New Year’s Resolutions: Fasting and Stem Cells

It’s the new year and soon gyms will be packed with people with big plans and resolutions. One of the big trends right now to lose weight is intermittent fasting. Does it work? Can it help your stem cells?  Let’s dig into the topic of fasting and stem cells.

What is Intermittent Fasting?

Before we dive into fasting and stem cells, let’s go over the basic concepts. Intermittent fasting really comes in two main forms. One is just periodically not eating. The other is called FMD, which stands for a Fasting Mimicking Diet. In the later version, you reduce your calories instead of not eating.

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Score Another One for Intermittent Fasting

An article published in the December 26th issue of The New England Journal of Medicine seems to further confirm the health benefits of going extended periods of time without food. Authored by Mark Mattson, Ph.D—a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who has studied the technique for a quarter century—intermittent fasting promotes cellular health by triggering an evolutionary adaption for enduring times where food was scarce or nonexistent. Known as metabolic switching, the change occurs when sugar-based calories are unavailable for a quick burn—and the body ignites a slower metabolic process of burning stored fat for energy (1). This is how the link between fasting and stem cells works.

Studies show that regularly clicking on this primordial switch suppresses inflammation, increases resistance to stress, heightens sugar regulation; and can even decrease blood pressure, blood lipid levels, and resting heart rate. All helpful things when our ancestors weren’t sure when their next meal may be. However, most Americans’ three-plus meals per day kills the switch, negating any of the health benefits.

Fasting and Stem Cell Function

Fasting has also been shown to help stem cells in animals and humans (3). Other researchers have found that even 24 hours of fasting can boost stem cell function, even if you’re older (4). Hence, there’s a distinct connection between fasting and stem cells. So using one of these methods before a stem cell procedure may well help your procedure outcomes.

Ways to Use Intermittent Fasting

There are a number of ways to use fasting to help your stem cells. The three methods recommended for intermittent fashing are narrowing the window in which you eat, not eating for two days at a time, or using a fasting-mimicking diet. Let’s explore all of those options here.

The first option is reducing when you’re eating to a 6-8 hour window. So for me, that would mean not eating until 9:30 am (I wake up at 5:30), eating my usual lunch, and then eating my dinner at 5:30 pm and nothing else until bedtime.

The second option is called the “5:2” method, where a meal is consumed two days per week while ingesting only water the other five days. Usually, lemon water or light teas are recommended on fasting days. From speaking with patients and colleagues who have used this method, the first 1-2 days are hard, but then things get easier after those times.

The third option is called a Fasting Mimicking Diet or FMD. This involves reducing calories to around 1,000 for a two days and then usually dropping to about 500 calories for the rest of the 5 days. This one has been shown to improve the cellular function of pancreatic cells in diabetic patients (2). There’s a commercial product for this approach called Prolon, which makes the whole time on the diet a bit easier. 

The upshot? Fasting and stem cells have a demonstratable connection. Hence, you may want to add in one of the above fasting protocols, especially if you’re considering a stem cell procedure. I know which one I’ll be trying, which is the method where I narrow my eating window. Given that there’s a bunch of these to choose from, use the one that works best for you!



(1) de Cabo R1, Mattson MP1. Effects of Intermittent Fasting on Health, Aging, and Disease. N Engl J Med. 2019 Dec 26;381(26):2541-2551. doi: 10.1056/NEJMra1905136.

(2) Cheng CW, Villani V, Buono R, et al. Fasting-Mimicking Diet Promotes Ngn3-Driven β-Cell Regeneration to Reverse Diabetes. Cell. 2017;168(5):775–788.e12. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2017.01.040.

(3) Brandhorst S, Choi IY, Wei M, et al. A Periodic Diet that Mimics Fasting Promotes Multi-System Regeneration, Enhanced Cognitive Performance, and Healthspan. Cell Metab. 2015;22(1):86–99. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2015.05.012

(4) Mihaylova MM, Cheng CW, Cao AQ, et al. Fasting Activates Fatty Acid Oxidation to Enhance Intestinal Stem Cell Function during Homeostasis and Aging. Cell Stem Cell. 2018;22(5):769–778.e4. doi:10.1016/j.stem.2018.04.001

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