“The ability to regenerate begins to fail once people start to reach old age. So as people get older, they are more likely to have trouble regenerating, causing them to look old, be sluggish, etc. Biologists have discovered that fasting dramatically improves the stem cells’ ability to regenerate. Within just a 24 hour fast, stem cells regenerate better. The stem cells are the source for all new intestinal cells, so this decline can make it more difficult to recover from gastrointestinal infections or other conditions that affect the intestine.

The biologists have tested this on mice. The study showed that In fasting mice, cells begin breaking down fatty acids instead of glucose, a change that stimulates the stem cells to become more regenerative. The researchers found that they could also boost regeneration with a molecule that activates the same metabolic switch. The new intervention could potentially help older people recovering from gastrointestinal infections or cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, the researchers say.

Scientists are aware that low caloric intake is linked to higher longevity in humans and other organisms. Scientists have known that information for decades. The researchers were interested in discovering how fasting exerts its effects at the molecular level, specifically in the intestine. Intestinal stem cells are responsible for preserving the lining of the intestine, which typically renews itself every five days. When an injury or infection occurs, stem cells are crucial to repairing any damage. As people age, the regenerative abilities of these intestinal stem cells decline, so it takes longer for the intestine to recover.

Omer Yilmaz, an MIT assistant professor of biology, said that intestinal stem cells are the workhorses of the intestine that give rise to more stem cells and all of the various differentiated cell types of the intestine. Notably, during aging, intestinal stem function declines, which impairs the ability of the intestine to repair itself after damage.

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