Harvard study shows the surprising impact of intermittent fasting on the aging process

intermittent fasting science harvard

Countless research studies have shown the benefits of intermittent fasting, and now Harvard scientists have closely examined its impact on the aging process.

Intermittent fasting refers to an eating pattern that cycles between periods of fasting and eating. The most common intermittent fasting methods involve daily 16 hour fasts, or fasting for 24 hours, twice per week.

Advocates of intermittent fasting argue that humans have been fasting throughout our evolution. Sometimes it was because food wasn’t available, but it’s also been a core part of major religions including Islam, Christianity and Buddhism.

The Harvard study was published in the journal Cell Metabolism and reveals that intermittent fasting slows down the aging process.

That’s right. If you want to live longer, adapt your eating patterns to have periods of fasting and eating.

It’s all about your mitochondria

The research study examined the basic biology involved in our cells’ declining ability to process energy over time, which is what causes aging and age-related disease, and how embracing periods of fasting promotes healthy aging.

Mitochondria are organelles, or parts of a eukaryote cell. They make most of the cell’s supply of adenosine triphosphate, a molecule that provides cells with a source of energy. Their capacity to do so declines with age, but before this study the impact on metabolism and cellular function was previously unclear.

In the study, the researchers demonstrated a causal link between dynamic changes of mitochondrial networks and longevity. They did this by studying C. Elegans (nematode worms) which live just two weeks, enabling the studying of the aging process. They restricted the worms’ diets and found this restriction maintained the mitochondrial networks in a fused or “youthful” state.

“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,” said 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.”

“Although previous work has shown how intermittent fasting can slow aging, we are only beginning to understand the underlying biology,” said William Mair, associate professor of genetics and complex diseases at Harvard Chan School and senior author of the study. “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.”

Supporting a natural approach to health

Intermittent fasting has numerous benefits in addition to slowing down the aging process, including weight loss, lower blood pressure and reduced cholesterol.

It raises the question: why isn’t the food and pharmaceutical industries studying it?

Mark Mattson, the current Chief of the Laboratory of Neuroscience at the National Institute on Aging, asks just this question in the TED talk below.

In case you can’t watch the video right now, here’s an interesting section from the talk:

“Why is it that the normal diet is three meals a day plus snacks? It isn’t that it’s the healthiest eating pattern, now that’s my opinion but I think there is a lot of evidence to support that. There are a lot of pressures to have that eating pattern, there’s a lot of money involved. The food industry — are they going to make money from skipping breakfast like I did today? No, they’re going to lose money. If people fast, the food industry loses money. What about the pharmaceutical industries? What if people do some intermittent fasting, exercise periodically and are very healthy, is the pharmaceutical industry going to make any money on healthy people?”

If you’re hungry, don’t worry about it

We get used to having three meals a day, and always having snacks available when we feel hungry. But it turns out that hunger is your friend. Feeling full all the time only makes your body grow older, and being hungry is helping your body to maintain its youthful state.

If you haven’t already tried it, give intermittent fasting a shot. It’s a natural way to increase your lifespan.

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