New research from the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute found several interesting heart-health benefits linked to periodic fasting. The research adds to a 2007 survey that suggested fasting may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The new study further found that fasting can potentially lower the risk of diabetes.
The new research involved two studies. The first was a second survey of over 200 individuals. “We found that patients who responded that they fasted routinely had an approximately 45 percent lower risk of coronary disease than those who didn’t fast routinely,” said lead researcher Dr. Benjamin D. Horne, PhD, MPH. “The primary thing that did was show that it wasn’t a chance finding.”
However, the second survey still didn’t explain if people who fast regularly, like members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, simply make better health choices in general or if there are any innate benefits of fasting. “We came at it from an epidemiological perspective,” Dr. Horne told DietsInReview in an interview. “We had no biological hypothesis about what was going on.”
To learn more about what happens to the body during a fast, the researchers at Intermountain Medical Center conducted a third study. They took measures of 30 participants’ biological responses during a 24-hour fasting period and during a 24-hour period of normal eating. These participants had not fasted in the past three years, and they were not following any sort of calorie-restricted diet. Along with other bio-markers, glucose level, low-density cholesterol, high-density cholesterol and human growth hormone were all measured.
The data showed that during the water-only fast, human growth hormone and both types of cholesterol spiked. Human growth hormone increased an average of 2000 percent in men and 1300 percent in women. Dr. Horne explained that in adults, one of the functions of human growth hormone is to preserve lean muscle mass and induces the burning of fat cells. “It helps the body to increase its use of fat cells,” he said. “What we hypothesize is happening when the human growth hormone goes up so much is that it’s changing the body over to the burning of fat, or fat cells in particular.”
The temporary spike in cholesterol also indicated that fat was being used as the body’s primary source of fuel, instead of glucose. “We did find that the levels dropped back down to their original level after one day of eating,” Dr. Horne reassured. If someone fasts regularly, it would lead to a significant reduction of fat cells, a risk factor not only for coronary disease but also diabetes. “Fat cells are a major source of the insulin resistance that leads to diabetes,” said Dr. Horne.
Dr. Horne isn’t yet recommending that people try out a 24-hour fast for medical purposes outside of a clinical or religious setting. Still more research is needed to determine the ideal frequency and duration of fasting. “What we’ve measured is that it’s probably safe and also effective in reducing risk if you fast once a month for many years,” said Dr. Horne. His team will continue to look at metabolic markers from blood samples taken during this 30-person study, and they are starting a long-term clinical trial.