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Intermittent Fasting Can Support Your Dog's Longevity Too, Says A Vet

Karen Shaw Becker, DVM
Veterinarian By Karen Shaw Becker, DVM
Veterinarian
Karen Shaw Becker, DVM is a veterinarian. She is certified in animal acupuncture, homeopathy and rehabilitation (physical therapy for pets).
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Don't for a minute think a dog's circadian rhythm is not a big deal. It is. We paid a visit to the Salk Institute in Southern California, where we met professor Satchidananda Panda, Ph.D., at his Regulatory Biology Laboratory (Panda Lab) to discuss the effects of timing on food consumption. An animal's innate circadian rhythm dictates when food is nourishing and healing or metabolically stressful, and caloric restriction (or "intermittent eating or fasting") can add years to a pet's life.

Should your dog be intermittent fasting?

Panda's research demonstrates that when you feed your pet is almost as important as what you feed, in terms of avoiding obesity, diabetes, and myriad other common ailments afflicting dogs. By picking up the food bowl and limiting treats to match an animal's biological clock, many of the most common age-related metabolic diseases can be avoided. 

When we tell pet owners that it's OK if their healthy dog doesn't want to eat for a day or skips a meal, they are surprised. But dogs do not need to eat two or three square meals a day with treats in between (and neither do humans). Like us, dogs are too fast. They should occasionally fast for part of the day, in fact, to hit their metabolic reset button. 

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How does fasting work?

Fasting comes in many forms, but its fundamental effect on the body is the same. Fasting activates the hormone glucagon, which counterbalances insulin to keep your blood glucose levels balanced. Here's a visual to really grasp this concept.

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Picture a seesaw: When one person goes up, the other goes down. This analogy is frequently used to simplify, or explain, the biological insulin-glucagon relationship. In your body, if the insulin level goes up, the glucagon level goes down, and vice versa. When you give your body food, your insulin level rises, and your glucagon level decreases. But the opposite happens when you don't eat: Your insulin level goes down, and your glucagon level rises.

When your glucagon level rises, it triggers many biological events to take place—one of which happens to be autophagy, a cellular cleaning mechanism. This is why temporarily denying your body—and your dog's body—nutrients through the safe practice of time-restricted eating (or feeding, when it comes to dogs) is one of the best ways to boost the integrity of your cells.

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Benefits of IF for dogs.

Cramming all your dog's calories into a set period of time during the day does amazing things for their physiology. Aside from maintaining "cellular youth" and slowing aging, research has shown that the practice promotes greater energy, increases fat burning, and decreases risk of developing diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, all because fasting activates autophagy

Mark Mattson, Ph.D., a neuroscience professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and former chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging, is a prolific researcher in this area. He has collaborated with Panda on the research and published extensively in medical literature. He is particularly interested in how fasting can improve cognitive function and reduce the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases.

Mattson has conducted studies in which he subjected animals to alternative-day fasting, with a 10 to 25% calorie-restricted diet on the in-between days. According to him, "If you repeat that when animals are young, they live 30% longer." Read that sentence again. By changing when animals eat, we can extend their life span—by a lot! It's not just more time; it's more time with better health and less disease. Mattson even found the animals' nerve cells were more resistant to degeneration when following this protocol. And when he performed similar studies in women over the course of several weeks, he found that they lost more body fat, retained more lean muscle mass, and had improved glucose regulation. 

Ironically, one of the mechanisms that triggers these biological reactions is not just autophagy but stress. During the fasting period, cells are under mild stress (a healthy, "good" kind of stress), and they respond to that stress by enhancing their ability to cope with it and, perhaps, to resist disease. Other studies have confirmed these findings. Fasting done correctly reduces blood pressure, improves insulin sensitivity, boosts kidney function, enhances brain function, regenerates the immune system, and increases resistance to diseases in mammals across the board. Fasting is natural to a dog's physiology as well, and they benefit in the same fashion.

Adapted from the book THE FOREVER DOG by Rodney Habib and Karen Shaw Becker. Copyright © 2021 by Rodney Habib and Karen Shaw Becker. Published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

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