Fasting: can it help with arthritis symptoms?

It may seem extreme and perhaps a little unpalatable to many, but a growing body of scientific research suggests that fasting can have a variety of health benefits. These include the prevention of heart disease and diabetes, and also the improvement of arthritis symptoms.

Scientists are beginning to understand why limiting the intake of food can reduce inflammation. Cells in starvation mode start burning of fat instead of glucose (sugar) for energy. Fat is not only an excellent energy source, it also produces compounds called ketone bodies, one of which blocks an inflammatory protein linked to many diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

It is not just about weight control

If you are at all overweight, one of the best ways to reduce osteoarthritis pain is by taking off the excess pounds. Being overweight increases the load that you put on your joints – your knees, your hips, your ankles – with every step you take. So at a very basic level, if fasting or calorie restriction assists in the attainment of a healthy body mass, then it also will assist in reducing arthritic symptoms.

The benefits of fasting, however, are not just linked to weight control. As reported by Valter D. Longo and Mark P. Mattson in their paper, ‘Fasting: Molecular Mechanisms and Clinical Applications’: “Fasting results in ketogenesis, promotes potent changes in metabolic pathways and cellular processes such as stress resistance, lipolysis and autophagy, and can have medical applications that in some cases are as effective as those of approved drugs such as… the amelioration of rheumatoid arthritis.” (Bruce-Keller et al., 1999; Hartman et al., 2012; Muller et al., 2001).

Fasting – different forms and benefits

Before looking at the potential benefits, it is important to note that fasting is not recommended for children, the frail or underweight, and that getting adequate nutrition while fasting is both a challenge and critical. Consultation with your GP or Specialist is advised before beginning any level of calorific reduction. It’s also worth noting that fasting can be somewhat difficult to stick with!

Fasting can take a variety of different forms. It can mean eating nothing or very little from 12 hours to several weeks. One study found that, for some patients, their RA pain and inflammation were significantly reduced from a one- to three- week fast which was followed by at least a year on a vegetarian diet.

Other studies have shown reduction in the inflammation markers associated with arthritis from alternating periods of fasting and eating. The 5:2 diet, made popular by the BBC’s Dr. Michael Mosely, is one version of such an eating plan. It involves eating normally but fairly healthily five days a week and cutting back to 500 calories (600-800 for men) on each of the other two days.

At the less extreme end of the scale, it has been found that even 12 hours of not eating in every 24-hour period can be beneficial.

If you think you are someone who might benefit from incorporating fasting into your arthritis-management plan, discuss the options with your doctor.

By Andrew Cairns
Health Services Manager
(Exercise Physiologist)
Arthritis NSW


‘Fasting: Molecular Mechanisms and Clinical Applications’

Valter D. Longo: Longevity Institute, Davis School of Gerontology and Department of Biological Sciences, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089-2520, USA

Mark P. Mattson: National Institute of Aging Intramural Research Program, National Institutes of Health, Baltimore, Maryland 21224, USA

‘Fasting to Feel Better’
By Linda Rath
Arthritis Today, May-June 2017