New Study: Fasting Could Boost Your Immune System

Empty plate with cutleryHave you been thinking of intermittent fasting? Many people are using it as a way of getting healthier. We know from past research that intermittent fasting can help you lose weight, improve your cardiovascular health and decrease your risk of diabetes.

Now, there’s new evidence that intermittent fasting can help boost your immune system. In a study, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, researchers at the University of Southern California had mice fast for two to four days over a six month period. When the mice fasted, their white blood cell counts decreased. However, after each cycle of fasting the mice generated new white blood cells from stem cells. White blood cells defend the body from infection.

When people receiving chemotherapy fasted in the same way, their white blood cell counts also went down.

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Dr Valter Longo, one of the co-authors of the study, explained the results. He said that when you starve, your body tries to save energy. One of the ways it does this is by getting rid of white blood cells it doesn’t need. Once your white blood cell count gets too low, stem cells are used to create new white blood cells.

The study also showed that fasting lowered levels of the enzyme PKA. In simple organisms, reduced levels of PKA are linked with longer life expectancy. These results could explain why rats that fast live longer.

Longo said low levels of PKA triggers stem cells to start rebuilding the immune system. He thinks fasting cycles could regenerate the immune systems of older people and people who’ve undergone chemotherapy.

Fasting also reduced levels of the growth factor hormone IGF-1, which is associated with aging, tumor growth and cancer risk.

In a different study, a small group of patients fasted for 72 hours before chemotherapy. Fasting protected them from toxicity.

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Dr Tanya Dorff, another co-author, said fasting could help prevent some of the damage that chemotherapy usually causes.

Thinking of trying intermittent fasting? Here are some tips:

1. Start slowly

If you’re used to eating three – or more – regular meals every day, going for a whole day without eating can throw your body into shock. You can start out by skipping breakfast or delaying a meal an hour or two. Even skipping between meal snacks is a positive step.

A popular form of intermittent fasting is the use of a condensed eating window. You give yourself a window of time every day, during which you’re allowed to eat. For example, you might only let yourself eat between 10AM and 5PM.

2. Keep yourself busy

Hunger is often all in the mind. If you occupy yourself with something other than food, chances are you won’t feel hungry. One of the advantages of intermittent fasting is that it’s not a calorie-counting diet. When you count calories, you’re constantly thinking about food and reminding yourself of what you aren’t eating.

3. Be flexible

If you’d planned to fast for 24 hours, it’s OK to have something to eat at hour 23. If you normally skip lunch, it’s fine to occasionally break your own rules and allow yourself a midday meal. The point is that intermittent fasting should be natural. It’s the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who could never be sure when they would have their next meal, ate. No clocks or calorie counting.

4. When you do eat, eat healthy

The benefits of intermittent fasting are lost if you fill yourself with toxic foods when you do eat. Make sure your diet is full of clean foods that are high in nutrients and antioxidants.

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