Why Fasting Could Become A Standard Diabetes Treatment Option

Evidence that fasting can be an effective treatment measure for type 2 diabetes (T2D) has been around for at least a hundred years.

In 1916, the famous diabetologist Dr. Elliot Joslin thought the benefits of fasting for T2D were so obvious that extensive studies would be unnecessary. “That temporary periods of under-nutrition are helpful in the treatment of diabetes will probably be acknowledged by all after these two years of experience with fasting,” said Joslin in 1916.

Yet, the regard for fasting waned with the discovery of insulin in the early 1920s, and the medical community’s growing focus on pharmaceuticals in the following decades. We can add to that the likelihood that most of us would prefer not to fast, even if it’s in our best interest.

Evidence Old and New

It’s telling that during both world wars, when food was rationed, and sugar was scarce mortality from diabetes dropped significantly. Following each war, as sugar consumption resumed and climbed, so did diabetes mortality rates.

Another indication that fasting alleviates diabetes symptoms is the effect weight loss surgery (e.g., bariatric surgery) has on the glucose levels of patients with diabetes.

The severe calorie restriction required following weight loss surgery improves symptoms in almost 90 percent of those with T2D, according to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS). The calorie limitation, and subsequent weight loss lowers blood sugar levels, reduces or eliminates the need for medication, and mitigates diabetes-related health problems.

There have also been studies done on the effects of fasting. A recent one involving mice and humans suggests fasting offers substantial advantages for those with type 2, and type 1 diabetes.

Of Mice and Men

In the study, mice with type 1, and type 2 diabetes were put on four-day fasting cycles. They underwent three of these four-day restricted calorie cycles, with ten days of normal feeding between them. Their blood glucose was measured regularly, and their pancreatic cells were studied for genetic activity and functional changes.

Healthy human volunteers were enrolled in the study as well. These adults went through three cycles of a fasting routine similar to the mice. Blood samples from these individuals were then applied to cultured human pancreatic cells.

After completing the fasting cycles:

  • The mice with type 2 diabetes demonstrated restored insulin secretion, reduced insulin resistance, and some beta cell regeneration.
  • The mice with type 1 diabetes showed signs of insulin secretion restoration (e.g., reduced inflammation, change in cytokine protein levels), and there was an increased number of beta cells producing insulin.

Findings with the human cell samples were similar to those of the mice.

Proceed With Caution

While the study* results are promising, researchers warn that people with diabetes should not attempt fasting unless under a doctor’s supervision. Sudden dietary changes could trigger health complications. The research findings are considered preliminary, and the human body is far more complex than that of mice.

Future studies, state the scientists, will determine whether fasting is safe and therapeutic for people with diabetes.

So, despite Dr. Joslin’s astute assertions, it’s likely that in today’s medical climate extensive studies will be required before fasting is taken seriously as a diabetes treatment measure. However, there is plenty of information available for interested individuals to research, and discuss with their doctor.

Sources: Intensive Dietary Mangement; ASMBS; NHS
Photo credit: Kyle Brammer

*The study’s researchers were from the University of Southern California, the Koch Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the IFOM FIRC Institute of Molecular Oncology in Italy. Their report was published in the journal Cell.

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