Low PROTEIN diet: The hormone that triggers all its benefits

Reducing your intake of animal protein has been known to have a number of beneficial health effects, including longer lifespans, and that these effects depend on a compound derived from the liver. Several recent studies therefore suggest that eating a low-protein diet, but not so low in protein as to cause malnutrition, may be beneficial to health. Conversely, overconsumption of high-protein diets has been linked to increased mortality.

A few years ago, Pennington Biomedical’s Neurosignaling Laboratory had shown that a metabolic hormone, “fibroblast growth factor 21” or FGF21 for short, is a key signal from the body to the brain on a protein-restricted diet. Without this signal, the metabolism could not adapt to a low-protein diet. The researchers thus further deciphered the key role of this metabolic hormone.

The key hormone for a healthy life with a low-protein diet

Which mechanism? When the liver detects lower levels of protein, it activates cells that produce the FGF21 hormone and releases the hormone into the bloodstream. FGF21 is then transported to target cells in the brain, which understand and signal that protein intake is low. The brain responds with a complex set of instructions that limit growth—in this case, the mouse—regulate food intake and increase the number of calories burned.

The study, performed on mice, actually shows that when FGF21 is present in sufficient amounts, a diet low in animal protein can prolong healthy lifespan and weight loss even with unrestricted food intake. On the other hand, these beneficial effects are lost in mice deprived of FGF21, suggesting that the hormone plays a crucial role in the brain that is essential for improving health and longevity “after”.

  • FGF21 acts in the brain to improve metabolic health: These new data characterize FGF21 as the first known hormone that coordinates eating behavior and metabolic health to improve longevity during protein restriction. The discovery of the role of FGF21 also implicates new molecular and neural pathways that could be targeted to optimize metabolic health and longevity.

“If scientists can understand how diet and nutritional hormones like FGF21 work to prolong lifespan, it would lay the foundation for new treatments that can ‘alleviate’ a large number of age-related chronic diseases.”

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