Violet Brown, “Aunt V,” a 117-year-old Jamaican woman, had a lot of spunk before she passed. She didn’t quite reach the ripe age of 122, a record held by French woman, Jeanne Calment who died in 1997, but these are ages to scoff at, should we compare them to an Indonesian man who lived to be a whopping 146 years old. Is there a secret to living well past 100? It might be intermittent fasting, according to the latest research out of Harvard university.
A study just published in the journal Cell Metabolism describes research conducted at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It outlines dietary restriction (or genetic manipulation which mimics dietary restriction or fasting) as a possible means to reduce age-related disease. Fasting may affect cellular metabolism by altering the mitochondrial network.
Mitochondria are the energy-producing structures in cells that work in networks, just like computers, to alter how energy is used in the body. For some time, scientists have been unable to discern exactly how these mitochondrial networks work to support health. However, per the Harvard study, intermittent fasting helps to promote the creation of compounds called DR and AMPK – an energy-sensing protein called AMP-activated protein kinase. Researchers showed a causal link between dynamic changes in the shapes of mitochondrial networks and longevity.
Free Radical Reduction
Fasting also seemed to preserve mitochondrial homeostasis and reduce fatty acid oxidation. Oxidation is the process by which cells are exposed to free radicals which causes them to become sick or stressed. The free-radical theory of aging states that aging only happens because cells accumulate free radical damage over time. It would follow that reducing free radical damage at the level of the mitochondria would therefore slow or stop aging.
The study used nematode worms which normally live only two weeks to conduct the study. This allowed the scientists to observe real-time again in lab conditions. They found that periodically restricting the worms’ diets caused them to live longer.
Mimicking dietary restriction through genetic manipulation of (AMPK), maintained the mitochondrial networks in a fused or “youthful” state. Additionally, the researchers noticed that these youthful networks increased the worms’ lifespan by communicating with organelles called peroxisomes to modulate fat metabolism.
Heather Weir, lead author of the study, who conducted the research while at Harvard Chan School 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 up new avenues in the search for therapeutic strategies that will reduce our likelihood of developing age-related diseases as we get older.”
Mixing Ancient Wisdom with Modern Medicine
Intermittent fasting has been recommended by numerous ancient cultures to promote health, but modern day medicine was uncertain of exactly how this practice worked to do so.
For example, in Ayurvedic medicine, known to be at least 5000 years old, fasting is known as one of the best ways to detox the body. Ancient Judaic texts talk about fasting to increase the speed of healing. In the Islamic tradition, Muslims observe a fast from dawn until dusk during Ramadan. There are also multiple Hindu ceremonies that incorporate fasting, and in Native American traditions, fasting was incorporated into both public and private spheres, with the first fast often taking place at the time of puberty. Fasts could last from 1 to 4 days, and was thought to be a way to contact the supernatural. Shaman regularly participated in fasting to keep their spiritual channels open.
William Mair, associate professor of genetics and complex diseases at Harvard Chan School and senior author of the study said,
“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.”
It isn’t uncommon to find Indian sages that live to be 120+ years old. Their stories litter ancient texts. Unsurprisingly, cultures who practice fasting or restricted diets may have the highest number of centenarians. You could join them if you learn from their sage advice, and Harvard’s scientific proof that fasting works.