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Intermountain study finds intermittent fasting may reduce COVID-19 symptoms

Empty dinner plate and silverware on a kitchen table.
Jim Hill
A new Intermountain Healthcare study found people who practice intermittent fasting have less severe COVID-19 symptoms

A newly released Intermountain Healthcare study shows intermittent fasting can reduce the severity of COVID-19.

It was found that people who regularly fasted had a lower rate of hospitalization or death because of the coronavirus. This is because of mechanisms in the body that are triggered by intermittent fasting.

The study included 205 patients who tested COVID positive and most participants fasted once a month for 24 hours.

One mechanism triggered by fasting is related to T cells, which help the body fight infection and disease. That’s according to one of the study’s researchers, Benjamin Horne, an epidemiologist with Intermountain Healthcare. COVID-19 tries to infect and destroy T cells so they cannot fight off the virus. Fasting helps activate other immune cells that can fight off COVID-19.

Autophagy, another fasting-activated mechanism, is the body’s way of cleaning out damaged cells. In turn, that allows the body to regenerate newer, healthier cells. Fasting, for even eight or 10 hours at a time, causes this process to begin.

Horne said COVID-19 has been shown to stop this process. So, fasting is acting directly against the virus and allows infected cells to be destroyed.

The study does note that an intermittent fast is not a replacement for a vaccine. The practice only limits the impact of infection once COVID-19 is contracted.

“I never want people to not get vaccinated or use other therapies that are available now for reducing severity of COVID-19 and use fasting in its place,” Horne said. “This is a complementary therapy.”

Fasting is also not beneficial for everyone. For a generally healthy individual, intermittent fasting does not pose any negative health risks, but there are some people for whom it might do more harm than good.

“A large part of the adult population takes some type of medication,” said Lacie Peterson, a clinical associate professor at Utah State University and a registered dietitian. “By restricting food intake, it could negatively affect the medications that somebody is taking.”

Further, fasting is not recommended if someone is at risk of getting an eating disorder, is pregnant or has diabetes.

Petersen also said people may have incorrect information about what benefits intermittent fasting poses.

“We are seeing more and more people practicing intermittent fasting specifically for weight loss, even though it has not been shown to be significantly efficacious for weight loss,” she said.

People can experience some weight loss because of fasting, but that is a result of a reduced caloric intake over a period of time. If people are still eating the same amount of calories, they will not lose weight. However, fasting does have other benefits, like improved metabolic health.

Moderation is also very important. Peterson said those who want to fast should choose a sustainable regimen, eat a generally healthy diet and ask their healthcare provider first.

Kristine Weller is a newsroom intern at KUER. She’s only been a journalist for a year but is excited to see what the future holds.
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