to work it out, or who have fallen off the supplement wagon after years because it “doesn’t seem to work anymore and gets too expensive to keep up.”

The method we propose is for those who have metabolic disorders and feel lost when it comes to eating well. We are just putting a little sensible order (great-grandma-style) into your days, weeks, months, and even years. It is for those of you who find yourselves in an uncomfortable pattern of grazing all day and never feeling satisfied, or being fearful of any type of food, or going back and forth between eating too much and eating too little in a way that makes your body feel off. It is possible to find freedom and feel really good eating more at some meals and less at other times when you are able to recognize patterns. This approach may not be appropriate for you if you have an eating disorder, but you could bring this information to your therapist, counselor, or nutritionist and see what she says.

Metabolic harmony/flexibility is not about losing weight, but when your body is making the right hormones at the right time over the long term, your body simply finds itself at a good weight for you — even if you are enjoying the foods that popular diets tend to demonize. (What is it this week? Fat? Sugar? Grains? Meat? Lectins? All of the above?!) Just love your body along the way and allow it to change as it needs to in order to work itself out. (Also, this is not to say that you won’t lose weight; just don’t make it an expectation. Trust your body to recompose itself however it needs to, and in its own time!)

The amazing thing is that when you support metabolic harmony, other problems just disappear. Skin problems start to resolve (with the help of supportive skin care and stepping out of the control cycle), energy levels increase, and moods tend to stabilize. Our bodies are able to settle into a pleasant equanimity without needing to worry about what or how much we are eating, because our metabolism becomes more and more flexible. Inflammation stabilizes, which leads to an internal and external terrain that hosts a healthy microbiome.

Feasting by Nature’s Calendar

At Brooklyn Herborium, our experience of working one-on-one with our skincare clients has really shown us that the timing of meals makes a huge difference in metabolic harmony. 

Sun Cycle (Daily)

Our daily habits can help our body feel safe and secure. 

  • For most women, this ends up being about three meals a day on the regular. 
  • During growth phases (childhood though teenage years, pregnancy, breastfeeding), it may go up to four meals a day.
  • During reduction phases (transitions, menopause), it may go down to two meals a day (or even one!).

It may take some effort to move from where you are to this point. This could be a big-jump effort (if that is your style), or you could move there step by step. Perhaps your journey looks like this: 

  • Step 1: Leave at least 12 hours of consuming only water (or perhaps plain coffee or tea) between dinner and breakfast. 
  • Step 2: Take your food at meals instead of snacking all day. 
  • Step 3: Get comfortable with steps 1 and 2  for three to four weeks.
  • Step 4: Pay attention to how the food you are eating is making you feel, and adjust your food choices accordingly.

Once you have established a regular rhythm to your daily meals, it’s good to switch it up a little, both for your own enjoyment and because it helps build your metabolic flexibility.

Moon Cycle (Weekly or Monthly)

Switching up your daily rhythm a little not only allows for shifts in your schedule but increases your metabolic flexibility, allowing your body to be able to deal with shifts and periods of more (or less) food, whether that is by necessity or just for fun or variety. 

Examples of this could be:

  • Once or twice a week, enjoying a late brunch and an early dinner, creating longer windows of “fasting time” (14 to 18 hours) between dinner and breakfast on two days. 
  • Having a specified “fasting day” for health or spiritual purposes. This could be a weekly event, such as fasting from dinner to dinner once a week, or it could be timed with the moon. (I personally love to time this with the new moon and fast from dinner one night and throughout the next day, and resume with a full, celebratory day of nourishing foods the following morning.)
  • Having special feast days where there is an unending feast for hours. When I was a child, it was Sundays after church, and then an early supper at the grandparents’ house.

Earth Cycle (Seasonal, Special Occasions, and Transitional)

Seasonal shifts could be taken to mean what changes year to year, or through “the seasons of our lives”:

  • When you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you may do well eating like your children do, with four meals a day. (This is recommended by many Brooklyn pediatricians, once a baby is done with the early months of round-the-clock nursing. If you are unsure, check with your pediatrician. We also recommend the Ellyn Satter Institute for great information on how to feed your family.)
  • Feasting celebrations with special foods: Whether they be religious holidays, seasonal observances, weddings, birthdays, or graduations, it might make sense to fast before such events, break the fast with an appetizer, and then enjoy the special meal to your heart’s (and belly’s) content.
  • Spring cleansing: After a long winter, you may want to spend a few days in more of a “cleansing mode,” by fasting for 16 to 20 hours, from dinner to lunch, for a short period of days. We do not recommend long fasts unless supervised by your doctor. 
  • Transitional shifts: If you have gotten a little out of balance from too much feasting over long periods of time, with not enough time between dinner and breakfast, you may want to slightly reduce the amount of time that you spend eating each day, until you are back into balance. Depending on how far out of balance you got, it may take a while.

Don’t Be Perfect

First off, there is no perfect (or maybe it is all perfect). Never-changing food intake can never lead to metabolic flexibility. For flexibility, there need to be challenges followed by allowing the body to do the work of taking care of itself. Of course, if we challenge it more than we allow it to feel secure, we’re not going to fare well, but on days that don’t necessarily go as planned (whether it’s a surprise pizza party for which you are more than happy to break your fast, or being stuck in traffic and missing out on your lunch plans), your body will simply take it in stride, and you will emerge stronger than before!

