Can Fasting Boost Immune Function?
The immune system is an intricate bodily function. It requires various other systems within the body to work symbiotically for it to truly work at its best. One specific factor that is vital to the health of the immune system is nutrition. The food you give your body is what it uses to fuel itself. Many of the essential vitamins, minerals, and trace elements the body needs have roles to play in immunity, each assigned their own specific job. So what happens when you stop eating for a period of time? Can fasting boost immune function, or harm it?
What is fasting?
Fasting involves avoiding all forms of food consumption for a set amount of time. There are different ways to fast. Intermittent fasting is a popular type, utilizing daily or weekly fasting limits. As an example, some people perform intermittent fasting by eating during only eight hours of each day, others for only 12 hours per day.
Other types of intermittent fasting include the eat-stop-eat method, where a person eats normally for one day and then fasts for 24 hours; or the 5:2 diet, in which a person eats normally five days a week and cuts their calorie consumption to 500 for the remaining two days.
There have been many claims that fasting may lead to weight loss and improved metabolic health. But does fasting have any effect on the function of the immune system?
Does fasting increase immunity?
When a person delays eating for a set period of time, it can have many different effects on the body. Research has shown that fasting can help with the control of blood sugar by reducing insulin resistance; fight inflammation; improve blood pressure and cholesterol; boost brain function; and help to extend longevity. With the mounting research that a fasting diet can improve overall levels of health, it’s no wonder fasting has become quite the fad in recent years.
When it comes to the immune system, fasting also plays a role in many different areas and functions. A study done on people fasting for Ramadan found that the daily fast suppressed proinflammatory cytokine activity, which led to a decrease in inflammation.
Does intermittent fasting boost the immune system?
The fact that fasting can reduce proinflammatory cytokine expression is proof that fasting can have a positive effect on the immune system. But can fasting boost immunity? Some research has found that it can.
A study done in 2014 found that during a fast, the amount of lymphocytes (white blood cells key to the immune response) becomes lessened. The lower white blood cell count then causes the immune system to respond to the changes by creating new ones. This is a great push for the immune system, since it relies on lymphocytes to function properly.
The study did find that fasting would need to occur for at least 24 hours, with 48 hours being the best amount of time to feel the full benefit. Not eating for two full days can be difficult, but the researchers also stated that doing this type of fast just twice a year could help boost the immune system.
Can you reset your immune system?
The process explained above is typically what it means to “reset” your immune system because of what happens during and after the fast. When the body is making new lymphocytes, the immune system is growing stronger by default because it needs those cells to be strong. After the fast, though, stem cells begin to operate excessively to help replenish any cells that may have been recycled during that time. This means that the body will have a higher amount of stronger immune cells.
How long do you have to fast to reset your immune system?
Although typical fasts, such as the 16:8 or 12:12 fast, can provide many health benefits, the best way to see the immune system reset occur is by fasting for at least two days. The three-day fast is the most beneficial for boosting immune function and resetting the system, because it can drive the production of new white blood cells and allow the body to clear out the older and possibly weaker ones.
The three-day fast allows for water consumption and 200 calories per day. That might seem like a low number, but the boost to the immune system may just be worth a few days of hunger pangs.
Things to consider when fasting
Fasting may be beneficial to overall health for many reasons, but it can also be dangerous if it is not done properly or under medical supervision. Leaving your body without any energy reserves can cause headaches, low blood sugar, muscle aches and weakness, general fatigue, and dizziness. If the fast is prolonged, even worse health effects such as anemia and liver and kidney problems can arise.
Those with previous health conditions are also at an increased risk for adverse health effects when it comes to a three-day fast because they have other issues to contend with while denying the body the energy it seeks. If you are serious about attempting an immune system reset through fasting, it’s important that you consult your medical care professional prior to beginning. They will be able to tell you if it’s worth it or not depending on your current state of health.