Three Foods that Support Stem Cell Proliferation and Differentiation

  • by Nils Osmar. Updated April 8, 2024
  • This post is not intended as, and should not be taken as, medical advice. 
  • See full Medical Disclaimer

As we age, our stem cell populations collapse. See study. This process accelerates in our mid-60s and early 70s, and appears to be a key driver of aging. As the Harvard Stem Cell institute puts it, “New evidence indicates that a progressive decline in stem cell frequency and function may significantly contribute to the conditions related to aging”

If we’re serious about healthy longevity and extending the human lifespan, we need to get serious about promoting stem cell differentiation and proliferation.

From a Guardian article

Research may reveal why people can suddenly become frail in their 70s”

“Working with scientists at the Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, Campbell and his colleagues studied blood cells across the age range from newborns to people in their 70s and 80s. “They found that adults under 65 had a wide range of red and white blood cells produced by a diverse population of 20,000 to 200,000 different types of stem cells in their bone marrow.

In the over-65s, the picture was radically different. About half of their blood cells came from a measly 10 or 20 distinct stem cells, dramatically reducing the diversity of the person’s blood cells, with consequences for their health…

When a person is in their 30s and 40s, the growth advantage of the aberrant stem cells makes little difference, but at 70 and over these fast-growing cells come to dominate blood cell production. “The exponential growth explains why there is such a sudden change in frailty after the age of 70, why ageing hits at that sort of age,” said Campbell. Faster-growing blood stem cells are linked to blood cancers and anaemia, but also make people less resilient to infections and medical treatments such as chemotherapy.”

Fighting back against stem cell collapse

This study (Strategies to improve regenerative potential of mesenchymal stem cells) focused on a number of things that can support stem cell proliferation and differentiation. They include heat shock proteins, caloric restriction, temporary hypoxia (being in a state of low oxygen), and keeping our blood sugar low.

Heat shock proteins: Hot baths and saunas

According to the study:

The hormetic effect of high and low temperature for a short period of time has been shown to effect in vivo-as well as in vitro-age-related dysfunction in cells. Temperatures below and above the standard culture temperature (32 ℃ and 41 ℃) have been shown to prevent or reverse aging and age related impairment, and significantly impact the regenerative potential of cells. Adult stem cells exhibit therapeutic potential for regenerative medicine and tissue engineering applications.

The anti-aging effect of heat shock treatment has been well documented in a series of studies with interesting results. Heat shock treatment has been found to maintain the long, spindle shaped morphology of MSCs by preventing or reducing age-related alterations such as the irregularly enlarged and flattened shape of cells[63,64].”

A significant increase in the proliferative potential of cells was observed when cells were treated with mild heat shock. The number of cumulative population doublings were increased 10% to 15% as a result of heat shock treatment for a short period of time[64]. In another study, the maximum population doublings were higher for cells that underwent heat shock at 41 ℃ for 60 min once in a week. The cells that were treated with heat shock achieved 36.0 ± 3.4 doublings while the cells in control group achieved only 26.2 ± 1.1 doublings.


Hypoxia is a temporary deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues. We can achieve this state (safely) by intense physical exercise. (Of course, we need to exercise safely.)

From the same study:

There is a clear consensus on the fact that hypoxia promotes the proliferative potential of cells. It has been shown that hypoxic insult significantly improves survival, stemness and proliferation of MSCs derived from adipose tissue[35] and bone marrow derived stem cells[36,37]. Proliferative potential of MSCs was significantly higher in hypoxic culture condition as compared to normoxic conditions[38] in long term cultures.

Oxygen concentrations of 1%-5% has been demonstrated to significantly increase the proliferation of MSCs while maintaining their normal morphology[36,37]. Similarly, the proliferative potential of BM-MSCs was significantly enhanced under hypoxia[39]. In this study, 1% hypoxia significantly enhanced the proliferative potential of BM-MSCs. Collectively, these studies indicate that hypoxic insult increases the self-renewal potential of stem cells. Some studies however indicate that initially hypoxia has a negative affect on cell viability and proliferation, however, reoxygenation following hypoxia promotes these processes[40].

Keeping sugars (and calories) low

Sugar ages us, whether it’s from table sugar, grains, unfermented dairy, or fruit and berries.

Glucose is an essential source of energy for all types of cells in the body although elevated levels of glucose have been shown to be associated with reduced mobilization, proliferation, homing and repair potential[104,105]. Similarly, stem cells isolated from diabetic patients and animals exhibited reduced yield, viability, proliferation, angiogenesis, differentiation and wound healing ability[106,107].

Choosing foods that support stem cell health

The foods we choose to eat daily can either damage or support our stem cell populations.

  • Sea buckthorn berries directly support stem cell proliferation and differentiation. See this article: “Sea Buckthorn Berry Oil Promotes “Rapid and Selective Mobilization” of Stem Cells”
  • Dark chocolate (79-80% cacao) has well-established benefits for stem cell differentiation. Dark chocolate that contains 70-80% cacao or higher is rich in polyphenols and magnesium.
  • Olives and olive oil have similar benefits (assuming that the olives used are fresh).

