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October 30, 2013

Fasting emerges as potential way to stave off Alzheimer's, cancer

Daily Briefing

A growing body of research suggests that intermittent fasting may prevent the early onset of a range of illnesses—from cancer to Alzheimer's disease—and some at-risk individuals are changing their diets accordingly, Makiko Kitamura reports in Bloomberg this week.

How fasting may protect brain cells

Although there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, promising research from the U.S. National Institute of Aging suggests that fasting staves off the onset of dementia in mice.

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In the study, Johns Hopkins' Mark Mattson found that intermittent fasting may protect the function of brain cells, even if it does not reduce levels of plaque buildup in the brain—a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. An earlier study led by Mattson found that fasting may increase the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which enhances learning and memory.

"In general, intermittent fasting is a good thing if it's done properly, but if you're already eating very healthily, then you may not need to do that," says UCSF physician Dean Ornish.

The '2-Day Diet' to prevent breast cancer

Other studies have found that fasting could help prevent breast cancer and diabetes.

The research has inspired several diet books, including the "2-Day Diet." Created by dietician Michelle Harvie and University of Manchester's Tony Howell, the diet is intended to prevent breast cancer. It calls for a Mediterranean diet for five days a week and two consecutive days of eating about 600 to 1,000 calories and no more than 40 grams of carbohydrates.

"The science definitely needs to catch up with the hype," Harvie told Bloomberg, adding that "there is something there, but we need to get it right."

The "2-Day Diet" led to greater drops in body fat and insulin resistance in women with high breast-cancer risk after three months, according to a study led by Mattson. Moreover, researchers found that intermittent fasting is easier for patients to follow than a diet where calories are cut every day (Kitamura, Bloomberg, 10/28).

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