Historically, fasting is associated with sickness and poor health—the result of drought or famine during times of great hardship. Centuries ago, the idea of not eating when food was on the table and you were even the slightest bit hungry was probably ludicrous, especially considering the food was not always readily available. To be sure, voluntarily forgoing food is a relatively recent and modern phenomenon, but one that may come with a surprising potential benefit.
In fact, a recent study at the University of Southern California found that denying oneself food for just three days can effectively help to regenerate the human immune system. Going without nutritional sustenance can, somewhat counterintuitively, yet, also somewhat intuitively, instigate stem cells to create new white blood cells. These new cells are ideal for fending off infection.
In the groundbreaking study, which published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, researchers had both human and mice participants fast on a regular basis during a six-month period. The fasts were anywhere between two and four days.
This kind of prolonged fasting not only promoted white blood cell death and subsequent growth, but it also diminished protein kinase A (PKA)—an enzyme that is associated with aging—and IGF-1—a cancer-related hormone that’s been associated with aging and tumor growth. It sounds almost too good to be true, perhaps because this is the very first-time experts have gleaned evidence that a natural intervention has the potential to cause stem cell-based regeneration in a system or individual or group of organs.
Scientists posit that refraining from eating forces the human body to save energy, which requires recycling cells that are damaged or otherwise useless. Essentially, starving oneself not only causes the body to use up glucose and fat stores, but it also depletes white blood cells. This loss instigates stem cells to manufacture fresh immune system cells. It’s sort of like spring cleaning for your body, where all the tired and old white blood cells are kicked to the curb and replaced with fresh new ones ready to do the important work of defending your body against infection.
Such knowledge is useful for your highly health-conscious person looking to immune system boosters and bolster germ-defending stores. But it’s especially important for people with compromised immune systems, chemotherapy patients and those with autoimmunity disorders being foremost, and the elderly being another population that stands to benefit.
But before you go and schedule a three-day fast, be aware that researchers believe more clinical trials are needed. And, thankfully, they are in the midst of doing more investigation into how short-term starvation can affect not only the immune system but a host of other systems and organs as well. Until then, the results of the study should be taken with a healthy grain of salt. You should never fast for more than four days and never without speaking to your doctor or health advisor first. Also, be sure to increase your water intake while fasting to prevent dehydration.
What’s more, fasting should never be done as a primary form of weight loss. A short fast every once in a while has been shown to recharge the metabolism and improve digestive health, but it isn’t a long-term solution to any serious weight or nutrition issues. A wholesome, balanced diet, combined with moderate exercise, is the only healthy way to lose weight without putting your body into high alert via starvation.
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But regardless of whether or not you’d be willing to give up food for a few days, this research is highly promising when it comes to natural interventions for cell regeneration. The implications for healthier aging alone are tremendous. Think about how useful it would be to quickly and efficiently recharge your immune system intermittently as you grow older. Your aging immune system would receive a refreshing boost every couple of months and make you less susceptible to age-related disease. This is one health topic worth closely monitoring.