But What About the Foods? What Am I Supposed to Eat?

When we talk about meals and feasting, we really have no prescribed types of food, although we systematically reject restrictive diets. However, there are certain guidelines that we give for specific skin problems that are mentioned in our articles; among them are “The Diet For Incredibly Good Skin,” “For Good Cellular Communication, Look to Minerals,” and “Immature Skin: Holistic Self-Care for Teens.” You can also work with one of our holistic practitioners to find what works best for you.

That being said, when you eat according to the approaches outlined in this article, you will notice the effects of different foods more dramatically, and most people start to find themselves gravitating toward the foods that work best for their systems, and moving away from cycles of cravings. If you need to transition your microbiome quickly, I suggest focusing on adding foods that encourage a diverse and healthy gut microbiome, including microbiota-accessible carbohydrates (MACs) found in vegetable fibers and resistant starches. 

Perhaps more important than what you eat when you are feasting is actually what you eat when you are not eating.

Guidelines for Fasting Times

Fasting time is any time between meals, the most important fasting time being the daily 12-plus hours between dinner and breaking the fast (breakfast), but also including the space between the other meals, which may typically be 3.5 to 4.5 hours.

The three most important goals our bodies have during the state of resting and cleansing (that longer daily period with no food) are:

  • Lowering insulin production, or reducing insulin spikes
  • Tapping into the body’s own fat stores (ketosis, but not like the “keto diet,” which we consider to be a medical-intervention diet that requires a doctor’s supervision)
  • Cleaning up and recycling old cells (autophagy)

In order to allow your body to shift to the state of rest and cleanup, you need to refrain from ingesting (or even just tasting) food during this period. And it can take weeks (or maybe even months) of allowing more time between dinner and breakfast for the body to perform these tasks optimally. However, once the body feels assured that you are going to provide it with ample meals along with ample rest, you’ll find it helpful (and more enjoyable) to allow periods of a little more time in the fasting state.

Flavors or foods lead to insulin spikes:

Any flavor (besides saltiness or bitterness) causes an insulin spike, with sweet flavors causing the strongest spike, and sourness or umami causing a spike as well. All foods — not just sugar but fat and protein as well — will also raise insulin somewhat. (Yes, this does include most herbal teas, even our lovely, health-promoting ones! Drink them with meals or during an eating window.)

Fat may trigger ketosis but doesn’t encourage the body to reduce its own stores:

We want to give the body a chance to access stored fat whenever possible. This is not for vanity reasons (even though it could make for slow and steady changes in the mirror, if your body needs them) but for heart and lung health. When the body no longer has carbohydrates to burn, it starts to tap into the glycogen stores found in the liver. Once those are depleted (many factors contribute to how long that process takes), the body goes on to utilize the visceral fat. Visceral fat is the dangerous padding that accumulates around the internal organs. After that, the body shifts to subcutaneous fat. When we give the body fat while in a fasting state in order to stay in ketosis (like the keto dieters do by putting things like butter in their coffee), it may provide the same type of calm, steady energy, but it reduces the amount of stored fat that gets used up each day.

Protein prevents autophagy:

We don’t want to have protein (bone broths, collagen, herbal infusions) during the fasting portion of our day or between meals because we want the body to start breaking down old proteins into amino acids and start using them to rebuild. This method of allowing the body to recycle its own proteins is far more beneficial than consuming collagen, as it is free, and it gets rid of the old stuff that the body doesn’t want anymore. Sagging skin tightens up, bumps smooth out, hyperpigmentation fades, and cancer cells get replaced with healthy cells. It’s amazing what the body can do when we let it.

But What About…?

  • Mineral water, sparkling water, and spring water are great as long as there is no flavoring, ascorbic acid, etc., but avoid distilled water, as it will deplete your minerals.
  • During fasting times, you can enjoy black coffee (regular or decaf) with no flavoring, creamer, or sugar. If you need that coffee to be sweet and creamy, have it with meals rather than nursing it all day.
  • Tea from the Camellia sinensis plant (black tea, green tea, white tea) is also fine during fasting times (as long as there is no flavoring, creamer, or sugar) if you want to improve your insulin sensitivity (a good thing!) and metabolic harmony. However, matcha actually counts as food, because it still has the leaves in it, and therefore should only be consumed at eating times. (I know it seems unfair, but that’s just the way it is.) You can still have your sugar and cream and matcha during meals, though!
  • As for herbal teas or infusions, dandelion and thistle (bitter teas) should be fine during fasting times, but most others should be considered “food” and consumed with meals or as part of a snack. Sit and enjoy it all at once rather than carrying it around, taking little sips over a long period of time. Take non-bitter tinctures during your eating windows or during a meal, and bitter tinctures as needed.
  • Brushing your teeth is totally OK, despite the quick rush of flavor. It’s the up-and-down a bunch of times over that period of time that causes problems — so no chewing gum!

