Have you ever overexerted your body while exercising and felt exhausted and strained after? It’s much better to work out and then take a break so that your body has a chance to recover. Then the next day you’ll feel refreshed and strong.
Many believe that your digestive system works the same way. It needs time to reset between meals so that it’s able to work more efficiently. The method of giving your digestive system “breaks” is called intermittent fasting. Besides helping your digestive system, fasting is also good for your immune system. So does fasting fight infection? Read on to learn more about how fasting and the immune system work together.
Why Do People Do Intermittent Fasting?
As we reviewed in our blog “The 10 Best Ways to Detox,” detoxing has several health benefits. When the accumulation of metabolic wastes and other toxins exceeds how fast our bodies can get rid of them, they begin to spread throughout the intestines. If ignored for a long time, this issue can have long-term consequences for your health. In the short term, it can result in discomfort such as fatigue and pain.
One of the most popular ways to detox is intermittent fasting—an eating method in which you alternate between periods of fasting and periods of eating. Fasting allows your body time to detox and gives your digestive system a chance to rest. As a result, it digests your food faster during the periods in which you do eat.
The idea of fasting might seem strange, but humans have practiced fasting throughout all of history, often due to obligation. Our bodies are designed to withstand the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in which food was sometimes scarce and missing a meal was common. Today, many religions encourage fasting, which is believed to be spiritual. Thanks to several studies, we now better understand the many benefits of it.
How Does Intermittent Fasting Impact the Immune System?
It has been proven that intermittent fasting not only helps protect your immune system from damage but also induces immune system regeneration. Fasting enables your body to shift stem cells from a dormant state to a state of self-renewal. According to Valter Longo, Professor of Gerontology and Biological Sciences at the University of California, "It gives the OK for stem cells to go ahead and begin proliferating and rebuild the entire (immune) system.”
In short, fasting helps your body save energy by dumping all the cells that are damaged or unnecessary. Prolonged fasting also forces the body to tap into its energy stores of glucose, fat, and ketones, instead of getting the energy it needs from food intake. This helps the body get rid of excess fat.
What Are the Results of Studies on Intermittent Fasting?
A recent study tested the results of intermittent fasting from dawn to sunset for 30 days. The results were shocking: The study found that intensive fasting is linked to an organic anticancer serum that the body produces. It also found that the fasting enabled regulatory proteins to go into effect, reducing excessive glucose, insulin, and lipid levels in the body.
The study also indicates that fasting improves cognitive function, metabolism, the immune system, and even the circadian clock—an internal mechanism that controls several key functions in your body such as its ability to sleep and eat. All of this indicates that fasting acts preventatively. It keeps your body’s immune system healthy, greatly decreasing your chance of developing serious conditions like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and even cancer.
While chemotherapy is crucial because it saves lives from the devastation of cancer, unfortunately, the radiation targets all cells, destroying the cancer cells as well as much of the body’s own tissue. As a result, chemotherapy causes collateral damage to the body, including the immune system.
Tanya Dorff, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital, says that her study on the benefits of fasting for cancer patients revealed a startling conclusion—intermittent fasting may help the body recover from the negative side effects of chemotherapy. We won’t discuss the details of her findings, but you can read about them here. Overall, fasting for 72 hours for the immune system helped protect cancer patients from the toxic effects of chemotherapy.
Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
To summarize, here’s a complete list of 22 benefits of intermittent fasting and the immune system:
- Increases insulin sensitivity. This is crucial for your health, as insulin resistance or low insulin resistance contributes to virtually all chronic diseases.
- Improves leptin sensitivity, also known as the “satiety hormone.”
- Normalizes ghrelin levels, which reduces feelings of hunger.
- Improves blood sugar management by increasing the rate of glucose absorption.
- Reduces triglyceride levels.
- Increases production of the human growth hormone (HGH), commonly referred to as the “youth hormone.” HGH plays an important role in having good health and fitness and improving longevity. It stimulates muscle growth, helping the body lose excess fat and boosting metabolism and fat loss. Research shows that fasting can raise HGH hormone levels by nearly 1,300% in women and 2,000% in men. By increasing muscle growth, intermittent fasting allows your body to become leaner, without sacrificing muscle mass. This is why many athletes practice intermittent fasting.
