Should you starve a fever and feed a cold? Researchers investigate immune health

A recent Yale study has investigated the old wisdom of “starving a fever and feeding cold”, with researchers looking into the types of infections and whether fasting or eating has positive of negative effects on immune response.


When we are ill, we naturally go through periods of appetite loss and consequently fasting. “Through millennia, all organisms evolved to be attuned to what cells need,” said Andrew Wang, M.D. “Cells require certain nutrients to perform tasks and food preferences may be the body’s way of telling us how best to survive different types of infections” said Wang.

For decades, doctors and scientists have questioned the effect dietary choices and illness behaviors have during sickness. “When animals are infected they stop eating and they switch to a fasting metabolic mode,” Medzhitov said. “The question was whether fasting metabolism is protective or detrimental.” This particular study was led by immunobiologist Ruslan Medzhitov, who looked at the effect of nutrition on mice (which were infected with either a common virus or bacteria) and found some interesting results.


The study

When the mice were fed, they found that those with viral infections survived, but mice with a bacteria infection died. The researchers tested individual nutrients such as fat, protein and glucose and found that glucose was responsible for the effect on nutrition on the infection.

“During a viral infection, eating provides glucose, which may be necessary for survival,” Medzhitov said.

However, the researchers then infected mice with the bacterium ‘Listeria monocytogenes’, which causes food poisoning. The mice that weren’t fed eventually recovered – but those mice that were force fed died.

Medzhitov said that “fasting leads to the production of ketones — another type of fuel — which may help animals tolerate a bacterial infection.”

Whilst the study indicates that dietary preferences may be linked to specific infections, supports “starve a fever or feed a cold” and be especially valuable for practitioners – more research is needed on the specifics on humans and their diagnoses. Therefore caution is needed depending on the illness.



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