Utahns who practice intermittent fasting — as prescribed by Latter-day Saints — have potentially been unknowingly lowering their risk of suffering severe effects from COVID-19 infection. That’s the conclusion of a study by doctors at Intermountain Healthcare.
“People who report in these studies that they fast routinely ... tend to be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” said Dr. Benjamin Horne, director of cardiovascular and genetic epidemiology at Intermountain Healthcare.
“They were less likely to be hospitalized and less likely to die if they’ve been following this periodic fasting regimen,” Horne said.
Study focused on people who fast, many for religious purposes
Since 2013, Horne has been studying a population of just over 1,500 people who fast regularly.
Of those people, 205 tested positive for the coronavirus between March 2020 and February 2021, before vaccines were widely available. And 73 said they regularly fasted at least once a month.
The study, which was published this week in “BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health,” relies on the fact that “a large proportion of the population in the Intermountain West fasts on a routine basis — primarily, but not exclusively, for religious purposes,” Horne said.
The average person in the study fasts for 24 hours once a month, and they have been doing it, on average, for just over 40 years. Members of the LDS Church are called upon to fast the first Sunday of each month, going without food and drink for two consecutive meals.
The study found that fasting did not protect people from contracting COVID-19, but it apparently lessened the severity of the symptoms for those who did fall ill.
Why does intermittent fasting apparently help?
Horne said intermittent fasting activates several “biological mechanisms” that reduce the severity of COVID-19 symptoms — mechanisms related to inflammation, turning off and activating immune cells, and preventing COVID-19 from being able to infect other cells.
Intermittent fasting promotes the body’s recycling system, Horne said, which can help your body “destroy and recycle damaged and infected cells.” It also can reduce the risk of comorbidities like diabetes and heart disease.
Once-a-month fasting can reduce the risks of COVID-19, but only over time, Horne advised.
“Doing a once-a-month fast is probably not going to protect you, in the short term, from COVID-19,” he said. “But if you’re doing a two-day-a-week fast, or even a one-day-a-week fast, there are mechanisms that we know from other studies [that] are going to help you activate these biological pathways that protect from severe COVID-19.”
Fasting is not recommended for everyone
Horne also pointed out that some people should not fast — those who are “older and frail;” young children; people with diabetes, chronic kidney disease, heart disease or who have suffered strokes; and people who are pregnant or lactating.
If any of that applies to you, talk to your physician “in depth” about it, Horne said.
He also emphasized that intermittent fasting is not an alternative therapy for COVID-19. Instead, it is a complementary therapy to vaccines and anti-virals.
He urged people to get vaccinated and boosted — although he acknowledged that research indicates vaccine immunity wanes over time, in some cases as soon as six months.
“It’s not feasible to vaccinate the entire world every six months with a COVID-19 vaccine,” Horne said. “And so having a routine fasting regimen — something that’s sustainable over a long period of time — is something that can potentially help people to fill in the gaps between the vaccination boosters so that you have some additional immunity to be able to protect yourself from the COVID-19 severity.”