Fasting and Inflammation: How Fasting Can Reduce Inflammation

Chronic inflammation uses up crucial resources for the body and causes functional stress for your entire body. Therefore, most people look for ways to diminish inflammation, such as fasting.

But, can fasting help with inflammation? Are there anti-inflammatory benefits of intermittent fasting? What is the association between water fasting and inflammation or prolonged fasting and inflammation in the body?

In this article, we will discuss how fasting affects inflammation, what the research shows about intermittent fasting and inflammation, and why fasting can help reduce inflammation in the body.

We will cover the following: 

  • Why Is Inflammation a Problem?
  • What Causes Inflammation?
  • Fasting and Inflammation: Does Fasting Help With Inflammation?

Let’s dive in! 

A chalkboard that says inflammation and a stethoscope.

Why Is Inflammation a Problem?

Before we try to suss out the effects of water fasting and inflammation or intermittent fasting and inflammation, let’s briefly touch upon why inflammation is bad for the body.

First off, it’s important to establish that not all inflammation is bad. Inflammation is a natural physiological reaction that occurs in your body to help you heal. 

However, when inflammation persists, even at low levels, it can lead to deleterious sequela and chronic health conditions.

In fact, inflammation underlies many chronic lifestyle diseases like heart disease, metabolic syndrome, obesity, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and some neurodegenerative disorders.

Given the widespread obesity epidemic, the prevalence of hypertension and heart disease, and the fact that an estimated 60% of Americans are looking for ways to mitigate the risk of these sorts of diseases has become a critical goal.

A twisted ankle.

What Causes Inflammation?

As mentioned, inflammation isn’t inherently bad. It is a natural mechanism triggered by the body in order to help combat certain stressors and initiate the healing of damaged tissues.

For example, if you are running and you twist your ankle by accidentally stepping off of a curb, your ankle will sustain damage to some of the ligaments and other structures.

The body perceives this acute injury and tries to start the healing process.

In order to do so, circulation of blood and lymph to the ankle increases significantly in order to carry nutrients, oxygen, and vital immune cells such as macrophages to start cleaning up the ankle and delivering resources for healing.

You will be able to identify the inflammation because the ankle will become swollen due to the presence of extra fluids, and it may feel warm to the touch with turgid skin.

In this sort of situation, the inflammation is crucial for healing the body.

Inflammation has other functions, too. 

Chronic inflammation with a list of diseases surrounding the word.

For example, if your body comes in contact with a pathogen or foreign invader, there are a range of biochemical pathways that get triggered that produce molecules such as cytokines and immune cells to help fight off the attack to keep you healthy.

Ultimately, there are many times in which the inflammatory process in the body is not only helpful but essential for keeping you healthy and healing your body.

However, while inflammation plays a crucial role in these acute circumstances, prolonged inflammation can be problematic.

Chronic inflammation, even low-level persistent inflammation that you can’t readily detect with your eyes as you could in the case of the swollen sprained ankle, can damage your cells, tissues, and even DNA. 

Prolonged exposure to some of the inflammatory markers, such as pro-inflammatory cytokines, can wreak havoc on the structures of your body and can interfere with other biochemical reactions that should be occurring to keep you healthy.

This can increase your risk of various disease states, such as obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, metabolic syndrome, certain cancers, heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, allergies, and more.

A person meeting with their doctor.

Additionally, chronic inflammation can cause a rise in cortisol, the stress hormone.

There are various factors that can contribute to chronic inflammation, such as a poor diet, smoking, excess alcohol consumption, stress, poor sleep, exposure to certain pesticides or environmental toxins, refined oils and high sugars in the diet, artificial or chemical food products, etc.

These types of lifestyle behaviors and exposures increase your body’s production of free radicals, which are reactive oxygen species, causing oxidative stress in the body. 

What this means on a cellular level is that the free radicals can damage the telomeres and cause other inflammation and injury to cellular components, such as proteins, cell membranes, and RNA. 

