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Science explores the value of fasting to fight cancer

Last May, 20 healthy young people, including several scientists, arrived at a research institute in Madrid ready to spend a day and a half. Just before the blood test was done, and 36 hours later, the others did another to make sure that no one had taken something sneaky. The aim was to uncover the molecular mechanisms behind fasting and its health benefits, especially as a possible weapon against cancer.

Fasting for days or weeks, with only water or dispensing only some kind of food, or limiting the hours of the day you can eat, is an almost universal practice among major religions. Some characteristics of regenerators. From the scientific point of view, fasting appears to be longevity and better health in animal studies and does not require as many penalties as calorie restriction. And it seems that some of the quickest and most obvious benefits were obtained from animals with tumors.

When someone stops eating one or more days, their metabolism changes in the face of stress. Cellular proliferation slows down, activates the autophagy process in which the body removes old or defective cells and, in general, begins to feed on its own energy reserves. At the moment, it is unknown how and why this practice seems beneficial to health.

Mice with cancer treated with chemotherapy and fasted respond better to treatment and recover before side effects

Valter Longo's team at the University of Southern California is one of the most advanced in fasting research on both healthy and sick people. Their experiments have shown that a fasting of one or more days causes cancer mice treated with chemotherapy to respond better to treatment and to recover before side effects.

Spending several days without eating periodically (there is no unified definition of fasting in scientific terms) would be too hard a test for many people. That is why Longo has developed a low-calorie diet that mimics the effects of fasting while continuing to eat. When given this diet to mice with breast and skin cancer, their immune system seems to wake up from lethargy and begins to recognize and annihilate tumor cells, something that does not happen in well-fed rodents. According to Longo, fasting has a "rejuvenating" effect on the organism, both in animals and humans. "In a pilot study with healthy volunteers we saw that the fasting-mimicking diet reduced cardiovascular risk, glucose levels [diabetes risk factor], and IGF-1 levels, a potential cancer marker, as well as eliminating Abdominal fat ", explains the researcher. The diet in question has 60% fewer calories than the normal diet of each individual. In the trial, volunteers followed this diet for five days, then returned to normal eating for another three weeks and then repeated the same cycle another two times.

At the National Cancer Research Center in Madrid, the team of Manuel Serrano has revealed one of the possible responsible for the benefits of fasting in cancer. Until recently, research in this field had focused on caloric restriction, much more radical and difficult to maintain. "Caloric restriction has undesirable effects, is constantly hungry, libido is almost zero and social life is reduced, as it often happens around food," explains Serrano. In this sense, fasting and mimicking their effects with low calorie or drug diets may be much more feasible, especially in the context of cancer.

Fasting can lead to headaches or stress and should never be performed without the supervision of a physician.

In a recent experiment, their team showed that the mice that are stripped of food for a day or two are given the expression of the P21 gene, a major tumor suppressor. In the experiment with volunteers with which this story began, carried out at the Imdea Alimentación Institute and whose results are to be published in a scientific journal soon, according to Serrano, it has been shown that the same thing happens in humans.

"We have seen that levels of P21 increase with fasting and fall again as soon as you eat," explains Pablo Fernández-Marcos, a co-author of the study who decided to join the experimental group and test the lack of food in their own meats. "None of the participants had any problems, although in some cases fasting can lead to headaches or stress," he explains.

The researcher reasons the connection between the gene studied and the beneficial effects in cancer. "P21 stops cell proliferation especially in organs such as the hair, intestine, bone marrow, which are some of the most affected by chemo," he explains. Now the team is considering whether P21 is the cause of the observed benefits and not a mere collateral reaction.

One of the ways of research is to look for molecules that activate some of the "metabolic pathways" that start with fasting, such as "the drop in insulin or that of ketones that transform stored fat into energy for the brain "Says Fernández-Marcos. In the future, these types of drugs could be applied to the healthy population, but first they will reach the cancer patients because "it is easier since the effects observed are very fast," he says.

The Longo team is conducting new trials with healthy people and others with cancer and their diet that mimics fasting to confirm if it really is beneficial. Many of his researches have been funded by public agencies such as the National Institutes of Health. His work is not without controversy, because the scientist never reveals the exact composition of his diet in his studies. Instead it has decided to market it

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