What if you could cloak yourself in a defensive shield that warded off disease and extended your life? Would you do it? Would you take a pill that could do it for you? Many of us are already trying to, by swallowing tablets of antioxidants and resveratrol, swigging acai and pomegranate juice and downing loads of vitamins of uncertain benefit. But a growing body of research suggests that the solution may be as seamless and elegant as nature itself. It’s possible that we can activate just such a defensive shield this very moment...simply by eating less.
As readers of this site know, I am especially interested in the role of food choice in life extension. I am also deeply convinced that the hormone insulin is the central “superhormone” which mediates fat storage, obesity, inflammation and longevity. Whenever you read any research about overweight and its related conditions, you will find the fingerprints of insulin all over it. I also believe that a broken or poorly functioning insulin system is the reason that the vast majority of us develop modern disease. We don’t need to have diabetes or even elevated blood sugar to have a struggling insulin system. Defects in insulin signaling can be going on for years before we can detect them. This doesn’t mean that our bodies are not suffering.
Now, in a paper that is due to be published in Nature, German scientists have shown that we have a second defensive system which acts independently of our classic immune system. When we go without food for awhile, this system switches on. Surprise, surprise…the hormone which is responsible for flipping the switch is insulin. Once the system is activated, cells produce proteins which are capable of destroying harmful microbes and defending us against invasion from the outside. According to the the study director, “This happens every minute every day. What is fascinating about this is that a function of the immune system directly depends on how much and what we eat.” In other words, slightly stress your cells by making them hungry and your shields will go up.
This, and other research studies, provides a great deal of non-caloric food for thought. We know that obesity and the diseases it spawns lead to increased inflammation in the body and can result in reduced life span. We also know that uncontrolled inflammation is bad. Might it be that the habit of affluent societies to eat continually results in a chronically lowered defense system? If more invaders are able to penetrate our outer barrier, we would likely respond with aggressive inner defenses, in other words: inflammation!
One of the strategies for weight maintenance that I suggest in my book and that I continue to suggest to patients is that we spend parts of each day in the non-eating state. This allows insulin levels to fall. We now know that these lower levels can active the FOXO transcription factor; the messaging system which turns on defense genes.
So put up those shields and rethink that grazing habit. As those of us who are maintaining weight know, the body does best on small amounts of highly nutritious foods. Our miraculous physical plant is finely tuned and we may be best off if we stop trying to second guess it with pills, potions and manipulations. More and more, we are coming to know that a return to simple basics and a realignment with our genetic priorities is the only way to put nature to work for us.