Do I Have to Do Long Fasts?

No! Some people are using what they call “intermittent fasting” (you may have heard it talked about this way, and there are wonderful resources now available) as a medical intervention for fatty liver, diabetes, etc., or as a weight-loss plan. This is not our goal, as we are focusing on your overall well-being, particularly as it relates to your skin goals. (However, it will most likely improve all other areas of your health and wellness, as they are all interconnected, of course!) If you have a medical condition that you think would benefit from being on the “fast track” (long fasts, etc.), then talk to your doctor about it before you try it on your own. We’ve got some medical professionals we can recommend during your facial, if necessary.

What If I Get Hungry?

You may not believe it now, but if you stick to the above guidelines, your hunger cues will balance out, and your appetite “thermostat” will reset. Ghrelin and leptin are your hunger and satiety hormones, and metabolic harmony is all about your body making the right hormones at the right times. If it’s been at least 12 hours and it makes sense in your schedule, eat! And eat enough! What I don’t recommend is “having a little snack” if you are in the fasting state, because your blood sugar will drop after you produce the insulin, and you may start to feel ravenous soon after your snack. Make it a meal when possible.

Benefits of Stepping Off the Metabolic Roller Coaster That You May Not Immediately Realize:

The best part of using these methods to allow your metabolism to become more flexible is that it is completely free. There is absolutely nothing to buy. No supplements. No apps. No specific “diet” that you need to follow. Once you get used to the idea that no nourishment shall pass your lips for at least half a sun cycle (12 hours per day), it’s pretty simple.

Once you step off the metabolic roller coaster and start eating in a way that works with your body, you may find other reasons you like it. Here are some of the things that my clients have mentioned experiencing (none of these are guaranteed results, of course, but they’re really satisfying to be aware of):

  • Better digestion (from giving it ample time) and balanced hormones, leading to reduced inflammation. I find that when I am doing this well, my IBS and fibromyalgia are virtually nonexistent. 
  • Reduced inflammation, leading to a better microbiome. When the terrain is good, the good guys move in and the bad guys take the quickest log they can find to ride out of there. (See our article “Your Microbiome: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”)
  • Whiter teeth and healthier gums. We seem to forget that hormones play a role in dental health. Autophagy plus reduced inflammation plus a healthier microbiome lead to a visibly improved smile (although the short amount of time in ketosis might bring on a little unusual mouth taste or breath).
  • Energy! Sustained energy that just keeps going — and also better sleep at night!
  • Simplicity. What could be simpler than just eating during meal times and not during the fasting periods?
  • Savings. Snacking and convenience foods get expensive! You may find financial savings on groceries, coffee shops, and eating out! 
  • Satisfaction. If you achieve appetite correction, you will stop feeling hungry all the time, and you will enjoy food more than ever. You will feel full and satisfied very easily.
  • Clarity. You may stop obsessing over the next meal and clear your mind for more important things.
  • Sustenance. You don’t feel deprived at all, because you know you can eat the things you want to eat when the time is right.
  • The freedom of not feeling like you have to follow a specific “diet plan” in order to be healthy. 
  • Acceptance. There is no judgment, and no perfect way of doing this; it is just a way of being that ebbs and flows as needed.
  • Insight. This approach is based on understanding what the body needs and when, then supporting the body in just that way. It’s such a loving and respectful way of caring for your body and its needs.

What I personally like about this approach is that I feel like I am honoring my ancestors, because generations past knew these concepts intrinsically (as well as through trial and error) and have tried to pass them on through cultural traditions. It makes me feel OK to go against what advertisers and pop culture try to promote when I say, “I feel good. This way that I take care of myself is beneficial not only to me but to the greater world (environmentally speaking), and my body feels good living this way. I am always allowed to make adjustments for my own needs as I see fit.” I hope that I can take that wisdom into all areas of my life! Vive la flexibilité!

Recap: 5 Steps to Metabolic Flexibility
  1. Separate each day into two periods: a period of fasting and a period of feasting.
  2. Eat during the feasting part, and don’t eat during the fasting part.
  3. Allow nature’s cycles, as well as your own educated intuition and personal schedule/calendar, to help you determine your timing.
  4. Trust the process. You don’t need supplements, gadgets, or special foods in order for your body to do this work.
  5. Don’t be perfect.

This article is an attempt to give you the information you need in order to do this on your own, although if you need support from our friendly holistic practitioners, please reach out to schedule a consultation, email your aesthetician (who will try to reply promptly, but we have been super-busy with appointments lately), or simply ask at your next facial.

Further Reading:

The Diet for Incredibly Good Skin

For Good Cellular Communication, Look to Minerals

Immature Skin: Holistic Self-Care for Teens

Your Microbiome: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Emma Graves

Emma, a certified herbalist and highly skilled aesthetician, has been working in natural skin care since 1998. She originally developed the Between You & the Moon product line to serve her clients in finding a method of natural, holistic skin care that provided tangible results. A 4+ generation holistic practitioner, Emma chronicled her love of skin care and holistic methods in her early blog “The Pimple Whisperer,” some of which is still available on this website.

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