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Fasting might sound like a painful idea, but according to a recent MIT study, it can have serious health ...
2020-07-17 09:00:00
healthy living

Fasting to the Rescue
The Benefits of Food Abstinence

“Katherina Contemplates Her Empty Plate in the Taming of the Shrew”, 1896, Edward Robert Hughes
Fasting to the Rescue
Fasting to the Rescue

A 24-hour fast results in a renewal of the intestinal stem cells.

Read in 3 minutes

A TV-series binge accompanied by sugary snacks, a long barbecue feast on a summer evening, an aunt’s birthday celebration over a traditional three-course meal – these are just some of our favourite entertainment and gastronomic scenes. But before we reach for seconds, it’s worth thinking about the recent discovery by biologists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

American scientists have noticed that a single day of fasting causes a metabolic change that accelerates the regeneration of stem cells in the gut. Research has been conducted on mice, but a 24-hour fast could also be beneficial to humans. Some of us are already practising this – hence the popularity of the 5:2 diet. Thanks to dividing the week into five days of normal, healthy eating and two days of a diet limited to 600 calories (or less), actor Benedict Cumberbatch and TV host Jimmy Kimmel are able to retain a slim figure. And with age – as almost everyone who has reached 40 might have noticed – staying slim unfortunately becomes increasingly difficult. With age, we start to move more slowly (long gone are the days of running for the bus) and the rate of lipid turnover (or the rate at which fat is burned and stored) also decreases.

To make matters worse, our intestinal stem cells lose their ability to successfully recover with each passing year. And they play an extremely important role. Ömer Yilmaz, Assistant Professor of Biology at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and head of the research team, calls them figuratively the “working horses of the gut.” Stem cells are the source of all new intestinal cells – they are responsible for maintaining the intestinal mucosa. This membrane usually renews every five days, but as we get older, its ability to self-regenerate decreases. This means that recovery from gastrointestinal infections or other diseases affecting the work of the intestine takes longer and is more difficult.

Fewer calories

Fortunately, this does not necessarily mean that in old age we are irrevocably condemned to obesity and bowel disease. A 24-hour fast comes to the rescue. Like a superhero, it enters the intestinal labyrinths and doubles the regeneration of the cells there. What’s more, it accelerates metabolism. Biologists at MIT have observed these phenomena in both seniors and young people who fasted for 24 hours. During this time, instead of glucose, the cells began to break down fatty acids, and this stimulated stem cells to increase regeneration.

Yilmaz has no doubt: “Fasting has many effects in the intestine, which include boosting regeneration as well as potential uses in any type of ailment that impinges on the intestine, such as infections or cancers. Understanding how fasting improves overall health, including the role of adult stem cells in intestinal regeneration, in repair, and in ageing, is a fundamental interest of my laboratory.”

The fact that a low-calorie diet prolongs life and helps preserve the health of people and other organisms has been observed for years. The results of the MIT research have yielded concrete evidence for this. David Sabatini, Professor of Biology at MIT, who also participated in the team’s effort, says bluntly: “Research proves that fasting induces metabolic transformation in intestinal stem cells, increases carbohydrate utilization and fat burning.” This study provided evidence that fasting induces a metabolic switch in the intestinal stem cells, from utilizing carbohydrates to burning fat. Interestingly, switching these cells to fatty acid oxidation enhanced their function significantly.

Now the researchers face another task: finding out whether fasting affects regenerative abilities in stem cells in other types of tissue. Science never knows boredom!

For more information:

Ned Dymoke: MIT study: 24-hour fasting regenerates stem cells, doubles metabolism”

Anne Trafton: “Fasting boosts stem cells’ regenerative capacity”


Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel

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