More than A Diet Fad, Nobel Prizes Awarded for Fasting Science
The Nobel Prizes are in full swing. Laureates were awarded this week for physics (black hole research), chemistry (CRISPR), medicine (Hep C), and literature, and the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the United Nations’ World Food Program. The Norwegian award committee said the WFP was awarded and celebrated “as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.” Alongside the other nominees for the prize included the World Health Organization, President Trump, climate activist Greta Thunberg, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was even a surprise nominee for the Peace Prize – you guessed it, Donald Trump – which we’ll just have to ponder—
But let’s peel away from the current drama and look back at two recent Nobel Physiology Prizes: 2016 and 2017.
These were the Nobel Prizes for autophagy and circadian rhythm that thrust fasting into the global limelight.
Since 2016, fasting has continued to rank in Google’s Year in Search results. This popularity has led to significant research on how fasting can treat widespread illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. But more importantly, the world has finally gotten back in touch with ancestral eating patterns that are critical to every human’s wellbeing on Earth.
Because of the 2016 and ’17 Nobel Prizes in Physiology, fasting now ranks with healthy lifestyles, such as eating well and exercising. Let’s learn a little more about the science (and scientists) behind this recent revolution.
The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology – ‘Discoveries of Mechanisms of Autophagy’
The benefits of fasting have long been celebrated for millennia: antiaging, illness prevention, and recovery – the list goes on. But the exact mechanisms through which those benefits were produced weren’t known. So fasting was relegated to fringe health circles and religious groups for most of modern history.
But fast forward to 2016.
After years of ‘probably watching more yeast cells than anyone else,’ Yoshinori Ohsumi modernized fasting when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the mechanisms of autophagy. for discovering the mechanisms of autophagy.
Upon starting his first lab with minimal equipment in the 1990s, Ohsumi had the capability of looking at only the largest part of a yeast cell called the vacuole. He said that other scientists weren’t interested in the vacuole because it was commonly thought of as ‘little more than a garbage dump.’ But after decades of observation and elegantly conducted experiments relating to vacuoles and lysosomes, Ohsumi proved several critically important things:
- that autophagy existed in both plants and animals
- that cells recycle their inefficient parts through autophagy, especially in response to stress and starvation
- and that specific genes were responsible for autophagy
Ohsumi’s Nobel Prize opened the floodgates for fasting research.
In an interview for the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Ohsumi said that as research into autophagy has increased, “it’s become clear that (autophagy) is not simply a response to starvation,” but that it contributes to a wide range of functions including “inhibiting cancer cells, aging, eliminating pathogens, and cleaning the inside of cells.”
This is why you’re hearing about new applications for fasting almost every day on mainstream and alternative health publications alike. But the second Nobel Prize related to fasting had an equal-yet-different impact…
on our food timing.
The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology – ‘Discoveries of Molecular Mechanisms Controlling the Circadian Rhythm
If there has been a daily eating rhythm over the last century, it’s been something like this:
Conventional wisdom says that you should eat as soon as you can, you know…to ramp up your metabolism – and to keep your metabolic fire ‘stoked’ throughout the day with up to six meals and as many snacks, all the way up to bedtime.
But the research for which the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology was awarded hints that our ‘always on’ eating patterns might be hurting everything from our waistlines to our sleep.
Doctors Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young were awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm.
For centuries, scientists have known that every creature and plant on Earth has a distinct metabolic rhythm that prepares an organism for the different metabolic activities of day and night. But apart from the obvious factor of daylight, the molecular causes of circadian rhythmicity were unknown.
Doctors Hall, Rosbash, and Young studied mutations in fruit flies’ genes to determine the cause. They discovered three different genes (Period, Timeless, and Doubletime) that produced a corresponding protein. These three proteins worked together to direct each cell’s nucleus according to the functions needed for whatever time it happened to be.
Over the past four decades, their work has influenced many of the top circadian experts today, including Satchin Panda. Panda and other leading scientists have piggybacked off of the 2017 Nobel Laureates to establish that our daily habits, such as eating, profoundly impact circadian rhythm. Eating around the clock is one of the worst things we can do for our circadian and overall health.
Ergo, Time-Restricted Eating (TRE) was born.
In the last five years, many studies have shown that limited eating windows (between 8 and 12 hours) can promote better metabolic health, sleep, mood, and even weight loss. So if you’ve tried TRE or intermittent fasting, you can thank the Nobel Laureates for starting the connection between eating habits and circadian rhythm!