Fasting has long been associated with religious rituals, diets, and political protests. Now new evidence from cardiac researchers at the Intermountain Medical Centre Heart Institute demonstrates that routine periodic fasting is also good for your health, and your heart.
Researchers reported that fasting not only lowers one's risk of coronary artery disease and diabetes, but also causes significant changes in a person's blood cholesterol levels. Both diabetes and elevated cholesterol are known risk factors for coronary heart disease.
The discovery expands on a 2007-study that revealed an association between fasting and reduced risk of coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death among men and women in America. In the new research, fasting was also found to reduce other cardiac risk factors, such as triglycerides, weight, and blood sugar levels.
The findings were presented at the annual scientific sessions of the American College of Cardiology in New Orleans, US.
Not a chance event
"These new findings demonstrate that our original discovery was not a chance event," says Dr Benjamin D. Horne, director of cardiovascular and genetic epidemiology at the Intermountain Medical Centre Heart Institute, and the study's principal investigator. "The confirmation among a new set of patients that fasting is associated with lower risk of these common diseases raises new questions about how fasting itself reduces risk, or if it simply indicates a healthy lifestyle."
Unlike the earlier research by the team, this new research recorded reactions in the body's biological mechanisms during the fasting period. The participants' low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C, the "bad" cholesterol) and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C, the "good" cholesterol) both increased (by 14% and 6%, respectively), raising their total cholesterol – and catching the researchers by surprise.
Body's response to fasting
"Fasting causes hunger or stress. In response, the body releases more cholesterol, allowing it to utilise fat as a source of fuel, instead of glucose. This decreases the number of fat cells in the body," says Horne. "This is important because the fewer fat cells a body has, the less likely it will experience insulin resistance, or diabetes."
This recent study also confirmed earlier findings about the effects of fasting on human growth hormone (HGH), a metabolic protein. HGH works to protect lean muscle and metabolic balance, a response triggered and accelerated by fasting. During the 24-hour fasting periods, HGH increased an average of 1,300% in women, and nearly 2,000% in men.
In this most recent trial, researchers conducted two fasting studies of over 200 individuals — both patients and healthy volunteers — who were recruited at Intermountain Medical Centre. A second 2011 clinical trial followed another 30 patients who drank only water and ate nothing else for 24 hours. They were also monitored while eating a normal diet during an additional 24-hour period. Blood tests and physical measurements were taken from all to evaluate cardiac risk factors, markers of metabolic risk, and other general health parameters.
While the results were surprising to researchers, it's not time to start a fasting diet just yet. It will take more studies like these to fully determine the body's reaction to fasting and its effect on human health. Horne believes that fasting could one day be prescribed as a treatment for preventing diabetes and coronary heart disease. - (EurekAlert!, April 2011)
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