It’s no secret that cutting back on calories is great for your waistline, but now anti-aging researchers are finding that consuming less food on a regular basis may be a highly effective strategy to live longer and stay healthier.
The practice is known as intermittent fasting. What it means is that you fast or eat very little on a few days each week, and then eat normally during the remaining days. One such program involves eating only 500 calories on two days each week.
You can reap a multitude of anti-aging benefits when you practice intermittent fasting. The most impressive one in terms of longevity appears to be an increase in telomere length. If you’re new to this concept, telomeres are a protective coating or cap at the end of each chromosomal DNA strand found in your cells.
These protective caps help to preserve your DNA by preventing DNA strands from fraying or clumping together, which can lead to cellular damage, the precursor to disease and accelerated aging.
There’s another reason telomeres, and specifically their length, are so important to your longevity.
Your body is continually replacing old and damaged cells with healthy new ones at a rate of millions per second. This process is known as replication, and each time a cell makes a new copy of itself, its DNA telomeres become a little bit shorter. Eventually, the telomeres become too short to do the job of protecting your cellular DNA. What follows is cell damage, disease, and aging.
This is where exciting studies on fasting and telomere length come into play. . .
Animal Studies Show 20% Increase in Lifespan
For instance, Spanish researchers studied the effects of reducing caloric intake of mice by 40% from the time they were three months old until the end of their lifecycle. The researchers found that a calorie-restricted diet lowered the telomere shortening rate when compared to mice fed a normal diet, which led to a 20% increase in lifespan.
In addition, these calorie-restricted mice experienced a healthier life, with a reduction in the incidences of chromosome abnormalities, cancer, osteoporosis, and elevated glucose levels.
Dr. Richard Weindruch, an expert on calorie restriction and longevity, found that when mice are fed half their normal number of calories, they survive to either an extended lifespan of 32 to 45 months or — better yet — a maximal lifespan of 40 to 53 months.
As in the previously mentioned mouse study, the calorie-restricted mice experienced better overall health, with, for example, a tumor incidence rate of 38% vs. 78% in mice allowed to eat all they wanted. Improved immunity, healthier liver enzyme production, and superior memory and learning ability were also observed.
Works For Monkeys, Too
Building on the mouse study, Dr. Weindruch began an experiment to test whether a calorie-restricted diet would produce similar impressive results in rhesus monkeys. The answer was a resounding yes.
After an 11-year span, the calorie-restricted monkeys had lower triglyceride and insulin levels compared to the free-feeding controls. They also showed better neuronal activity, higher energy levels, and reduced body fat.
In 2009, a full 19 years after the experiment began, the control animals began dying from age-related diseases, with a death rate of 37%. The calorie-restricted monkeys, on the other hand, had a death rate of 13%. For reference, rhesus monkeys typically live from 27 to 40 years.
Do these results carry over to humans?
Many doctors support intermittent fasting in humans as a way to extend telomere length, reduce body fat, improve brain health, and lessen oxidative (free radical) damage to healthy cells.
But it’s important to remember that health isn’t all about food. Unhealthy lifestyle factors like smoking, substance abuse, lack of exercise, and chronic stress play a significant role in your health and longevity. Intermittent fasting will only go so far if you are living an unhealthy lifestyle.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn is a Nobel Prize winner for her discovery of the role of telomeres and telomerase on the aging process, and the author of The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer. Her research and that of her colleagues show that sleep quality, exercise, dietary choices, and even exposure to certain chemicals profoundly affect your telomeres in either a positive or negative way.
What’s more, according to Dr. Blackburn, chronic stress, negative thoughts, strained relationships, and even living in an unhealthy neighborhood can eat away at your telomeres.
So here’s the takeaway message: Intermittent fasting may be a great way for you to naturally attain longevity with fewer health problems along the way. Before you begin, consult your healthcare provider to discuss your health and fitness level and make sure you’re well enough to fast.