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Intermittent fasting: Understanding its health advantages

Benefits of fasting on our body. A study analysing proteins in the blood of 12 volunteers reveals metabolic changes that shed light on the risks and benefits of fasting. Ongoing research suggests that intermittent fasting can offer health advantages. When we reduce food intake, the body shifts to using fat stores for energy, aiding in weight loss and potentially improving hypertension and glucose levels. However, the sustainability of this eating pattern over the long term remains uncertain due to limited long-term follow-up data. We take a deeper look into this widely discussed topic: intermittent fasting.

The benefits of fasting on our body

Some studies have suggested benefits on the immune system, cardiovascular health, and insulin resistance, a factor in diabetes. However, the mechanisms explaining these observations are not fully understood, according to El País. Technologies enabling the measurement of circulating proteins in the blood offer the opportunity to investigate molecular changes during fasting, enhancing our understanding of its benefits and potential risks. This research aims to address enduring doubts about the true mechanisms underlying intermittent fasting, a practice that has garnered significant attention in recent times.
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An international team of scientists, as reported in the journal Nature Metabolism, conducted a study where 12 volunteers consumed only water for 7 days. They analyzed the levels of approximately 3,000 proteins before, during, and after the fasting period. Despite the small sample size, this methodology provided significant insights.

During the fasting period, participants lost an average of 5.7 kilograms, with the weight loss distributed between fat and muscle. Interestingly, three days after ending the fast, participants regained their muscle mass but not their fat. Furthermore, the researchers, led by Claudia Langenberg from Queen Mary University of London, observed changes in blood protein composition starting from the end of the second day of fasting into the third day.
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“The increase in beneficial proteins becomes exponential from day three of the fast, and we believe that these changes are not solely related to the participants’ weight loss, which remained stable throughout the experiment,” explains Maik Pietzner, co-author of the study and researcher at the Berlin Health Institute, Charité hospital. These variations impact proteins that play a role in preventing damage to neurons. According to Pietzner, this work suggests that “while fasting for just a few hours may have small beneficial effects beyond weight loss, the key message from these results is that it takes two or three days for these internal resources to start being utilized, potentially triggering different metabolic programs in various organs.”

According to the German researcher, limiting the hours of eating each day is a simpler approach than calorie counting at every meal to reduce overall daily intake. However, longer fasts can have notable benefits in specific contexts. “I find the impact on treating resistant epilepsy particularly intriguing. When medications are ineffective, a ketogenic diet (low-carb diet) can be attempted, which mimics the effects of extended fasting,” explains Pietzner. “What we observed is that as fasting increases blood ketone levels, there are changes in specific structural proteins in the brain,” he adds. While prolonged fasting doesn’t cure epilepsy, it can help alleviate symptoms, similar to its effects on rheumatoid arthritis.
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Always fast under medical supervision In addition to its potential benefits for certain diseases, researchers observed that prolonged fasting reduced the levels of proteins associated with coronary heart disease. However, they also noted an increased risk of blood clots. “That’s why it’s important for individuals to be aware of the necessity for medical supervision when implementing such extreme interventions, as there are individuals at higher risk of experiencing adverse effects,” says Pietzner.