Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Fasting Promotes Stem Cell Regeneration in Intestines

As people age, we lose the ability to regenerate stem cells successfully in our body. Our organs grow old, and begin to fail. Our metabolism changes, and our body begins to lose muscle mass. Eventually, we reach the point in old age where we cannot function normally and die. To prevent this, scientists and researchers have been pursuing the "secret" to prolonging life for a long time. We want to live longer. We want to live healthier. So how can we? We have been told to eat right, exercise, and develop healthy habits. Medical discoveries have been made that provide us with a longer life compared to previous generations.

But have you been told to just not eat? That fasting was the way to become healthier?

I know, fasting seems like something done during lent or for personal reasons. Trust me, I love a good cheeseburger as much as anybody, and generally scoffed at the idea of fasting to promote health. Granted, I was younger, and mac and cheese was liquid gold that I could never give up. However, there is science backing up the idea that occasional fasting is healthy.

Take our stem cells for example. The role of our stem cells is to create new cells in our body where we need them. Hematopoietic stem cells become new red blood cells (RBCs) to replenish old cells. Tissue-specific stem cells become new cells within our organs. As we grow older, our stem cells slowly lose the ability to proliferate into new cells.

This is where fasting becomes an unexpected hero. Recent research shows that fasting can actually improve the regeneration of stem cells. MIT researchers have completed a study that shows the benefits from a 24 hour fast regarding stem cells. Using mice, they took away food and induced a 24 hour fast. During this time period, the mice began to break down fatty acids instead of food derived glucose. By doing so, the capability of the mouse intestinal stem cells to regenerate and produce new cells nearly doubled compared to stem cells from a non-fasting mouse sample.

The process of deriving energy in the human body is the same among other animals, including mice. The body uptakes food and uses the glucose in the diet and begins to break it down. When we don't eat, our body switches what it uses for energy. With no glucose available, our body turns to fat stored in our body and begins to break them down into fatty acids for energy. This process (lipolysis), according to the research done in this study, actually increases the ability for stem cells to regenerate by introducing stress in the body.

So the prospect of fasting is shown to have health benefits when fasting is done correctly. But even more impressive is the fact that this information can be used in a pharmaceutical environment.

The research team, in order to prove that the mouse stem cells had switched to breaking down fats, isolated messenger RNA from within the cells to look at what genes had been activated. For further clarification, messenger RNA (mRNA) is used within a cell for gene expression by sending a specific code of amino acids to ribosomes in the cell. The mRNA seen in this study indicated that fasting had activated transcription factors named Peroxisome Proliferator-acivated Receptors (PPARs). These transcription factors turn on the genes that switch energy production from the breakdown of glucose to the breakdown of fats. Therefore, the researchers took this experiment one step further and treated the mouse stem cells with a molecular compound named GW501516. This compound activates the PPARs within the cell. As a result, the increased production of intestinal cells from stem cells was also shown just from the introduction of this molecule.

The implications of this research are quite important. Jared Rutter, a biochemistry professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine, stated that "this work fits into a rapidly growing field that is demonstrating that nutrition and metabolism has profound effects on the behavior of cells and this can predispose for human disease." From this study, fasting and drug treatment involving PPARs can increase stem cell proliferation in our intestines. This could be beneficial for us as we grow older, or even cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy (which harms our intestinal cells). Maybe give fasting a try, it could help your body out in ways you didn't think were possible

*NOTE: To properly fast, DO NOT just stop eating and call it good. You need to drink plenty of water and only fast for about 24 hours. You could even follow a 16:8 diet where you only consume food for 8 hours a day and fast for 16. Fasting beyond 24 hours could cause your body harm. If you do decide to follow a longer fast than a 24 hour fast, get supervision to ensure that your body remains healthy.*

More information on this research can be found in these two articles:

The research article for this study can be found here: