Why skipping breakfast means getting sick more often

You’ve certainly heard at one time or another that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But as intermittent fasting has become more popular, breakfast has become the meal that gets skipped most often.

A common intermittent fasting schedule involves a 16-hour overnight fast that usually envelops breakfast before giving way to an 8-hour eating window. Of course, there are many reasons breakfast usually ends up on the chopping block…

But whatever the reason, skipping breakfast can have some serious repercussions…

In fact, it could have a detrimental effect on your ability to fight off infection and increase your risk of heart disease…

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Fasting may weaken the immune system

“There is a growing awareness that fasting is healthy, and there is indeed abundant evidence for the benefits of fasting,” says lead author Filip Swirski, Ph.D., Director of the Cardiovascular Research Institute at Icahn Mount Sinai.  

“Our study provides a word of caution as it suggests that there may also be a cost to fasting that carries a health risk.”

The health risk Dr. Swirski is referring to is that skipping meals triggers a response in the brain that negatively impacts immune cells known as monocytes.

Monocytes are white blood cells made in the bone marrow that play many critical roles in the body, including fighting off infections, heart disease and cancer.

When examining blood work from mice, Dr. Swirski’s team noticed differences in the number of monocytes between two groups. One group ate breakfast right after waking up, with breakfast being their largest meal of the day. The other group had no breakfast.

At the beginning of the study, all mice had the same amount of monocytes. But after four hours, 90 percent of monocytes in mice from the fasting group disappeared. The number declined even further at eight hours. Meanwhile, the number of monocytes in the non-fasting group was unaffected by the passage of time.

When the researchers looked more closely, they discovered the monocytes in the fasting group traveled back to the bone marrow to hibernate — and production of new monocytes in the bone marrow diminished.

Monocytes in bone marrow typically have a short lifespan. But these monocytes survived longer in the bone marrow and aged differently than the monocytes that stayed in the blood. Then, after 24 hours when food was reintroduced to the mice in the fasting group, the monocytes hiding in the bone marrow surged back into the bloodstream within a few hours.

This lead to an increased level of inflammation. Instead of protecting the body from infection, these altered monocytes made the body less resistant to infection.

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Inflammation, stress and being “hangry”

This research is considered among the first to make the connection between brain and immune cells during fasting.

The study also demonstrated that fasting triggers a stress response in the brain that makes people “hangry,” a combined feeling of hunger and anger. This stress response is the mechanism that caused the monocytes to surge back into the bloodstream, increase inflammation and lower resistance to infection.

But their damage doesn’t stop there…

“Because these cells are so important to other diseases like heart disease or cancer, understanding how their function is controlled is critical,” he adds.

It may seem impossible to gain both the benefits of intermittent fasting and eating breakfast. But there may be one way to strike a compromise between fasting and breakfast: scrap dinner instead.

Many health experts recommend eating your largest meals earlier in the day anyway. So if your following the adage, “breakfast like a king, lunch like a queen, and dinner like a pauper,” it won’t be that tough to skip what would have been a light dinner anyway.

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Skipping Breakfast May Compromise the Immune System — Mount Sinai

Monocytes re-enter the bone marrow during fasting and alter the host response to infection — Immunity

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.