Fasting for immunity

It wasn’t so long ago that fasting was the domain of the devout or of lean individuals sitting in the lotus position at high altitude. In today’s app-riven, blue-lit, mediocrity-laced, easy-access world however, fasting is one of those concepts that has slipped into the wider consciousness. Very popular diets these days feature a day or two of almost-fasting each week and fasting consciousness has risen along with the along with the acknowledged need for “detoxing”. Allowing your body and mind a chance to rest and regenerate makes sense but it is always pleasing when research supports the logical and now a new study has shown that fasting does at least one very specific good thing in that it enhances your immune function.

The new research has involved studying the effect of fasting on mice and also on humans. The results suggests that fasting turns on haematopoietic stem cells that generate blood and immune cells.

The researchers found that in mice repeated, regular cycles of fasting lasting two to four days over the course of six months caused the removal of older, damaged immune cells and the production of new ones. During the fasting phase it was found that a drop in immune cells was followed by stem-cell based generation of new cells, effectively renewing the immune system. Additionally, during prolonged fasting it was found that levels of an enzyme called PKA dropped, and PKA controls the extent which stem cells can become different cell types (pluripotency). Switching off PKA allows stem cells to proliferate and rebuild the immune system. Lastly, fasting caused lowered levels of IGF-1 a hormone linked to ageing and cancer progression.

In a group of cancer patients it was found that three days of fasting reduced the damaging effects of chemotherapy on the immune system.

The researchers say that this suggests that fasting could potentially be a useful therapy for people with immune system damage or for cancer patients undertaking chemotherapy. Of course, prolonged fasting over the course of a few days is not something you should do without the consultation and support of a health professional, but this does show a real positive physical result from fasting; it seems there really is life in the fast lane.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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