Technology can help us monitor our health, but we also have a great deal of control over our own wellbeing. More research is being done on holistic approaches to treating chronic diseases like cancer.
One of the key areas that researchers are trying to learn more about has to do with diet and its contribution to overall health. Scientists are especially interested in the role that diet can play in supporting our bodies as they fight chronic disease. Diet has a big impact on how our bodies react to these diseases and mount immune responses to fight them.
Healthcare professionals who take a holistic approach sometimes recommend individuals adopt a dietary practice referred to as intermittent fasting. Ideally, individuals who are doing this should have at least 13 hours between dinner and breakfast the following morning. This period of fasting plays an important role in detoxifying the body and boosting the immune system.
Researchers are also recognizing a benefit of fasting for a day or two prior to and following cancer treatments, as well as fasting for one day each week. Doing this can help reduce the side effects of treatment and could even play a role in reducing the chance of cancer recurrence. Here’s what you need to know:
The History of Fasting as a Medical Treatment
Fasting has actually been one of the oldest therapies used in medical practice. A number of renowned physicians throughout history going all the way back to Hippocrates have affirmed the importance of fasting as a way of encouraging healing.
The benefits of fasting may actually be an evolutionary adaptation. Historically, humans have lived in environments in which food availability fluctuated. As a result, long periods of forced fasting were common. Evolution has prepared humans to thrive during periods of fasting, and research affirms the potential benefits of this practice.
Research on intermittent fasting is difficult for ethical reasons. Much of the evidence we currently have comes from animal models, although a small amount of research has been done on humans.
These investigations have suggested that fasting has a protective effect against secondary aging and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and atherosclerosis. Also, fasting has produced a reduce in certain inflammatory markers, including tumor necrosis factor and C-reactive protein.
The Biological Science behind Intermittent Fasting
As already mentioned, our bodies have adopted biologically to withstand long periods of fasting. Realistically, humans can survive for a month without food, provided that they have water. To survive during fasting, the body diverts energy into various protective systems. These are thought to play a major role in decreasing cancer risk and prolonging life.
Intermittent fasting that does not result in malnutrition helps reduce anabolic hormones in the body, as well as inflammatory cytokines and growth factors. As a result, healthy cells’ oxidative stress is reduced, and cancer cells proliferate more slowly.
Much of the research already done looks at calorie restriction, which takes months to have protective effects and results in significant weight loss. Intermittent fasting has been suggested as an alternative that does not lead to weight loss while providing beneficial effects on a shorter timeline.
By practicing intermittent fasting, patients can achieve significant reductions in fat storage and growth factor levels. The process has also been linked to greater insulin sensitivity and adiponectin levels. Altogether, research models have linked intermittent fasting to a 40 to 80 percent drop in tumor incidence when compared to normal eating patterns.
Why You Should Consider Intermittent Fasting during Cancer Treatment
A significant body of research from the past 100 years has suggested that intermittent fasting inhibits the growth of tumors transplanted into various animal models. Most recently, research has shown that fasting can cause older immune cells to die. These cells get replaced with more effective, young cells once the body resumes eating.
Studies have also demonstrated that fasting combined with chemotherapy is more effective than chemotherapy alone in numerous types of cancer. While these studies have been done in animal models, they likely also apply to humans.
A recent study looking specifically at 13-hour overnight fasts in women who survived breast cancer found that it reduced risk of cancer recurrence by 36 percent and death related to breast cancer by more than 20 percent. The researchers believe this finding has to do with better glycemic control, which protects against carcinogenesis.
The other point to consider is that fasting may protect you from the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. One study found that fasting for up to five days prior to treatment did not interfere with the therapeutic effect or cause weight loss while limiting the adverse outcomes.
Even short-term fasting has been associated with lower rates of fatigue, weakness, and gastrointestinal issues. In one study, a group of individuals who always fasted prior to chemotherapy reported significantly fewer side effects, including virtually no instances of vomiting or diarrhea. The only side effect that was not reduced among those who fasted was tingling.