Have you ever wondered if you could pause your life in your mid-twenties? Have you ever dreamt of slowing down your body’s aging process and living for longer? Is there any real factual and scientific possibility behind these wishes? Maybe it could all be possible simply by eating a lot less.
There are several certain constants within a human’s life. We are born, we live, and we die. Part of the simple process includes the concept of aging, an intrinsic and fundamental feature of life that has fascinated humanity for hundreds of years. This topic as cropped up many a time on screen and within literature throughout history and remains a popular sci-fi tool to this day, especially within hit TV shows such as Doctor Who. However, on paper, the process of aging is a relatively simple one. As we grow older, certain stem cells without our bodies lose the ability to regenerate, thus leaving us open to attack from nasty infections, diseases, and other conditions. One example of this that we would like to focus on is the human intestinal stem cells, which, once they lose the ability to regenerate, find it far harder to recover from gastrointestinal infections and other intestinal issues.
Research from a group of MIT biologists has now revealed that you can reverse these effects of aging on the intestine with a simple 24-hour fast. By observing the effects of fasting on groups of both old and young mice, the MIT team found that stem cells have the ability to regenerate in these conditions. While in a state of fasting, the cells within the mice subjects started to break down fatty acids rather than glucose, which in turn boosted stem cell regeneration. Not only this, but the MIT team then discovered that they could achieve the same effects with the addition of a molecule, a breakthrough that could benefit older humans when it comes to recovering from intestinal infections or even chemotherapy.
Senior Author on the MIT paper, David Sebatini, explained: “This study provided evidence that fasting induces a metabolic switch in the intestinal stem cells, from utilizing carbohydrates to burning fat. Interestingly, switching these cells to fatty acid oxidation enhanced their function significantly. Pharmacological targeting of this pathway may provide a therapeutic opportunity to improve tissue homeostasis in age-associated pathologies.”
Further studies into the mice and the effects of fasting found that the state of fasting doubled the regenerative abilities of the intestinal stem cells, as explained by Lead Author on the paper, Maria Mihaylova.
She said: “It was obvious that fasting had this immense effect on the ability of intestinal crypts to form more organoids, which is stem-cell-driven. This was something that we saw in both the young mice and the aged mice, and we wanted to understand the molecular mechanisms driving this.”
The idea of fasting slowing the process of aging is not limited to this MIT study either, as research out of the Kyoto University and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University has reinforced the concept.
In this study, four human subjects were asked to fast for 34 and then 58 hours to see what effect it would have on the body and the aging process. Although the results were gathered from this small pool of data, they were incredible, revealing that 44 substances increased in the human body through the process of fasting. Not only this, but many of these substances are known to decrease when a person ages, yet they increased by a factor of between 1.5 and 60 during the experiment. These metabolites, such as leucine, isoleucine, and ophthalmic acid, increasing during fasting seems to suggest that the act may indeed help people to live longer.
Technician and first author of the paper on this research, Dr. Takayuki Teruya said: “These are very important metabolites for maintenance of muscle and antioxidant activity, respectively. This result suggests the possibility of a rejuvenating effect by fasting, which was not known until now.
“Recent aging studies have shown that caloric restriction and fasting have a prolonging effect on lifespan in model animals, but the detailed mechanism has remained a mystery. It might be possible to verify the anti-aging effect from various viewpoints by developing exercise programs or drugs capable of causing the metabolic reaction like fasting.
“People are interested in whether human beings can enjoy the effects of prevention of metabolic diseases and prolonging life span by fasting or caloric restriction, as with model animals. Understanding the metabolic changes caused by fasting is expected to give us wisdom for maintaining health.”
While these findings are extremely interesting and are potentially ground-breaking when it comes to delaying aging effects, they do not look at data over a full life cycle. It would not be possible to conduct such an experiment using humans, but researchers from Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health found a way around this by using C. elegans. These are nematode worms that live just a matter of two weeks, allowing the scientists to observe and record their entire life span.
The mitochondrial networks within cells usually switch between fused and fragmented. However, the study found that by restricting the diets of these worms or mimicking such an act through AMPK, the mitochondria remained fused into a state of youth. This also increased the lifespan of the worms in general. So, in short, you may be able to pause and extend your lifespan through the simple practice of fasting, or by using proteins that mimic the same results.
The lead author, Heather Weir, said: “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. Our findings open 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. 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.”