Brain Health Nutrition

Fasting May Boost Immune System, Study Reveals

While eating a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other nutritious nutrients is a great way to improve the body’s immune system, a new study suggests that fasting on occasion has its benefits as well.

According to new research out of the University of Southern California and published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, fasting for certain periods of time may help protect the body from immune system damage. Additionally, it could also enable dormant or inactive stem cells to awaken and regenerate the body’s ability to recover from illnesses.

Researchers were able to come to these findings after performing analysis on both humans and mice, both of which were receiving chemotherapy, used to kill cancer cells. Scientists found that among mice, cycled fasting “flipped a regenerative switch” on stem cells that help control the function of blood flow to the immune system.

Immune system highly adaptable
Valter Longo, co-author of the study and professor of Gerontology and Biological Sciences at the USC Davis School of Gerontology, said that the body has an amazing ability to adapt to its current state in order to address whatever is ailing it.

“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,” said Longo. “What we started noticing in both our human work and animal work is that the white blood cell count goes down with prolonged fasting. Then when you re-feed, the blood cells come back.”

He added that when leukocytes are depleted through cycles of fasting – going without any food for two to four days in a six-month period – stem cells regenerate in order to produce new immune system cells. One gene in particular, known as PKA, needs to shut down for stem cells to go to work.

“It gives the OK for stem cells to go ahead and begin proliferating and rebuild the entire system,” said Longo.

Tanya Dorff, co-author and assistant professor of clinical medicine at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital, stressed that more research needs to be done and that fasting should only be done in consultation with a physician.

A quality fish oil supplement may help improve the immune system. Last year, researchers from Michigan State University and East Carolina University discovered that fish oil with high levels of DHA improved the activity of white blood cells, which the body relies on to fend off disease.

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