GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A study by the Van Andel Institute has made key insights on how dieting and exercise may have a larger role in the future treatment of infections, diseases, and cancers.

“This study helps us better understand how nutrition affects the immune system,” said VAI professor and the study’s author Russell Jones, Ph.D. “This is an exciting first step and we look forward to one day translating this knowledge into dietary recommendations to boost immune function.”

The main finding of the study is that ketone bodies, a by-product of the liver, drastically increase production when sugar in the body is in short supply. This can be caused during exercise, when cells are rapidly burned through fuel, or fasting, when there is less food available to be broken down into glucose.

When the body is in short supply of glucose, the ramps up ketone bodies to help fuel vital organs. The study found these higher levels of ketone bodies help power immune cells. That finding draws a new correlation between diet and immunity.

Jones and colleagues demonstrate that T cells, the soldiers of the immune system, increase in productivity when fueled by ketone bodies rather than glucose. The ketone bodies reprogram the T cells to better neutralize threats like infections, diseases, and cancers.

“This work underscores how different nutrient fuels source distinct cellular functions,” said Peter Crawford, M.D., Ph.D., vice dean for research and professor of medicine at University of Minnesota Medical School. “It also fosters future interest in considering the diversity of nutrient fuel utilization patterns among different immune cell types in varying infectious disease or cancer contexts.”

Although this study suggests increasing ketone bodies through fasting may enhance T cell function, other studies have shown fasting to suppress immune function. This, however, does not disprove either study, it simply highlights the intricate interactions between diet and the immune system and underscores the need for further research on the topic.

Jones and his colleagues continue to explore the relationship between fasting, ketone bodies, and the immune system, with a focus on T cells’ ability to fight cancer.