New Study Explores How Intermittent Fasting Could Help Addiction Treatment

mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant By Sarah Regan
mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant
Sarah Regan is a writer, registered yoga instructor, and Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Intermittent Fasting with Water and Lemon

Image by Nataša Mandić / Stocksy

From reducing inflammation to boosting longevity, we're beginning to wonder what intermittent fasting can't do. And according to research out of the University of Arizona, another area that may see benefits from an intermittent fasting (IF) regimen is addiction.

It all started when a student, David Duron (who has now obtained his Ph.D.), was curious about the effects intermittent fasting could have on opioid treatment and addiction. The team moved forward with the study using mice as subjects, not entirely sure what they would find.

When it was all said and done, their research suggests intermittent fasting could have a significant effect on opioid treatment, both improving treatment benefits and limiting negative side effects, especially addiction.

Testing IF during opioid treatment.

The study's corresponding author, John Streicher, Ph.D., explained to mbg that this was the first time the impact of intermittent fasting on opioids had been studied.

To do this research, the team put mice on a six-hour fasting regimen—meaning they could only eat during a six-hour window each day—while undergoing opioid injection treatment for one week. When the week was up, they discovered pain relief had significantly improved and lasted longer in the fasting group, including in a post-surgical pain model.

But despite the increased efficacy, the side effects did not increase, which Streicher points out could have important implications with regard to addiction.

Opioids, he explains, "activate the reward circuit, and that's the basis of addiction. In the control mice—the ones who'd ate as much food as they wanted all the time—they showed the usual reward that we would expect in response to morphine. But amazingly, the IF mice showed no evidence of reward. They didn't seem to have this euphoric effect of the drug, or at least didn't learn to associate a euphoric effect with it."

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Improving treatment and limiting side effects.

While this research is still in its early stages, the findings suggest people undergoing opioid treatment could try intermittent fasting to both improve treatment and help reduce or eliminate the chance of addiction (should similar results translate to humans).

And in addition to that, other side effects improved as well. Tolerance for the opioids, for example, increased by as much as 100% in the control group that wasn't intermittent fasting. The IF group, on the other hand, only saw about a 40% increase in tolerance, meaning they didn't have to up their dosage as much.

Another issue facing patients on opioid regimens is constipation. The team found the IF mice had less constipation and recovered faster from the drugs, and given what we know about IF's effects on gut health, those findings make sense.

"All of [these results] together suggests side effects [of opioids] are reduced and efficacy is improved," Streicher adds, "which is exactly what you want."

What's next moving forward?

To continue the research, the team wants to do more studies and clinical trials to understand what exactly is happening within the brain that's affecting opioid receptors and side effects.

"One of the cool things is—unlike a new drug which requires 10 years, millions of dollars, and approval by the FDA—something like a dietary change can be tested almost immediately," Streicher says. "So we're already trying to set up a clinical trial based on these findings to have patients on an intermittent fasting diet, and see what it does to their experience with opioid pain therapy."

Indeed, virtually anyone can try out intermittent fasting for themselves. To learn more, here's our definitive IF guide, plus 12 things to know about IF before trying it.

Ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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