Fasting and Mitochondrial Health

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Fasting has been used in therapeutic, cultural, and religious practices and traditions for thousands of years and is described as an abstinence from some or all foods and drinks for a set period of time, usually longer than 12 hours. When fasting, the body experiences ketosis and undergoes a metabolic switch in its fuel source, from stored glycogen to fatty acids.1 Fasting may not be optimal for all patients, such as those who are pregnant, who have type 1 diabetes, or who have or are at risk of developing an eating disorder.2,3 However, if appropriate for a patient’s personalized treatment strategy, fasting benefits may include improvements in a range of areas such as mental or cognitive performance, cardiovascular health, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and the effectiveness of cancer treatments.4-7 How does mitochondrial health relate to fasting and its potential benefits?

Mitochondrial Responses to Fasting

Mitochondria have multiple functions, from generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) to energy metabolism and ATP synthesis. Mitochondrial quality impacts the health of multiple body systems and tissues, with mitochondrial biogenesis and performance impacting cardiovascular,8 immune,9 musculoskeletal,10,11 gut,12 and brain health.13,14 One of the suggested benefits of intermittent fasting is the optimization of mitochondrial health, potentially leading to improved energy production and overall function.4,15,16 While the long-term effects of intermittent fasting have not been fully established,17 mitochondrial and fasting-related research continues to evolve, with more clinical and observational studies demonstrating potential benefits of therapeutic fasting approaches to support health18,19 and with additional investigations clarifying the mitochondrial mechanisms that may be involved.

Mitochondrial MECHANISMS: homeostasis & biogenesis

Mitochondria are dynamic organelles undergoing continuous cycles of fusion and fission. While excessive division or fission has been associated with mitochondrial functional defects that may lead to multiple disease states,20 a recent study in nematode worms suggested that fasting may increase overall lifespan by promoting a balance between the fusion and fission states and homeostasis in mitochondrial networks.21

Mitochondrial biogenesis and function are mediated by different activators, regulators, and transcription factors such as PGC-1alpha and Nrf2. Research has suggested that fasting may enhance these mediators to promote mitochondrial biogenesis and improve mitochondrial function. For example:

  • Peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma coactivator 1-alpha (PGC-1alpha) is a fasting-induced transcriptional coactivator22 that mediates mitochondrial biogenesis, activates when the body receives a signal that it needs more cellular energy, and increases in expression during fasting.23
  • Nuclear factor (erythroid-derived 2) factor 2 (Nrf2) is a transcription factor that regulates ROS production by mitochondria.24 Studies suggest that Nrf2 is associated with mitochondrial biogenesis and may be involved in mitochondrial quality control systems.25 A 2019 study evaluated the impact of Ramadan intermittent fasting on the expression of antioxidant genes, including Nrf2, and results suggested that fasting improved the expression of the antioxidant regulatory genes.16

Nutrition + Fasting Interventions for Mitochondrial Health

Specific nutrients that support mitochondrial function may be part of a personalized nutrition strategy for some patients. In other cases, a form of intermittent fasting may be appropriate and blended with a food plan to create an individualized nutrition intervention. Several forms of intermittent fasting* include the following:

  • Alternate-day fasting: A cycle of fasting on one day and eating on the next day.
  • Time-restricted feeding: An approach that considers circadian rhythms and advocates consuming calories from food and beverages only during a shortened window of time daily, also called “prolonged nightly fasting,” which extends a person’s nightly fast to 12 hours or more.
  • 5:2 diet: Five days of unrestricted eating, two non-consecutive days with one meal at 500-700 calories.26
  • Fasting-mimicking diet: A periodic, multiple-day, plant-based diet program low in calories, sugars, and protein but high in unsaturated fats with the inclusion of supplements for vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids.27,28

IFM’s Mitochondrial Food Plan is an anti-inflammatory, low-glycemic, high-quality fat approach to eating that supports healthy mitochondria for improved energy production. Further, this food plan can be expanded with various levels of fasting. In the following video, IFM educator Monique Class, MS, APRN, BC, IFMCP, discusses the benefits of incorporating fasting with IFM’s Mitochondrial Food Plan.

Video Time: 2 Minutes

Fasting approaches may be integrated into therapeutic nutritional strategies based on a patient’s needs. For example, patients with chronic conditions may already have elevated levels of inflammation and oxidative stress, and their current diet may need to be stabilized to reduce overall inflammation before introducing fasting. Functional medicine provides a framework within which practitioners may collaborate with patients to develop personalized therapeutic strategies that potentially include nutrition interventions incorporating different levels of fasting.

Learn more about tailoring nutrition-based treatments through IFM’s new course Therapeutic Food Plans: A Component of Personalized Nutrition and gain additional evaluation insights and tools on fasting and optimal mitochondrial function at the Bioenergetics Advanced Practice Module.

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*Of note: Some experts define fasting as lasting 24 hours or more and do not consider other mentioned approaches as forms of fasting.

Related Articles & Podcasts

The Fasting-Mimicking Diet: Impacts on Aging and Chronic Disease

Fasting Flexibility: An Interview With Dr. Jason Fung

Time-Restricted Feeding, Circadian Rhythms, and CVD


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