Fasting Diet Reprograms Pancreatic Cells, Reverses Diabetes in Mice

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A type of fasting diet centered around eating low levels of protein and sugar can reprogram pancreatic cells and essentially reverse diabetes, says a new animal study.

Researchers from the University of Southern California found that a diet that mimics fasting stimulates the growth of new insulin-producing cells in the pancreas in mice — and appears to have the same regenerative effect on human pancreatic cells as well.

“Cycling a fasting-mimicking diet and a normal diet essentially reprogrammed non-insulin-producing cells into insulin-producing cells,” said study author Valter Longo, a professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California.

This image depicts insulitis, an inflammatory infiltration of the islets of the pancreas, which precedes diabetes, in a mouse. Credit: Muhammad T. Tabiin, Christopher P. White, Grant Morahan and Bernard E. Tuch/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

The researchers report that they were able to rescue mice from Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes by having their bodies naturally replace old, damaged pancreatic cells with new ones.

A fasting-mimicking diet is designed to mirror the effects of a water-only diet, and the new research brings hope that a diet-based approach can stem the rising tide of diabetes rates.

“Hopefully, people with diabetes could one day be treated with an FDA-approved fasting-mimicking diet for a few days each month and gain control over their insulin production and blood sugar,” said Longo.

Tapping Into the Body’s Fasting Response

In developing the fasting-mimicking diet approach, Longo and his fellow researchers took a cue from known research on the body’s response to limited caloric consumption.

“The ability of animals to survive food deprivation is an adaptive response accompanied by the atrophy of many tissues and organs to minimize energy expenditure. This atrophy and its reversal following the return to a normal diet involve stem-cell-based regeneration in the hematopoietic and nervous systems,” report the authors in the journal Cell.

However, instead of total food deprivation, the researchers built a model that achieved similar effects as a water-only diet but one that would work in practical terms.

Related: Eating Less May Contribute to Living Longer

“In consideration of the challenges and side effects associated with prolonged fasting in humans, we developed a low-calorie, low-protein and low-carbohydrate but high-fat 4-day fasting-mimicking diet (FMD) that causes changes in the levels of specific growth factors, glucose, and ketone bodies similar to those caused by water-only fasting.”

For the study, researchers placed diabetic mice on a fasting-mimicking diet for four days of the week. After cycling the mice through a phase of dieting and regular food consumption, they found that the mice “regained healthy insulin production, reduced insulin resistance and demonstrated more stable levels of blood glucose.”

This 3D animation shows the lower amounts of insulin production in a patient with Type 1 diabetes. Credit: Scientific Animations/Simple Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

The researchers also assessed pancreatic cells from humans with Type 1 diabetes and discovered reprogrammed insulin production after a fasting cycle.

The study notes that Dr. Longo is the founder of L-Nutra, a company that offers fasting-mimicking diet packages. The L-Nutra website claims that a fasting-mimicking diet can “nourish the body while keeping it in a fasting mode, which triggers positive long-term effects on biological aging.”

The USC researchers plan to move ahead with the steps necessary to gain FDA approval for the fasting-mimicking diet.

Want to see what a fasting-mimicking diet looks like in real life? You’ll find a list of daily food intake that may include oatmeal, butter, nuts and vegetables, according to one example.

Related: Eating Just One High-Fat Meal Can Damage Your Metabolism

Richard Scott

Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.