New Study Finds People Who Intermittently Fast Experience Less Severe Complications from COVID-19
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Intermittent fasting has many health benefits, including lowering the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Now, researchers from Intermountain Healthcare have found that people who regularly fast are less likely to experience severe complications from COVID-19.
In a new study published this week in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, Intermountain researchers found that COVID-19 patients who practiced regular water-only intermittent fasting had a lower risk of hospitalization or death due to the virus than patients who did not.
“Intermittent fasting has already been shown to lower inflammation and improve cardiovascular health. In this study, we’re finding additional benefits when battling an infection of COVID-19 in patients who have been fasting for decades,” said Benjamin Horne, Ph.D. director of cardiovascular and genetic epidemiology at Intermountain Healthcare.
In the Intermountain study, researchers identified patients enrolled in the INSPIRE registry, a voluntary health registry at Intermountain Healthcare, who had also tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 between March 2020 and February 2021 — before vaccines were widely available. They identified 205 patients who had tested positive for the virus. Of those, 73 said they regularly fasted at least once a month. Researchers found that those who practiced regular fasting had a lower rate of hospitalization or death due to coronavirus. “Intermittent fasting was not associated with whether or not someone tested positive for COVID-19, but it was associated with lower severity once patients had tested positive for it,” Dr. Horne said.
Research has shown a wide range of health benefits associated with intermittent fasting including improvements in cardiovascular and metabolic health, as well as brain function and aging benefits. Intermittent fasting triggers an anti-inflammatory response in the body as well as promotes autophagy, which is the bodily process that involves removing dead and infected cells, benefits that may be linked to these findings related to COVID-19 outcomes.
In the Intermountain study, participants who said they regularly fasted did so for an average of more than 40 years. Intermountain researchers had the opportunity to closely study this specific cohort of long-time intermittent fasters because a significant portion of its patients fasts regularly for religious reasons. Nearly 62 percent of Utah’s population belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members typically fast on the first Sunday of the month by going without food or drink for two consecutive meals.
While Dr. Horne said that more research is needed to understand why intermittent fasting is associated with better COVID-19 outcomes, he said it’s most likely due to a host of ways it affects the body. For example, fasting reduces inflammation, mainly since hyper inflammation is associated with poor COVID-19 outcomes. In addition, after 12 to 14 hours of fasting, the body switches from using glucose in the blood to ketones, including linoleic acid. “There’s a pocket on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 that linoleic acid fits into – and can make the virus less able to attach to other cells,” he said. Another potential benefit is that intermittent fasting promotes autophagy, which is “the body’s recycling system that helps your body destroy and recycle damaged and infected cells,” Dr. Horne added.
Dr. Horne stressed that these results are from people who have been practicing intermittent fasting for decades – not weeks – and that anyone who wants to consider the practice should consult their doctors first, especially if they are elderly, pregnant, or have conditions like diabetes, heart, or kidney disease. Researchers also stressed intermittent fasting shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for COVID vaccination. “It should be further evaluated for potential short and long-term preventative or therapeutic use as a complementary approach to vaccines and anti-viral therapies for reducing COVID-19 severity,” Dr. Horne said.
Lutheran Medical Center, now part of Intermountain Healthcare, and its communications manager can arrange an interview with Dr. Horne and Caitlin Coughlin, registered dietitian. Please contact Sarah.Ellis@imail.org or 303-403-3059 to schedule an in-person and virtual interview.
About Lutheran Medical Center and Intermountain Healthcare
Lutheran Medical Center is a community-based, 338-bed acute-care hospital located in Wheat Ridge, CO. Local and national ratings organizations regularly recognize Lutheran for clinical excellence, patient safety and patient experience.
Lutheran’s premier services include a birthing center, Heart and Neurovascular Center, robotic surgery, Comprehensive Stroke Center, Cancer Centers of Colorado, Orthopedics, a Level II Trauma Center and emergency services including a Senior Emergency Room. Senior-focused services also include a dedicated Senior Behavioral Health unit. Lutheran operations include West Pines, Lutheran Hospice, and the Spine Center at Denver West.
Lutheran Medical Center is part of the Intermountain Healthcare system. Based in Utah with locations in seven states (Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming) and additional operations across the western U.S., Intermountain Healthcare is a nonprofit healthcare system comprised of 33 hospitals, 385 clinics, medical groups with some 3,800 employed physicians and advanced practice providers. To help people live the healthiest lives possible, Intermountain is committed to improving community health and is widely recognized as a leader in transforming healthcare by using evidence-based best practices to deliver high-quality outcomes at sustainable costs consistently.