Fasting comes and goes as a weight loss trend, but research is confirming that intermittent or alternate-day fasting can slow the aging process and help us live longer. The health benefits of calorie restriction have been studied for decades, and now scientists are getting closer to the answer of why and how fasting fights aging, though there still remain some questions.
It’s complex, but simply put, studies on humans and other animals have shown that fasting optimizes metabolism and energy, and increases cellular protection by reprogramming stress and metabolic pathways. It does this by relieving the oxidative stress and inflammation that cause premature damage to cells — a key factor in the aging process and significant contributor to growing old before our time. And there’s more good news: fasting also protects humans from heart disease, cancers, diabetes, and neurodegeneration, which, all considered, results in extending longevity.
One theory holds that a drop in blood sugar caused by fasting requires our cells to fight harder to find energy elsewhere, including fat cells, which helps with maintaining a healthy weight. But weight aside, research is finding that anyone — whether packing extra pounds or naturally lean — can benefit from the anti-aging effects of fasting because of the reduction in oxidative stress alone.
In scientific terms, oxidative stress occurs when we have a high production of free radicals. These are molecules with very unstable electrons that cause damage to our cells and their ability to repair, which is thought to be caused primarily by poorly functioning mitochondria, considered the powerhouse of all the body’s cells.
Research looking at fasting’s impact on cells (not weight loss) has found pretty stunning results when it comes to cell health and longevity.
Antioxidants stabilize free-radical electrons before they cause havoc on cells and, ergo, help combat aging. It’s why we’re told to load up on foods high in antioxidants, such as blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, goji berries, artichokes, red cabbage, kale, pecans, and dark chocolate. And also why the antioxidant anti-aging beauty products market is forecast to grow to be a $150-million industry by 2023.
So even though science has yet to determine all the details of how fasting helps in the free-radicals oxidative stress process, research looking at fasting’s impact on cells (not weight loss) has found pretty stunning results when it comes to cell health and longevity.
In one fasting study, over a six-week period people feasted on 175 percent of their normal daily calorie intake and on fasting days ate only 25 percent — in both cases not even healthy food. They ate pasta, sandwiches, and ice cream and other sugary desserts. The result? Researchers found that participant’s cells made more copies of a gene involved in preventing free radicals and improving repair of damaged cells.
Scientists say this makes perfect sense when you consider the feast-or-famine existence of our hunter-gather ancestors, who remained lean even when gorging on the feast of their harvest and catch, because their bodies had to readjust to survive during times of very little food.
More research is needed, and we don’t recommend everyone suddenly start fasting. But it’s certainly something to consider and discuss with your doctor or a nutritionist.