Autophagy and Fasting: What Does the Science Say?
This article will discuss what autophagy fasting is, how it works, and whether or not the science backs up this practice.
What Is Autophagy?
We'll start with the definition of autophagy: "auto" meaning "self" and "phagy" meaning "eats" tells you that the literal translation of autophagy is "self-eating." That sounds scarier than the reality—we're not talking about some flesh-eating bacteria or even the more common sort of self-cannibalization that our bodies do to our muscles when in need of energy, catabolizing.
Autophagy is more like a recycling program, or cutting your hair to keep it healthy and free of split-ends. It's the body's process of clearing out damaged cells so that it can regenerate new and healthier cells in their place. It's almost like the internal equivalent of the exfoliating we do outside to keep our skin healthy.
The Details of Autophagy
Autophagy is a highly regulated process that delivers cellular waste material to lysosomes to be degraded, recycled, and then used to generate molecules to fuel cellular metabolism. For the specifics: scientist and Nobel prize winner Christian de Duve coined the term autophagy in 1962, when researchers discovered an increased amount of lysosomes in rat liver cells after an infusion of glucagon. It was also discovered that autophagy is regulated in part by the kinase mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR), which promotes or represses autophagy as needed.
What Does Autophagy Do?
The normal process of autophagy impacts your body and your health in various ways.
Promotes Metabolic Efficiency
The dysregulation of autophagy may contribute to developing metabolic disorders like insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes mellitus, osteoporosis, and atherosclerosis. From the very cellular level, autophagy can be used to improve the efficiency of mitochondria. The mitochondria in cells are the energy-makers, and the process of autophagy feeds them proteins from damaged cells that would otherwise either go to waste, or clog up other processes in the body.
Assists Against Neurodegenerative Disorders
In cases of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and Huntington’s disease, selective autophagy can help clean up the specific proteins that form in and around the brain's neurons and result in neurodegenerative symptoms. While autophagy was previously thought of as a nonselective process of digestion, it's now understood that autophagy receptors make this a selective process, involving a cellular form of quality control.
Fights Infectious Disease
One of the central functions of autophagy is to control infections. It removes the toxins that create infections and helps your immune system adapt its response to infection. Viruses as well as intracellular microorganisms and bacteria can be removed via autophagy.
Improves Muscle Performance
The oxidative stress placed on our cells during exercise can trigger instances of autophagy to help remove some of the damaged cellular debris and support our energy needs. Autophagy is necessary for exercise-induced muscle adaptation and the improvement of physical performance.
Prevents Cancer Growth
This is a double-edged sword, because while autophagy can clean up the damaged DNA and chronic inflammatory aspects of cancer development, some forms of cancer will attempt to usurp the process and use it to a detrimental advantage. Regulating the autophagy pathway is important for inhibiting cancer growth.
What Is Autophagy from Fasting?
Autophagy via fasting occurs when you take the reins of autophagy by carefully controlling your dietary intake. This is usually done in an attempt to trigger safe yet fast weight loss. Here are two types of dieting that can bring about targeted autophagy.
Autophagy via Intermittent Fasting
Stressing your cells is a quick way to turn on the autophagy process in your body, but you don't want to overly stress your body for too long lest the cure be worse than the cold. Intermittent fasting can create a useful nutrient deprivation in your cells, just as exercising will create a certain amount of oxidative stress to purposefully trigger your repair mechanisms into building muscle.
Intermittent fasting is not so much a diet as a pattern of eating, with daily short-term fasting of 16 hours, or longer fasts of 24 hours twice a week. How long until autophagy from fasting begins? It begins whenever your liver glycogen depletes, which occurs between 12-16 hours into a fast. This isn't a deprivation so much as a return to the eating pattern humans evolved to survive under when we didn't have supermarkets open 24/7. Intermittent fasting in that sense is more natural than eating three square meals a day, and can lead to long-term, sustainable weight loss, as well as better overall health when practiced...well, intermittently.
Autophagy via Ketosis
The ketogenic diet (or keto diet) is another way to get the benefits of fasting without actually fasting. This high-fat, low-carb diet breaks down to about 75% of your daily calories from fat, 20% from protein, and 5% from carbohydrates.
By putting a caloric restriction on carbs, you end up shifting your body's go-to source of energy from quick glucose to fat. That fat burning starts first with the fat you eat, and then quickly turns to burning the fat stores already on your body for a reliable energy source. This produces ketone bodies that bring protective effects, and research suggests that ketosis can also bring about periods of autophagy, which has its own health benefits for the body.
Autophagy via Exercise
Exercise is a non-diet-related way of inducing autophagy. An animal study suggests that physical exercise may bring about autophagy in specific organs that are involved in metabolic regulation, namely the pancreas, liver, adipose tissue, and muscles.
Adding intermittent fasting and regular exercise to your lifestyle is an excellent way to stimulate autophagy in your body. To make sure you have the ability to build muscle while fasting or utilizing calorie restrictions, you may want to supplement with a full host of the amino acids necessary for protein synthesis. That way the required ingredients for new muscle are never out of balance.
The Potential Benefits of Autophagy
Autophagy is the body's way of replacing old cells with new and younger ones, a regeneration effect that can help optimize our lifespans. As with any process in the body, autophagy declines as we age—waste accumulates and the regeneration rate decreases. This invariably leads to many symptoms of aging, which is why targeted autophagy fasting is so appealing.
Autophagy and Anti-Aging Potential
The benefits of autophagy are still being explored by scientists for its anti-aging potential, from the cellular level of the brain to the surface level of the skin. Those looking to employ autophagy via fasting to the loose skin left over after dramatic weight loss can find hope in studies suggesting that the slowing of natural autophagy is associated with a deterioration of dermal integrity, and that the fibroblasts that produce collagen (which keeps our skin youthful and pliable) suffer when autophagy decreases as we age. It stands to reason that if our collagen-producing fibroblasts get clogged due to a lack of autophagy, a targeted increase in autophagy frequency can free them up again, thus preventing and counteracting the aging of our skin.
Autophagy and Anti-Cancer Potential
The buildup of cellular waste affects our bodies from surface to core, as discussed previously with neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s. Fasting and autophagy applied to cancer treatment have been shown to inhibit tumor growth. Autophagy fasting is still being fully explored by researchers hoping to prevent cancers from forming via the clean-up efforts of autophagy.
Some studies indicate that cancerous cells can be detected and destroyed through autophagy, before they can proliferate and start using the body's processes against itself. Targeted use of autophagy, and keeping that process from being hijacked by cancers, may lead to new therapies for cancer treatment.
Fasting for Autophagy
Autophagy is our body's recycling program, beneficial in removing the toxins associated with neurodegenerative diseases, reusing residual proteins for energy and repair, and prompting the regeneration of new and healthy cells throughout our bodies. On a cellular level, it's like a regeneration episode of Doctor Who, but instead of science fiction, this process is science fact, and you have the ability to use it to your health's advantage via targeted fasting.
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