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Intermittent Fasting for Cancer Patients

Intermittent fasting is a style of eating based on cycling through periods of fasting and normal eating. Proven to boost weight loss, this style of eating has a number of other health benefits, including improved brain and heart health as well as protection against diabetes.

For patients with mesothelioma or other cancers, intermittent fasting provides hopeful benefits. Research evidence proves any form of fasting can slow tumor growth, reduce treatment side effects, increase survival rates, boost the immune system, and prevent recurrences. Though research is ongoing, intermittent fasting with medical guidance is safe and beneficial for cancer patients.

What is Intermittent Fasting?

Intermittent fasting refers to any of several cycling strategies that alternate periods of eating with periods of fasting. Although this approach is often used to lose weight, it isn’t really a diet. There is no list of foods that you should or should not eat. Instead, intermittent fasting is an eating pattern with proven health benefits that could benefit cancer patients specifically. Some different types of intermittent fasting include:

  • 24-Hour Fasting. This type of fasting means not eating at all for 24 hours. For example, someone who is doing a 24-hour fast may choose to not eat between dinner one day and dinner the next. This is typically done once or twice a week.
  • The 5:2 Diet. The 5:2 strategy modifies 24-hour fasting. Calories are restricted for two 24-hour periods per week. On those two days women consume 500 calories and men consume 600.
  • The 16/8 Fast. Most popular for losing weight, this strategy restricts eating for 16 hours every day. This is usually accomplished by skipping breakfast and fasting between 8:00 at night and noon the next day.
  • Calorie Restriction. Because there is no designated fasting period, this approach is not considered intermittent fasting. However, it is similar to fasting because it reduces overall calories. Daily calorie intake is reduced by 20 to 40 percent every day for an extended period of time. A general guideline is 1,200 calories per day for women and 1,400 for men.

Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

There are significant changes that occur in the body during fasting. During fasting, human growth hormone levels increase, cell repair processes speed up, insulin levels drop, and gene expression changes. These changes explain some of the surprising health benefits experienced with calorie restriction and intermittent fasting.

Most people turn to intermittent fasting for weight loss. This eating approach is proven to promote weight loss, particularly fat loss. While this is largely due to lowered calorie intake, it also results in hormone changes that promote fat loss. Intermittent fasting also increases metabolic rate, which makes the body burn more calories than before, even when resting.

Research proves many benefits that go well beyond weight loss. Intermittent fasting lowers blood sugar levels and helps to reduce insulin resistance, both of which help prevent diabetes. Fasting also improves cardiovascular health and promotes nerve cell growth in the brain. These could possibly help protect against degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. In laboratory animals, intermittent fasting has been used to slow the aging process and extend life. For cancer patients, intermittent fasting may have even more exciting benefits.

Triggering the Immune System for Cancer Patients

One way a fasting diet may help cancer patients is by triggering the immune system. The immune system targets and destroys pathogens like viruses that enter the body. For cancer patients, the immune system seems to lose the ability to find, target, and kill abnormal cells like cancer. New cancer treatments are being developed to stimulate the immune system. However, research suggests that a simple fasting diet could achieve the desired result.

The University of Southern California recently conducted a study using lab mice. Researchers discovered that when the mice received chemotherapy and a fasted diet, the immune system was better able to target and kill breast and skin cancer cells. Mice on the fasted diet produced more immune system cells, including the B cells and T cells that actively target and kill tumor cells. Another exciting discovery showed that T regulatory cells, the cells that normally protect tumors, were kept out of the tumors.  This may have helped chemotherapy drugs work better.

The same researchers also conducted a pilot study with human cancer patients to determine if fasting diets with chemotherapy would be safe. Researchers discovered that a water-only two-day fast was safe for cancer patients. Also, when practiced under doctor supervision, a four-day restricted calorie diet that mimics fasting was considered safe. All these findings indicate fasting or a fasting-mimicked diet along with chemotherapy could be used to slow tumor growth in cancer patients.

Reducing Cancer Recurrence and Mortality Rates

Other studies have looked at intermittent fasting with cancer survivors. In one study, breast cancer survivors fasted for 13 hours per day, a modification of the 16/8 fast. This intermittent fasting resulted in a 36 percent reduction in cancer recurrence. The fasting group also had better survival rates. Adding two hours to the fasting time gave even better results.

Fasting May Reduce Cancer Treatment Side Effects

Cancer treatments like chemotherapy can cause side effects that range from uncomfortable to debilitating. Studies suggest intermittent fasting can offer protection from these side effects. In one study, cancer patients fasted for a few days then ate normally before treatment. These patients did not lose a dangerous amount of weight or see any interference in cancer treatments. However, patients did experience a reduction in side effects (including fatigue, headaches, nausea, and vomiting) when compared with a non-fasting control group. Fasting patients also experienced less incidence of dry mouth, mouth sores, numbness, and cramps,.

Risks of Intermittent Fasting

Some critics of intermittent fasting worry it promotes unhealthy eating patterns that could lead to eating disorders. There may be a slight risk of binge eating between fasting periods. Binge eating may reverse the beneficial effects of the diet. There are also concerns that intermittent fasting could result in unhealthy weight loss and malnutrition. Research does not support these concerns, however.

Multiple studies prove intermittent fasting guided by a medical professional is safe. It is important to note that fasting and long-term calorie restriction can potentially be unsafe. Practicing any style of fasted eating should be done under the guidance of doctors, especially for cancer patients.

Intermittent fasting may sound like a chore. However, most people who practice this style of eating claim it is not difficult and helps them feel better. If you are living with mesothelioma or another type of cancer, you might consider trying intermittent fasting. Be sure to talk to your medical team and your oncologist first, and always practice intermittent fasting with medical guidance.

Page Edited by Dave Foster

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Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available. Connect with Patient Advocate Dave Foster

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