Can fasting be the key to a longer life?


Freddie Mercury once asked ‘Who wants to live forever?’ It’s a difficult question to answer. Many of us are worried about our eventual deaths, but immortality? That’s a whole new ball game.

But what if you could live for longer, be healthier and not suffer from debilitating diseases? I think the majority would give a resounding yes.

How can we prolong our lives?

Scientists at the University of Southern California (USC) have shown that fasting could be the way to prolong our lives, not only by protecting against damage to the immune system, but inducing regeneration to the immune system as well.

Our immune systems suffer damage when we undergo chemotherapy.

The results of the study revealed that long periods of not eating actually forced stem cells in the immune system from a dormant state to a state of self-renewal.

How does fasting prolong our lives?

The study used mice and humans that were undergoing chemotherapy. In both cases it was shown that undergoing long periods of not eating significantly lowered white blood cell counts.

With mice, these fasting cycles prompted “a regenerative switch,” which changed the signalling pathways for hematopoietic stem cells. These are the cells responsible for generating blood and the immune systems.

Co-author of the study, Valter Longo, said: “When you starve, the system tries to save energy, and one of the things it can do to save energy is to recycle a lot of the immune cells that are not needed, especially those that may be damaged.”

When the body undergoes periods of prolonged fasting, as well as lowering white blood cells, it is forced to use stores of glucose, fat and ketones. Longo says that this is like a plane ditching excess cargo.

Prolonged fasting also reduced the enzyme PKA.

“PKA is the key gene that needs to shut down in order for these stem cells to switch into regenerative mode. It gives the OK for stem cells to go ahead and begin proliferating and rebuild the entire system,” explained Longo.

Why do we age?

This study has major implications for a healthier aging process. The reason we age is in part because our immune system starts to decline as we age. Immune cells become damaged and cannot repair themselves.

With increasing age we can expect higher levels of the growth-factor hormone IGF-1, which Longo and others have linked to aging, tumour progression and increased risk of cancer.

As more and more of us succumb to diseases such as cancer, dementia, strokes and heart complaints, attacks on our immune systems become more frequent. With fasting, you could effectively generate a completely new immune system, even if your body’s has been ravaged by drugs or age.

Wider implications of fasting

As the body gets rid of the damaged or old parts of the immune system during fasting, Longo is now investigating whether these effects can be transferred to other parts of the body.

“We are investigating the possibility that these effects are applicable to many different systems and organs, not just the immune system.”

This study builds on previous research that suggest fasting reduces blood pressure and increases metabolic rate and cellular repair.

The study was supported by the National Institute of Aging of the National Institutes of Health.

The clinical trial was supported by the V Foundation and the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health

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