Moreover, it seems that for some people, once the body gets used to being in a state of inflammation, the inflammation persists as if that has become the “new normal” even once the damage or threat is gone.

As such, we want to do everything within our power to decrease chronic inflammation.

A clock on a plate and utensils.

Fasting and Inflammation: Does Fasting Help With Inflammation?

Now, let’s look more specifically at the potential effects of fasting and inflammation.

What does the research show about water fasting and inflammation? What about prolonged fasting and inflammation?

The good news is that while we just described a laundry list of lifestyle factors that can cause inflammation in the body, there are also things you can do to reduce inflammation or prevent inflammation in your body.

One of the best ways to prevent and combat inflammation is through your diet.

A well-balanced, plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and other sources of antioxidants, is one of the best ways to combat free radicals and prevent the oxidative damage that leads to chronic inflammation.

Furthermore, although what you eat seems to play an important role in decreasing inflammation, when you eat (or don’t eat, in this case) may also help reduce inflammation and free radical production.

A variety of foods in a plant-based diet such as broccoli, lentils and other vegetables.

A multitude of studies have found that there is a strong association between intermittent fasting and inflammation, such that there seems to be an anti-inflammatory benefit of fasting.

Researchers believe that fasting may help “turn off” some of the inflammatory pathways or reset them to stop the inflammatory cascade.

One study that looked at the interaction between fasting and inflammation found that intermittent fasting decreased the number of monocytes in human and animal subjects. Monocytes are a type of immune cell that induces an inflammatory response.

The researchers concluded that the evidence from this study suggests that intermittent fasting is an effective way to decrease chronic inflammation without impairing the function of the immune system.

Because fasting is rooted in human ancestry in terms of the ways in which food was available, and then there would be periods of time with low energy availability (“feast or famine” with a hunter-gatherer type of society, for example), our bodies possess biological mechanisms that may be triggered by fasting, such as autophagy. 

We also have genes that can be “turned on“ or expressed, or “turned off“ and dormant for some time based on energy availability and whether we are fasting. 

Pouring a glass of water.

Some research suggests that part of the effects of fasting on inflammation have to do with epigenetics or the genetic expression of genes being turned on and off as necessary since these mechanisms are hardwired into our DNA as humans.

Some of these innate mechanisms linked to fasting serve protective roles for the body and may improve health.

For example, one study that examined various physiological effects of fasting and inflammation discovered that fasting seems to “turn on“ a gene switch that helps prevent bacteria in the gut from permeating the lining of the gut to enter the bloodstream.

When this bacteria enters the bloodstream, it is perceived as a pathogen, so the body mounts an inflammatory response.

Thus, because fasting may “toggle” a switch on the gene that inhibits the bacteria from getting into the bloodstream, fasting can prevent this inflammatory response from occurring.

Another study on fasting and inflammation found that fasting seems to stimulate the body to create a compound that directly inhibits a type of protein that drives chronic inflammation in several chronic conditions. This inflammatory compound is referred to as an “inflammasome.”

A person measuring their body fat.

Finally, although there seem to be some direct ways in which intermittent fasting or prolonged fasting can prevent or reduce inflammation, there are also indirect ways in which an intermittent fasting diet decreases inflammation.

Namely, intermittent fasting can help you lose excess body fat.

Excess body fat, particularly visceral fat surrounding your organs in the belly, is seen as a “threat“ to the body, so your body mounts an inflammatory response. 

Unless your weight gain is temporary, this inflammation persists for as long as you continue to carry excess body fat.

In this way, obesity is an inflammatory condition in and of itself and also a risk factor for other chronic diseases that are associated with inflammation, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. 

Numerous studies have found that intermittent fasting diets can help you lose weight, decrease body fat, and improve body composition.

In this way, another way in which intermittent fasting diets can help decrease inflammation is by helping you lose excess body fat.

Would you like to try your first foray into fasting to decrease inflammation in your own body? Check out our guide to 24-hour water fasting here

A person drinking a glass of water.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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