MURRAY, Utah — People of faith have long believed that fasting can be good for the soul.
Now Utah researchers are launching a study to determine whether a weekly water-only fast can also be good for the body.
Benjamin Horne, director of cardiovascular and genetic epidemiology at the Intermountain Heart Institute, says his working hypothesis is that such fasts can reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Such benefits have shown up in three previous studies at the Murray, Utah, institute.
Now Horne and his team are looking for 12 people who have metabolic challenges, such as moderate to high blood sugar, high blood pressure, obesity, high triglycerides and low "good" HDL cholesterol. They will fast six 24-hour periods over five weeks in the pilot study.
In a second phase next year, 200 participants, perhaps some of them working with researchers in other states, will join.
"We don't really know what the model is for a healthy benefit," Horne said Wednesday. "We need to drill down and figure it out."
Most religious traditions — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism — encourage fasting on particular occasions or even over extended periods, such as the sunrise to sundown fasts of Muslims during the month of Ramadan.
Utah provides a particularly good laboratory for such research, because, given the predominance of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, fasting is not an alien notion.
Mormons are encouraged to go without food and water for 24 hours — or two meals — once a month on Fast Sunday. LDS Church spokesman Cody Craynor says fasting is seen as a way to grow closer to God and prepare to receive God's blessings.
It is that shared practice of a large portion of the state's residents that got Horne thinking, a decade ago, about fasting's possible health benefits.
The notion that Utah has a low rate of heart-attack deaths because so few residents smoke has been conventional wisdom since research in the 1960s and 1970s. But since then, Californians have stopped smoking in droves, and their state's rate of heart-attack deaths has not budged.
"We started thinking there may be other factors that are unique to the behavior of Utahns," says Horne. "Fasting really stood out."
His team's first research study, published in 2008 in The American Journal of Cardiology, involved surveying patients who came to IHC to learn if they had coronary disease.
Those who said they routinely abstained from food and drink — 90 percent of whom were LDS — had lower rates of coronary artery disease.
A similar study published in the same journal in 2012 found that those who engage in periodic fasting are at lower risk for diabetes.
Last year, Horne's team published a third study, this one involving 30 people who did not previously fast. It was published online in December in the Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases journal.
Those participants fasted on water alone for one day. Among the interesting results were that participants' amount of human growth hormone skyrocketed, and their red blood cell counts also rose.
Human growth hormone — also produced by sleep and exercise — blocks the body from using glucose as its energy source so it starts burning more fat cells, Horne said. The latter are a major contributor to insulin resistance in diabetics.
For the pilot study, his team is looking for participants who are 30 to 69 years old, not pregnant and not taking medication for diabetes.
"We're looking for people who are willing to try fasting to see if it is something that will benefit their health," he said, "and the health of others like them that are on the verge of having diabetes."