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How Fasting Can—and Can’t—Improve Gut Health

0 2 years ago

If you spend a lot of time online, you may have noticed that parts of the internet have caught fasting fever. Online message boards are awash in posts touting the benefits of time-restricted eating and other intermittent-fasting approaches that involve going without caloric foods or drinks for an extended period of time—anywhere from 12 hours to several days. These online testimonials have helped popularize intermittent fasting, and they often feature two common-sense rationalizations: One, that human beings evolved in environments where food was scarce and meals occurred sporadically; and two, that the relatively recent shift to near round-the-clock eating has been disastrous for our intestinal and metabolic health.

Mining the internet for accurate information, especially when it comes to dieting, can feel like panning for gold. You’ve got to sift through a lot of junk to find anything valuable. But this is one case where nuggets may be easy to find. A lot of the published peer-reviewed research on intermittent fasting makes the same claims you’ll find on those Reddit message boards. “Until recently, food availability has been unpredictable for humans,” wrote the authors of a 2021 review paper in the American Journal of Physiology. “Knowledge of early human evolution and data from recent studies of hunter-gatherer societies suggest humans evolved in environments with intermittent periods of food scarcity.” They say that fasting regimens may provide a period of “gut rest” that could lead to several meaningful health benefits, including improved gut microbe diversity, gut barrier function, and immune function.

The past decade has witnessed an explosion in fasting-related research. (According to Google Scholar, the last five years alone contain almost 150,000 articles that examine or mention fasting.) While that work has helped established links between intermittent fasting and weight loss, as well as other benefits, it’s not yet clear when (or if) fasting can help fix a sick gut. “I would still consider the evidence moderate,” says Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor of medicine and founding director of the Goodman Luskin Microbiome Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. “[Fasting] looks like a prudent way to maintain metabolic health or reestablish metabolic health, but it’s not a miracle cure.”

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