Biology

Harvard study uncovers why fasting can lead to a longer and healthier life

Harvard study uncovers why fas...
New research has found that a cell's mitochondria (represented in green above) can be affected through fasting which results in better health and longevity
New research has found that a cell's mitochondria (represented in green above) can be affected through fasting which results in better health and longevity
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Above we can see mitochondrial cells in muscle tissue from the nematode worms
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Above we can see mitochondrial cells in muscle tissue from the nematode worms
New research has found that a cell's mitochondria (represented in green above) can be affected through fasting which results in better health and longevity
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New research has found that a cell's mitochondria (represented in green above) can be affected through fasting which results in better health and longevity

Intermittent fasting diets are all the rage these days. We are seeing everything from the conservative 5:2 diet to more extreme fasting methods gaining prominence in Silicon Valley circles, but while there has been plenty of observational research pointing out the correlation between fasting and positive health outcomes, we still don't have a good understanding of any underlying biological mechanism at play.

A new study from Harvard researchers has now shown how fasting can increase lifespan, slow aging and improve health by altering the activity of mitochondrial networks inside our cells.

"Although previous work has shown how intermittent fasting can slow aging, we are only beginning to understand the underlying biology," says William Mair, senior author on the study.

Mitochondria are a little like tiny power plants inside our cells. Last year a team of researchers led by Newcastle University successfully showed how mitochondria are fundamental to the aging of cells. The new research from Harvard shows how the changing shapes of mitochondrial networks can affect longevity and lifespan, but more importantly the study illustrates how fasting manipulates those mitochondrial networks to keep them in a "youthful" state.

Inside cells mitochondrial networks generally alternate between two states: fused and fragmented. Using nematode worms, an organism useful for studying longevity as it only lives for two weeks, the study found that restricted diets promotes homeostasis in mitochondrial networks allowing for a healthy plasticity between these fused and fragmented states.

Above we can see mitochondrial cells in muscle tissue from the nematode worms
Above we can see mitochondrial cells in muscle tissue from the nematode worms

"Our work shows how crucial the plasticity of mitochondria networks is for the benefits of fasting. If we lock mitochondria in one state, we completely block the effects of fasting or dietary restriction on longevity," says Mair.

The study also found that fasting enhances mitochondrial coordination with peroxisomes, a type of organelle that can increase fatty acid oxidation, a fundamental fat metabolism process. In the study's experiments, the lifespan of the worm was increased by simply preserving mitochondrial network homeostasis through dietary intervention. These results help shed light on how fasting can increase longevity and promote healthy aging.

"Low-energy conditions such as dietary restriction and intermittent fasting have previously been shown to promote healthy aging. Understanding why this is the case is a crucial step toward being able to harness the benefits therapeutically," explains Heather Weir, lead author of the study.

"Our findings open up new avenues in the search for therapeutic strategies that will reduce our likelihood of developing age-related diseases as we get older."

The study was published in the journal Cell Metabolism.

Source: Harvard University

15 comments
Aussie_2017
I don't know, it seems a bit too sensationalist to me... so mean that poor people that doesn't have enough what to eat, would live longer. Those religions that obligate their followers to fasting, would make their followers live vary long lives than any of those that doesn't follow it? I don't think so. I still see more benefits (supported by studies) in have a good life, less stress, eating well and most important... exercising at least 4-5 times a week will produce better results, at least you can see active people living way longer than any one that did a lot fasting, are vegetarian or vegan.
tharun
Indian Yogis have been talking about this since thousands of years. Minus the scientific experimenting. Its all about being aware and receptive to one's self. Now that intellectual mind has taken over the world, other dimesions of living are forgotten. It's also about taking control one's physical, mental and energy bodies.
DFrancis
Does intermittent fasting include the practice of increasing the duration of overnight fasting? Typically it's only 10-12 hours, but can easily be extended to 16 hours (the 16:8 diet). Doing so aids fat loss without any need to reduce food intake because the body makes more use of stored energy as readily available sources are depleted while fasting. Is this daily extended fasting also beneficial to how the mitochrondria function?
Brian M
@Aussie_2017 There is a lot of evidence to show that reduced calorie intake does improve longevity (up to a point). A healthy low calorie intake is not the same as a poverty imposed low calorie diet and those on such are likely to succumb to other poverty issues such as disease, lack of healthcare etc. Fasting is there in many cultures and religions and based on good observed practices for society, as are other rules such as the method of slaughter for animals, albeit not all necessary these days!
Jeff Burke
I tried fasting to lose weight. It didnt work and I felt really bad...Will ask my mitochondria whats wrong with them...
ljaques
Well, it works on worms. It's just _gotta_ work on people, too, huh? I wonder if worm stomachs growl like ours do when they're empty. My blood sugar doesn't like starvation, so I'll pass for now.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
Just avoiding acid reflux will go a long way.
Grunchy
Eating less food really does help to lose weight, just check out anybody afflicted with anorexia. Or check out photos from concentration camps. The downside of this is reduced quality of life. Starving is not painless.
noteugene
Ok so you can add days to your life but is it worth it? And the days you add, if your fasting (no dieting) I would'nt consider quality days. I guess there's a small benifit but it seems so trivial. You'd have to fast a lot to really be able to demonstrate a substantial gain.
linda
Fasting DOES work! I did it for 2 Mnths when all other diets and diet meds didn’t work. Entering menopause and everything slowing down, Fasting from 10-13 1.2 hrs up to 4 days per week, I lost 27lbs! Some people Fast for up to “4” whole days, only drinking water, coffee or and tea.