Valter Longo is a professor of gerontology and biological science at USC and Director of the USC Longevity Institute. He is one of the foremost researchers studying fasting—developing what he calls the Fasting Mimicking Diet—and is the author of The Longevity Diet: Discover the New Science Behind Stem Cell Activation and Regeneration to Slow Aging, Fight Disease, and Optimize Weight.
What I discuss with Valter in this episode:
What Valter's mentor, the late Roy Walford, learned about the benefits—and drawbacks—of near-starvation during his two years sealed off from the rest of the world in Biosphere 2.
How a carefully controlled cycle of fasting and refeeding has proven effective in targeting cancer while minimizing collateral damage to normal cells during chemotherapy.
The regenerative effects of fasting and refeeding on the immune system, and the strides being made toward potentially miraculous MS and diabetes treatments.
How the Fasting Mimicking Diet works and how often it should be observed.
What Valter thinks of intermittent fasting and the true purpose of ketones.
And much more!
While fasting, in its many forms, has been used around the world over the centuries for everything from religious observance to political protest, current research is proving it to be effective in promoting a seemingly countless number of health benefits under properly controlled circumstances.
Spearheading some of the most groundbreaking research in fasting is USC professor Dr. Valter Longo, PhD, author of The Longevity Diet: Discover the New Science Behind Stem Cell Activation and Regeneration to Slow Aging, Fight Disease, and Optimize Weight. In addition to metabolism boost and weight loss long associated with fasting, Valter's research suggests that fasting can “reset” the immune system to potentially treat conditions like multiple sclerosis and type one diabetes, and even significantly increase longevity.
From Song to Science
As a music student in Texas, Valter Longo didn't want to direct the college marching band; he wanted to rock. But there were vexing lifelong questions that even rock and roll couldn't answer.
"I was in the room when my grandfather died," says Valter. "I was five years old or something like that. Probably that was in my head very clearly. Like 9/11, you have those events that you might not think about all the time, but they're in your head. I think that maybe I always wanted to figure out 'Why did he die when I was so young?' And I think he also died [40 or 50 years] before he had to. He only had a hernia, and because it was left untreated, it ended up killing him way before his time."
On the other hand, his neighbor, who lived a similar lifestyle and ate a similar diet, lived to be 110.
So Valter decided to pursue science perhaps as a way to understand the mechanics of mortality and what might be done to help people enjoy a longer, healthier life on the planet.
Starvation Lessons from a Biosphere 2 Pioneer
One of Valter's mentors was a gerontologist named Roy Walford, who spent two years with seven other people sealed off from the rest of the world in the self-contained Biosphere 2 just outside Tucson in the early '90s. While there, the group soon discovered they were unable to grow enough food to sustain a normal diet, so Roy put them on a severely calorie-restricted diet that would keep them from starving—but just barely.
Years later, Roy's 2004 Los Angeles Times obituary would recount:
They didn't exactly flourish, but they did get healthier. Men lost nearly 20% of their body weight and women about 10%. Their blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and triglyceride levels all fell by at least 20% to extremely healthy levels. The team members also exhibited an increased capacity to fight off illnesses, such as colds and flu.
Valter was impressed with the possibilities his mentor's experiment presented, but recognized its imperfections and looked toward ways it might be improved.
"I thought, well, I need to go back to bacteria and yeast and simple organisms to figure out the fundamentals," says Valter. "And that was the right track."
This course of experimentation allowed Valter and his team to identify key genes that regulate longevity, and they were surprised to find that introducing the organisms to starvation counterintuitively shielded them from damage and allowed them to lead longer lives.
Getting the Drop on Cancer and Resetting the Immune System
Taking what they learned from their yeast studies, Valter and his colleagues scaled up to mice and discovered that not only would starvation before chemotherapy greatly protect the normal cells from damage, but it would simultaneously make cancer cells more susceptible to the treatment.
"From there we moved to many more studies in mice, and then eventually humans," says Valter.
Further trials found that observing cycles of fasting and refeeding would prompt stem cells in compromised immune systems to pump out new white blood cells and recycle damaged, old, and inefficient cells.
Fasting Mimicking Diet and Embryonic-Like Rebirth
Further studies still have determined that Valter's Fasting Mimicking Diet, as featured in his new book, shows promise in fighting the ravages of multiple sclerosis (MS) as well as rebuilding the diabetic pancreas. As in earlier tests, a cycle of fasting and feeding triggers a regenerative process that promotes vastly marked improvements.
"I think that the most striking example is our type 1 diabetes paper where we show in the pancreas that you can almost completely destroy the beta cells of the pancreas, and then you start the cycles of fasting mimicking dietary feeding and you see the insulin generation going back to normal and the glucose coming back to almost normal levels. So it's very powerful in activating what I call an embryonic-like program. If you look at the genes that are expressed, they're very similar to the genes that you see expressed in fetal development."
Listen to this full episode to learn more about why Valter believes the term "intermittent fasting" is commonly misused to the point of being meaningless, what really qualifies as fasting to Valter, how he regards ketones, how the average person should approach fasting and the Fasting Mimicking Diet, where the Longevity Diet fits in, weighing the efficacy of a diet to the average person's ability to stick to it over time, two debunked nutrition notions that commonly move people off the path to health, the cardiovascular risks of skipping breakfast, and lots more.
Resources from this episode:
Roy Walford, 79; Eccentric UCLA Scientist Touted Food Restriction by Thomas H. Maugh II, The Los Angeles Times
Dietary Restriction, Growth Factors and Aging: From Yeast to Humans by Valter D. Longo et al., Science
Starvation-dependent Differential Stress Resistance Protects Normal but Not Cancer Cells Against High-dose Chemotherapy by Valter D. Longo et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Fasting for Three Days Can Regenerate Entire Immune System, Study Finds by Sarah Knapton, The Telegraph
A Diet Mimicking Fasting Promotes Regeneration and Reduces Autoimmunity and Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms by Valter D. Longo et al., Cell Report
Fasting-mimicking Diet Shows Promise Against MS by Catharine Paddock, Medical News Today
Fasting-Mimicking Diet Promotes Ngn3-Driven Beta-Cell Regeneration to Reverse Diabetes by Valter D. Longo et al., Cell
Fasting Diet 'Regenerates Diabetic Pancreas' by James Gallagher, BBC News
Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life by Max Lugavere and Paul Grewal M.D.
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