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Fasting May Help Heal Your Body and Your Mind

a lone carrot sitting on a white plate with a fork on one side and a knife on the other


Last month, we discussed superfoods that may help improve your health. This month, we’re exploring how abstaining from eating – commonly referred to as fasting – may also benefit your health. Fasting is a controlled window of time — 16 hours, a day, or even a week — where one goes without food (but will usually continue to drink water). There are now fast-mimicking diets (FMDs) or intermittent fasting (IF) diets, which vary in practice, but all have times when food intake is prohibited. While fasting is still somewhat controversial in the medical field, many recent studies have suggested that fasting can offer a lot of potential health benefits.

Slows aging and extends life span

One of the leaders in the effects of fasting on health is Valter Longo, professor of gerontology and biological sciences at the USC School of Gerontology and president of the Valter Longo Foundation. Longo found that twice-a-month, four-day reduced calorie fasts extended the lifespan of mice. In human trials, a similar diet decreased risk factors for aging, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Boosts your immune system

Longo says that fasting “flips a regenerative switch” that essentially restores the immune system. According to Longo, “It gives the OK for stem cells to go ahead and begin proliferating and rebuild the entire system. Fasting cycles can generate, literally, a new immune system.” These findings may be particularly beneficial for those whose immune systems have been damaged by aging or chemotherapy. Tanya Dorff, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the USC Norris Comprehensive Center and Hospital, says, “The results of this study suggest that fasting may mitigate some of the harmful effects of chemotherapy.”

Slows cancer growth

As suggested above, fasting may also reduce your risk of cancer. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that eating only every other day decreased cell proliferation rates, which helps slow the development of cancers. A study authored by Longo and published in Science Translational Medicine found that five out of eight cancer types in mice responded to fasting alone – without chemotherapy. Longo concludes “the combination of fasting cycles plus chemotherapy was either more or much more effective than chemo alone.” A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that fasting for two days before chemotherapy helped ease its toxic side effects.

Protects your brain

One of the most interesting aspects of fasting on health is the possible connection between fasting and the brain. The leader in this research is Mark Mattson, a scientist at the National Institute on Aging. A study he led found that fasting one or two days a week may help those living with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. According to Mattson, “Fasting increases BDNF, a protein that’s crucial for learning and protection against age-related cognitive decline. When the brain goes under energy restriction, we see neural activity that’s associated with protection against degeneration from stroke and aging.” You can learn more about Mark Mattson’s research and fasting’s potential benefits for the brain in his TED talk, “Why fasting bolsters brain power.”

Helps you burn fat more easily

When you stop eating, your body starts to undergo several changes. Some of these changes start happening after just 12 hours. First, insulin levels start to drop, which facilitates fat burning. Levels of human growth hormone may start to increase, which facilitates fat burning and muscle gain. The body may also induce certain repair processes, such as removing waste material from cells.

As with all health regimens, you should consult your physician before starting any kind of fast. Fasting isn’t recommended for women who are pregnant or nursing or people living with severe anemia. If your doctor thinks you would be able to fast healthfully, you might want to try it. In addition to the benefits listed above, many adherents also mention increased energy, better mental clarity, clearer skin and an easing of the symptoms of allergies and digestive disorders of all kinds.

This article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Speak to your doctor and/or a registered dietitian if you have questions about your nutritional needs.


Categories: Healthy Aging, Nutrition