Fasting, Cancer, and Sensationalism

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A couple days ago, The Telegraph posted a story.

Fasting for three days can regenerate entire immune system, study finds

They make some pretty sensational claims in this article that go far beyond the data of the study that they forgot to cite.

“Fasting for as little as three days can regenerate the entire immune system, even in the elderly, scientists have found in a breakthrough described as “remarkable”.”

“Although fasting diets have been criticised by nutritionists for being unhealthy, new research suggests starving the body kick-starts stem cells into producing new white blood cells, which fight off infection.”

“The researchers say fasting “flips a regenerative switch” which prompts stem cells to create brand new white blood cells, essentially regenerating the entire immune system.”

The study they’re referring to, which, again, they never bothered to cite, is here.

Prolonged Fasting Reduces IGF-1/PKA to Promote Hematopoietic-Stem-Cell-Based Regeneration and Reverse Immunosuppression

And the case series report is here.

Fasting and cancer treatment in humans: A case series report

They appear to be quoting one of the scientists on the study by the name of Valter D. Longo. He appears to be fairly well respected, however, he also shows up more often than anyone should like in the “natural” community websites, being cited for various diet and nutrition claims. Now, whether that stems from him or from the sensationalism that comes from those “journalists,” I don’t know. He does, however, appear far too often to promote various alternative medical claims.

That said, let’s look at the study itself. The article really pushes the idea of this “breakthrough” that even treats the elderly and cancer patients! Wow. It must have been SOME study.

Nope. Not so much.

The study included 10 people. They had a median age of 61, ranging from 44-78 years of age. They were all receiving chemotherapy. There was no control.

If anything, this is a hugely preliminary study. There is no good way to account for noise.  Even then, the “even in the elderly” quote from the article, mentioned as an aside, and the chemotherapy patients, also as aside, as if the data points to ANY other person in any other situation is demonstrably false. This is the poorest kind of science reporting possible.

Now, let’s consider the findings. What if they do a larger, placebo controlled study, and find that the results show that it DOES help with immune function post chemotherapy? That would be fantastic, however, it should still be taken tentatively. Asking chemotherapy patients, who are already struggling for nutrition and energy, to fast for 2-5 days, is potentially dangerous. Even if we find the effect to be actually present, it would be far better to then work to replicate the effect with drugs, as opposed to fasting.

So, is it possible? Sure. Is it a miracle discovery? Not even close. It’s more of a “Let’s turn them off, then turn them back on again, and see if that works” type of idea.

Not matter how you look at it, though, whether the scientists are right, or the critics are right, I think we can all agree that The Telegraph is just…wrong.

Contributor: Robert Sacerich

Robert is a Philosophy of Science and Bioethics student, as well as blogger and science advocate/activist. He has worked extensively within the secular community for various secular nonprofit organizations and public communication causes.

See his full bio!

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2 thoughts on “Fasting, Cancer, and Sensationalism

  1. Pingback: Fasting, Cancer, and Sensationalism | The Foodentists

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