Intermittent fasting may change how your DNA is expressed
Mice who only ate at specific times of the day experienced “profound” changes in genetic expression, leading to health benefits like reduced risk of obesity and inflammation, new research found.
To an extent, it’s not about what you eat as much aswhen you eat it — so says recent research that sheds new light on the benefits of intermittent fasting.
The study, published Tuesday in journal Cell Metabolism, found that mice fed only during certain blocks of time experienced “profound” changes in gene expression. Nearly 80 per cent of all genes were impacted in some way, the paper reads.
The changes resulted in a plethora of health benefits, the authors wrote, including: improved blood sugar regulation, decreased risk of obesity and even a reversal of certain hallmarks of ageing. You can think of a gene as the blueprint for a specific protein, written in DNA. When a gene is expressed, the blueprint is converted into its protein product by cellular machinery. Because proteins are responsible for most cellular functions from fat metabolism to immune response, even slight changes in gene expression could leave a massive impact.
According to the research, restricting when mice could eat reshaped when and to what extent certain genes were expressed — for example, some organs learned to switch on the genes for regulating blood sugar when it came feeding time, and to repress them when it was time to fast.
The researchers say their findings opened the door for further research into how dietary interventions might impact our genes and what this means for those suffering from issues like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
What is time-restricted eating?
Shaunak Deota, first author of the study and a post-doctoral fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, explained time-restricted eating as “eating consistently in a narrow window of 8 to 10 hours” when one is most active and fasting the remainder of the day. Intermittent fasting is a form of this practice, he said.
By feeding and fasting at the same time every day, we are reinforcing a biological rhythm in our bodies, Deota said: “Our body is getting the food at the same time every day, so all our organ systems know when the food is going to come and they’re prepared for it.”
Previous studies have shown that time-restricted eating may reduce the risk of obesity and diabetes, help to improve cardiovascular health, provide benefits for gut function and cardiovascular health and more.
Deota’s research now contributes, to his knowledge, the first “holistic” look at how time-restricted eating impacts the body as a system.
To achieve their results, the researchers put two groups of mice on the same high-calorie diet. One group was only allowed to eat during a nine-hour window when they were most active. The other could feed whenever they wanted.
After seven weeks, the mice on a time-restricted diet gained less weight than their counterparts, despite eating the same amount of food.
The researchers then killed 48 of the mice — 24 from each group — to investigate the diet’s impact on the body. They sacrificed two mice from each group every two hours over a 24-hour period, noting how their organ systems changed over time.
How time-restricted eating changes the body
After studying the mouse organs, Deota and his team made a “pretty surprising” discovery; mice on the time-restricted diet had synchronized their gene expression with their feeding schedules.
“That is important because these genes will get translated into proteins,” Deota said. “Those proteins are helping our body to anticipate that there is food coming.”
According to their paper, roughly 70 per cent of all mouse genes fell into rhythm with the feeding schedule. Come mealtime, individual organs could promote genes in charge of nutrient metabolism while suppressing those responsible for inflammatory signalling and immune activation.
Moreover, the scientists found the diet reversed several hallmarks of aging, leading to reduced inflammation, increased cellular housekeeping, improved RNA and protein balance and more.
“Molecularly speaking, we saw a lot of pathways which are activated by (the time-restricted diet) in multiple organ systems. And a lot of these pathways actually have been implicated in improving health and leading to a longer, healthy life,” Deota said.
All that being said, we need to remember these results were seen in mice, not humans — we’re still a long way off from demonstrating the same phenomenon happens in people, said Dani Renouf, a registered dietitian at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver. For now, these results represent a “wonderful start to a conversation.”
“We’re just prototyping at this point because we’re using animal models and looking at things on a cellular level,” she said. “In order to now make conclusions in human beings, we need to take several steps before we can definitively do that with time restricted-eating.”
Renouf also noted the experiments took place in a tightly controlled environment. Real life is messy and chaotic, she said, and will likely influence results.
On the flip side, Deota believes “most of these benefits can be translated to humans” because his lab’s findings line up with what clinical studies into time-restricted eating have discovered.