Could Fasting Help You Live Longer?

In recent years, the concept of fasting has become the fashionable thing to do. You’re not truly a health fanatic unless you’ve tried out intermittent fasting, but is this truly a powerful tool for improving your health, or simply another dietary fad soon to be cast aside for the next big thing?

Research is increasingly supporting the claims that intermittent fasting is a useful tool in regaining your health. The term “intermittent fasting” applies to a variety of dietary approaches that change the typical timing of eating patterns throughout the day. The overlying theme linking all the different kinds of intermittent fasting is that individuals aim to periodically fast for a longer duration than the typical overnight fast (unless, of course, you’re prone to sleep eating!).

Certain approaches to intermittent fasting include skipping one meal a day, such as dinner, so you extend the duration between eating anywhere between 12 and 20 hours. Others may choose to forgo eating for an entire day, with a fasting period lasting from 24 to 30 hours. These people often choose to do this once or twice per week. The most popular form of fasting, and the one that has received the most scientific attention, is an alternate-day fast where people fast for 24 hours every two days, with no caloric restriction on off-days.

This dietary approach is designed to mimic the eating habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who didn’t have regular access to food like we do today. These people would cycle through periods of feasting and famine, depending on when they managed to capture prey or harvest edible plants. Research shows that this cycle of eating and fasting produces a range of biochemical benefits, including slowing the process of aging.

What are the benefits of intermittent fasting?

Fasting benefits our health in a number of ways. Firstly, it can help to stabilize insulin and leptin sensitivity, and even boost mitochondrial energy efficiency. You may be aware that sugar is a source of energy for your body; however, it can also prove quite damaging to your system as consuming it promotes insulin resistance. This resistance can lead the way to the development of chronic health conditions, such as heart disease and cancer.

Intermittent fasting helps your body shift from using glucose as a primary fuel source to using fat. This means our fat stores — particularly triglyceride fats — are broken down by the body and used for energy. This shift from sugar-burning to fat-burning metabolism has been scientifically proven to lower your risk of chronic disease.

Next, intermittent fasting can lead to a dramatic reduction in cholesterol, with studies confirming that the decrease in total cholesterol from fasting can be as high as 20 percent. Added to this beneficial reduction in total cholesterol is a healthy reconfiguring of good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol. Research indicates that after eight weeks of alternate-day intermittent fasting, LDL levels are reduced by 25 percent, with a further beneficial decrease in smaller, denser LDL particles. And while LDL levels decrease, the healthy HDL cholesterol levels remain the same, meaning that you gain a much healthier LDL to HDL ratio. That’s great news for your cardiovascular health. 

Intermittent fasting is also responsible for significant decreases in inflammation. A recent study investigated the effect of fasting on an important inflammatory marker, NLRP3, finding that fasting was directly correlated with a reduction in the levels of this marker. Intermittent fasting also fights inflammation by decreasing the accumulation of oxidative radicals in your body’s cells, thus preventing oxidative damage to cellular proteins, lipids and nucleic acids. 

Intermittent fasting can even be good for your brain. One study examined the effect of intermittent fasting on motor coordination skills, protein and DNA damage in the brain. The study found that fasting was associated with improved motor coordination and learning response, and a decrease in oxidative stress on the brain.

Why intermittent fasting can slow the aging process

Due to the beneficial effects discussed above, intermittent fasting has been linked to improved longevity in animals — in other words, to slow the process of aging. The mechanisms contributing to this effect are wide-ranging; however, normalization of insulin sensitivity is a major player, along with reduction in oxidative stress.

Oxidative damage to the proteins, lipids and nucleic acids of cells is directly linked to aging, therefore a reduction in this activity can only mean good news for your hopes of a continuing youthful complexion. This lowering of oxidative stress as a direct result of intermittent fasting can also help to prevent neurological decline as you age, helping to decrease the rate of cognitive decay that is typically associated with the aging process.