New research from California scientists has revealed a startling side effect to prolonged starvation, or fasting.
In the latest issue of the journal Cell Stem Cell, scientists from the University of Southern California describe how fasting triggers the human immune system to flush out old, damaged cells and replace them with new ones. This marks the first time that this phenomenon has been directly observed, and has major implications for diseases associated with a declining immune system, including a variety of age-related conditions and cancer chemotherapy.
In lab experiments first in animal models, and then followed by a Phase 1 human clinical trial, the research team found that regular cycles of fasting, each lasting two to four days, triggered the immune system to flush out immune cells. Much to the team’s surprise, however, they also found that these fasting cycles also triggered stem cells—which had been dormant—to spring into action and produce a fresh supply.
While initially unexpected, these findings made sense to the team. As corresponding author Dr. Valter Longo explained in today’s news release:
“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. 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. So we started thinking, well, where does it come from?”
Scientists have long known that when fasting, your body turns to its reserves for nutrients, using up stores of glucose and fat. At the same time, your body also breaks down white blood cells—the major component of the immune system.
So, Longo and his team mapped precisely how this change takes place. They observed that prolonged fasting also reduced levels of an enzyme called PKA. In a previous study, the team had found a link between reduced PKA levels and increased longevity in simple organisms. Research by other groups also found a connection between PKA and the ability of stem cells to self-renew. In this study, the team further defined that relationship. As Longo continued:
“PKA is the key gene that needs to shut down in order for these stem cells to switch into regenerative mode. And the good news is that the body got rid of the parts of the system that might be damaged or old…during fasting. Now if you start with a system heavily damaged, fasting cycles can generate, literally, a new immune system.”
These findings are particularly encouraging with regards to chemotherapy, which has the unfortunate side effect of often damaging the body’s immune system. But if the patient also participates in cycles of fasting, Longo and his team hypothesize that this could help repair their immune system at a much faster pace, improving their quality of life during treatment.
In order to test this hypothesis, the team then turned to the Phase 1 human clinical trial. They instructed patients currently undergoing chemotherapy to fast for a period of 72 hours. The team found that this fasting did protect against at least some of the toxic effects of chemotherapy treatment.
The next steps, says Longo, are to conduct additional experiments in both animal models and clinical trials. But the team is optimistic that these results could apply beyond chemotherapy.
“We are investigating the possibility that these effects are applicable to many different systems and organs, not just the immune system.”