The impact of intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting triggers the release of the protein IL-22 in specific gut immune cells, which results in beigeing of white fat cells to improve energy use.

Intermittent fasting increases the production of IL-22 from ILC3s immune cells in the gut of mice, which induces beigeing of white fat cells. The schematic represents the interactions between the different immune cells (large circles). Image credit: Chen et al. (CC BY 4.0)

Obesity refers to a condition where a person has excessive fat accumulation, which can have negative impacts on their health. Managing obesity has typically relied on reducing energy intake and increasing energy use through diets and exercise.

For example, intermittent fasting is a diet strategy involving periods of time in a day or week where a person does not eat any food. Research has shown that intermittent fasting may improve the metabolism and increase energy use by enhancing a process known as “beigeing” of white fat tissue.

In this process, white fat cells or their precursor cells differentiate into beige fat cells, which can consume excess energy by burning fat. Consequently, understanding how beigeing of white fat cells is activated in intermittent fasting may reveal a promising strategy for tackling obesity and metabolic diseases.

Immune cells found in the gut known as innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) may play a role in the metabolic benefits from intermittent fasting. However, the roles of ILCs are complex: some types of ILCs can promote obesity, while others show metabolic benefits through their release of proteins like IL-17 and IL-22, which can help the body to metabolise glucose.

To find out if these immune cells play a role in intermittent fasting, Chen, Sun et al. used diet-induced obese mice that had to fast every other day. Intermittent fasting was found to cause a form of ILCs (ILC3s) to release IL-22, which resulted in beigeing of white fat cells in obese mice. Single-cell sequencing techniques of gut immune cells further revealed that intermittent fasting increased forms of signalling in ILC3s and caused ILC3s to interact with other immune cells, such as dendritic cells and macrophages.

The findings demonstrate how intermittent fasting causes beigeing of white adipose tissue through ILC3s, revealing mechanisms underpinning the metabolic benefits found from intermittent fasting. More research into this process may help identify new targets for treating obesity.