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Experts say fasting for at least part of the day can provide overall health benefits. AsiaVision/Getty Images
  • Researchers say fasting can do a lot more than just helping a person lose weight.
  • They say fasting may also help reduce inflammation in the body.
  • Experts say high calorie diets are associated with a chronic metabolic inflammatory syndrome called metaflammation.

The tradition of three full meals per day is being called into question.

The trio of daily meals and the typical Western, high-calorie diet are the focus of a new study published in the journal Cell Reports providing more evidence that fasting at least part of the day may be good for the body.

Fasting has been promoted in recent years for weight loss, typically when someone skips a meal and their body reacts using stored fat and carbohydrates as energy sources.

Now, the authors of the new study say intermittent fasting may help inhibit inflammation.

Experts say that inflammation can contribute to a variety of chronic diseases. One of these is metabolic syndrome, which can increase the risk of conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

In some cases of inflammation, the body may be sending cells to defend against viruses, bacteria, and other organisms causing infections.

Sometimes, though, the body mistakenly perceives its own cells or tissues as harmful. This reaction can lead to autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.

The researchers in the new study say a high calorie diet associated with many Western cultures is associated with a chronic metabolic inflammatory syndrome called metaflammation.

The authors say metaflammation “underpins many prevalent noncommunicable diseases.”

They report that elevated levels of the immune response proteins interleukin (IL)-1β, NLRP3 inflammasome activity, and systemic inflammation are hallmarks of chronic metabolic inflammatory syndromes.

They added that exogenous arachidonic acid can impair NLRP3 inflammasome activity in human and mouse macrophages.

Researchers took serum samples from 21 volunteers, who consumed a baseline 500 kilocalorie meal, fasted for 24 hours, and then consumed another 500 kilocalorie meal.

In peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) from these volunteers, IL-1β levels were elevated 3 hours after the second meal. Plasma arachidonic acid was elevated in the volunteers during fasting but reduced after the second meal.

The scientists reported that in fasting subjects, compared to other participants with more normal meal plans, plasma IL-1β was lower and arachidonic acid was higher.

Arachidonic acid inhibits phospholipase C and reduces JNK stimulation and NLRP3 activity, they said.

Metaflammation is a complex process involving tissue-specific and systemic immune responses integrated alongside metabolic regulation.

The study authors say it remains poorly understood.

They say fasting helps suppress metabolic inflammation and is characterized by a drop in serum pro-inflammatory cytokines, particularly one called interleukin that is closely associated with insulin regulation and blood glucose levels.

One emerging regulator of metaflammation are inflammasomes, multi-protein signaling platforms that activate inflammation.

In mouse studies, the researchers said fasting helped regulate NLRP3 activity, even if the oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and cholesterol crystals “trigger activation of NLRP3 in macrophages when the cellular capacity for metabolizing cholesterol is exceeded. However, if the cell remains capable of processing cholesterol, then anti-inflammatory responses are induced.”

The research team also said “diets rich in saturated fatty acids, such as palmitic acid or stearic acid, also trigger NLRP3 inflammatory activity.”

Ro Huntriss, a registered dietician and the chief nutrition officer of wellness company Simple who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today that arachidonic acid, a polyunsaturated fatty acid, may be an important physiological regulator of metabolic inflammation.

“We get arachidonic acid from foods such as meat, poultry and eggs,” Huntriss said. “Arachidonic acid is stored as a component of phospholipids within cell membranes.”

Huntriss said the study appeared to find a link between fasting and higher levels of arachidonic acid in the blood, which in turn appeared to reduce activity of the NLRP3 inflammasome (a multi protein complex linked to inflammation).

“They found that NLRP3 activity then increased when the volunteers consumed food again. The study therefore provides a potential mechanism explaining how fasting reduces inflammation,” she said.

Huntriss said some studies found a different link between arachidonic acid and inflammation.

“Existing evidence has suggested that fasting can reduce levels of inflammation. However, the mechanism by which it could do this has not been well understood,” Huntriss explained. “The current study found that arachidonic acid inhibited the activity of the NLRP3 inflammasome, which was an interesting find as arachidonic acid has previously been linked to increased levels of inflammation.”

Dr. Luke Chen, a medical oncologist and hematologist at City of Hope in California who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today that the effect of chronic inflammation has become more pronounced and serious in recent years.

“We know that chronic inflammation occurs with conditions like obesity and has been associated with certain types of cancer,” Chen said. “People who have chronic inflammation as well as ulcerative colitis and Crohn disease, for instance, are at an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.”

Chen said fasting has become more of a weight loss tool, but its effects go beyond just slimming down.

“For many people, intermittent fasting — not eating for a prescribed number of hours — can be used safely for weight loss,” he said. “And maintaining a healthy weight is an important cancer risk reduction strategy. Obesity has been linked to 13 types of cancer, including breast, colorectal and pancreatic cancers.”

“It is essential to incorporate foods that fight inflammation and to limit red meat, processed foods, and alcohol to help reduce the risk of cancer or risk of cancer recurrence,” Chen said. “A diet rich in vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains can not only reduce inflammation, but it can also provide energy and help manage side effects of cancer treatment.”