There are many purported benefits to fasting depending on who you ask, but for a long time experts have cautioned against depriving the body of nutrients, especially for the purpose of weight loss.
Now, however, real evidence may support occasional, short-term fasting, especially for people undergoing immune therapy.
Though it may sound like it would be contraindicated to deprive someone who is ill of vital minerals and nutrients, a study published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, indicates fasting for 2-4 days at a time can protect against the toxic side effects of chemotherapy as well as encourage stem cell regeneration of immune cells.
The results were seen not only in laboratory mouse research but in a phase one clinical trial in humans as well.
“We could not predict that prolonged fasting would have such a remarkable effect in promoting stem cell-based regeneration of the hematopoietic system,” Valter Longo, a professor of Gerontology, told Medical News Today. “What we started noticing in both our human work and animal work is that the white blood cell count goes down with prolonged fasting,” he explained. “Then when you re-feed, the blood cells come back. So we started thinking, well, where does it come from?”
According to the researchers, prolonged fasting reactivates stem cells by creating a depleted supply initially. This means that fasting for 2-4 days weakens the immune system, and to compensate for that, once the body starts to take in nutrients again, stem cells are kicked into production mode to make up for the immune cells that were lost.
What’s more, the fasting cycles performed under laboratory supervision led to a drop in IGF-1, a growth factor hormone linked to aging, cancer and tumor progression.
During the immune system renewal process post-fast, researchers noted that stem cells not only regenerated the immune system to be stronger, the body eliminated any immune cells seen as ineffective or damaged. Consequently, the immune system of someone just coming off a fast was “fresher” than someone who maintained a continual healthy diet.
“It gives the OK for stem cells to go ahead and begin proliferating and rebuild the entire system,” said Longo. “[The body also rids itself] of the parts of the system that might be damaged or old, the inefficient parts, during the fasting. Now, if you start with a system heavily damaged by chemotherapy or aging, fasting cycles can generate, literally, a new immune system.”
This discovery led Longo and his team to observe what happened to immunity among a group of cancer patients who fasted 3 days prior to chemotherapy treatment. At the end of the patients’ standard treatment, Longo and partners observed that the fasting appeared to help protect chemotherapy users from the toxic effects of the treatment by renewing their immune system after.
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He did, however, express that the findings were not enough to warrant fasting among cancer patients prior to treatment. Such a practice should only be done under doctor’s supervision.
The next step in the research will be to see if fasting has the same regenerative effects on organs within the body or if the results are limited to the immune system.