From an article in TotalStemCell:

Cacao contains compounds like epicatechin, which has been linked to increased angiogenesis – the formation of new blood vessels from pre-existing ones. The angiogenesis process stimulated by epicatechin is necessary for the regeneration of tissues and general wellbeing. A study conducted at California State Polytechnic University demonstrated that epicatechin-rich cocoa extract significantly increased capillary density in mice after just two weeks of treatment.

The researchers found that this increase was due to a boost in stem cell production within the body, leading to an enhanced ability for tissues to repair themselves (see study). As a result, incorporating cacao into your diet may help promote faster recovery from injuries or surgery by stimulating your body’s natural regenerative processes.

More about Sea Buckthorn

  • Sea buckthorn berries (not to be confused with common buckthorn bush berries!) support stem cell mobilization and increase the number of circulating stem cells in our bodies. 
  • One study found that consumption of sea buckthorn berry extract, even with no other interventions, increased the number of endothelial stem cells in the human body.  Another found that consumption of sea buckthorn proanthocyanidins leads to an increase in progenitor stem cells and endothelial stem cells.
  • One of my strategies is to eat sea buckthorn berries and berry powder daily (The seed powder is not as effective as the whole berry.)

Olives and olive oil

Olives and olive oil promote stem cell also support differentiation and proliferation. Picual olives work best.

Study: Influence of olive oil and its components on mesenchymal stem cell biology

The different groups of compounds included in the unsaponifiable fraction of olive oil have positive effects on mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). Among others, they include differentiation, proliferation and inflammation capacities, reducing oxidative stress and apoptosis.

Related study: Phenolic Compounds in Extra Virgin Olive Oil Stimulate Human Osteoblastic Cell Proliferation

In this study, we aimed to clarify the effects of phenolic compounds and extracts from different extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) varieties obtained from fruits of different ripening stages on osteoblast cells (MG-63) proliferation. Cell proliferation was increased by hydroxytyrosol, luteolin, apigenin, p-coumaric, caffeic, and ferulic acids by approximately 11–16%, as compared with controls that were treated with one vehicle alone, while (+)-pinoresinol, oleuropein, sinapic, vanillic acid and derivative (vanillin) did not affect cell proliferation.

All phenolic extracts stimulated MG-63 cell growth, and they induced higher cell proliferation rates than individual compounds.

The most effective EVOO phenolic extracts were those obtained from the Picual variety, as they significantly increased cell proliferation by 18–22%. Conversely, Arbequina phenolic extracts increased cell proliferation by 9–13%.

A decline in osteoblast proliferation was observed in oils obtained from olive fruits collected at the end of the harvest period, as their total phenolic content decreases at this late stage.

So what to do?

The studies I’ve read suggest that it could be useful to:

  1. Eat a diet low in both calories and carbohydrates. In my own case, my strategy is to avoid using table sugar and honey. I eat some fruit and berries (small amounts of blueberries and apples) but try to keep portions small. I avoid starchy grains which turn into sugar in the gut, whether they’re “whole” or refined. When you’re tempted to eat something sweet, be aware that as our blood sugar goes up, the evidence suggests that our stem cell population will be going down, not just temporarily but permanently.
  2. Do occasional 3-5 day water fasts or fasting mimicking diets has also been found to support the creation of a flood of new stem cells. See article. Fasting, of course, can have side effects; if you do a prolonged fast, be aware that there may be some danger of muscle loss. Fasting mimicking diets may be a better and safer approach for people who are interested in experiencing the benefits of fasting with minimal muscle loss.
  3. Take saunas and hot baths. I try to do both regularly. I like baths that are hot enough that I’m pouring with sweat.
  4. Work out vigorously, to where I’m seriously out of breath. There are many benefits of exercise. The studies suggest that a way of creating a temporary oxygen deficit pushing ourselves harder to create a deficit has benefits that go beyond the stress on our muscles.
  5. Eat small amounts of very dark chocolate (choosing types low in sugar)
  6. Add sea buckthorn berries to our diet. I stir some sea buckthorn berry powder into my morning coffee, or add some to yogurt. Note: It’s extremely tart and acidic, so be prepared for that if you’re new to it.. (I like mixing a tablespoon of sea buckthorn berry powder into a cup of yogurt. The result is tart, tangy and delicious. If you find it too tart, you might want to add some allulose or xylitol or another natural non-caloric sweetener to it.
  7. Eat a diet rich in vitamin D, vitamin C and other essential nutrients to provide the compounds needed by the body to support stem cell generation.
  8. Eat olives or cook with olive oil.

Not medical advice

This article is not intended as, and should not be taken as, medical advice. I’m not advising that people eat any particular diet or take any particular supplement(s), just reporting on what I’m doing. Supplements, like medications and other interventions, can have side effects; I would encourage people to research both possible benefits and side effects before starting on any supplementation regimen, and consult with a medical professional about any issues which might have a medical component.  See full Medical Disclaimer

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