- Suppresses inflammation and reduces oxidative damage.
- Positively regulates autophagy and mitophagy, the natural purification process that enables cells to divide.
- Stimulates fat burning and improves metabolic efficiency, causing significant fat reduction.
- Prevents or reverses type 2 diabetes, or slows down its progression when the condition is already present.
- Boosts the immune system by producing new immune cells.
- Reduces blood pressure.
- Reduces the risk of heart disease. One study found that people who fast regularly have a 58% lower risk of developing coronary heart disease.
- Stimulates circulation and cardiovascular activity.
- Improves mitochondrial energy, efficiency, and biosynthesis.
- Changes stem cells from a dormant state to a renewed state.
- Reduces the risk of cancer.
- Increases longevity. Studies show that intermittent fasting both improves insulin sensitivity and inhibits the mTOR pathway, two factors that slow the aging process.
- Regenerates the pancreas and improves pancreatic function.
- Improves cognitive function.
- Protects against neurological diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's through the production of ketones, by-products of fatty acids breakdowns. Intermittent fasting also increases the rate at which your brain creates brain-derived neurotrophic factors, also known as BDNFs, which activate the conversion of brain stem cells into new neurons and promotes good neuronal health.
- Eliminates cravings for sugar by replacing your body’s need for carbohydrates and enabling it to burn fat better.
How Do I Practice Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting is technically just “half” fasting. Instead of going through a full 24 hours or more without eating, which is the traditional method, you instead alternate periods of fasting with periods of normal food intake each day.
For this reason, you can adjust your fasting schedule to fit your specific health goals and scheduling needs. For example, if you want to fast for 16 hours, but want to be able to eat before and during work, you can fast from 4 PM-8 AM each day.
The goal is to put your often overworked body "on hold" and to give the liver a chance to detoxify itself. You might even find that intermittent fasting makes work easier for you, as carb-heavy meals often make you feel sluggish and reduce your productivity. However, keep in mind that intermittent fasting, though usually done at night for practical reasons, should not be confused with physiological fasting, which is the natural fast that occurs while you are asleep.
Wondering how to do a 3 day fast to reset your immune system? Intermittent fasting is fairly easy to practice. Most intermittent fasters choose to stop eating around 8 PM and start eating again the next day around 12 or 1 PM. During this time, it’s important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water or sugar-free herbal teas. Again, there is no right way to practice intermittent fasting, so you should adopt whatever schedule best fits your individual needs. It’s important to factor your work schedule, daily activity, and preferences into the intermittent fasting schedule you create for yourself.
However, we do recommend that you try to fast for at least 12 hours out of every 24, and to come up with a schedule you can stick to consistently. Having a consistent schedule is both beneficial for your body and will help you stay disciplined so you can continue to do intermittent fasting.
Medical Studies on Fasting to Reset the Immune System
If you want to learn more about intermittent fasting, check out some of these studies:
- Frequency and Circadian Timing of Eating May Influence Biomarkers of Inflammation and Insulin Resistance Associated with Breast Cancer Risk
- Prolonged Nightly Fasting and Breast Cancer Risk: Findings from NHANES
- Fasting Protects Mice from Lethal DNA Damage by Promoting Small Intestinal Epithelial Stem Cell Survival
- Detoxification Combining Fasting with Fluid Therapy for Refractory Cases of Severe Atopic Dermatitis
- Nutritional Change for Rheumatic Diseases - A Review
Intermittent fasting is shown to have many benefits. For one, intermittent fasting and the immune system naturally complement one another. Many of our diets are carb- and sugar-heavy, which makes letting our immune system rest and reset even more important. Remember, intermittent fasting shouldn’t be restrictive—it's a practice that should make you feel good. So if you find yourself worrying too much about your calorie intake, don’t. What’s more important is that you consume a healthy, nutritious diet that you enjoy!
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