Scientists have known for some time that our diet – in particular a high calorie Western diet – can increase our risk of chronic diseases linked too inflammation in the body, including obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Inflammation, inflammasome and fasting
Inflammation is our body's natural response to injury or infection, but this process can be triggered by other mechanisms, including by the so-called 'inflammasome', which acts like an alarm within our body's cells, triggering inflammation to help protect our body when it senses damage.
But the inflammasome can trigger inflammation in unintentional ways. One of its functions, for example, is to destroy unwanted cells, which can result in the release of the cell's contents into the body, thereby triggering inflammation.
Recently, it’s become apparent that one inflammasome in particular -- the NLRP3 inflammasome -- is very important in a number of chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease, but also Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, many of the diseases of older age people, particularly in western countries.
It’s been shown that fasting can help reduce inflammation, but the reason why has not been clear.
About the new study
To help answer this question, researchers at the University of Cambridge and the U.S. National Institutes of Health studied blood samples from a group of 21 volunteers, who ate a 500-calorie meal and then fasted for 24 hours before consuming a second 500-calorie meal.
The team found that restricting calorie intake increased levels of a lipid (fat) known as arachidonic acid.
As soon as individuals ate a meal again, levels of arachidonic acid dropped.
When the researchers studied arachidonic acid's effect in immune cells cultured in the lab, they found that it turns down the activity of the NLRP3 inflammasome.
This surprised the researchers as arachidonic acid was previously thought to be linked with increased levels of inflammation, not decreased.
The researchers said "This provides a potential explanation for how changing our diet -- in particular by fasting -- protects us from inflammation, especially the damaging form that underpins many diseases related to a Western high calorie diet.”
It's too early to say whether fasting protects against diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease since the effects of arachidonic acid are only short-lived.
However, this study and previous research on caloric restriction suggest that regular fasting over a long period could help reduce the chronic inflammation.
The findings also hint at one mechanism whereby a high-calorie diet might increase the risk of these diseases.
Studies have shown that some people that have a high-fat diet have increased levels of inflammasome activity.
Source: Cell Reports, February 2024.
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