It has numerous health benefits and has rapidly gained popularity as a potential cure-all for various ailments over the last decade or so. In fact, the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize was a cell biologist named Yoshinori Ohsumi who managed to pinpoint the underlying the mechanisms of autophagy.
For those of you that aren’t familiar with the term or how you can profit from it, let’s take a closer look at what exactly autophagy is, and how to get your body to partake in the process.
What is Autophagy?
Scientifically speaking, autophagy is a “normal physiological process that deals with destruction of cells in the body. It maintains homeostasis or normal functioning by protein degradation and turnover of the destroyed cell organelles for new cell formation. During cellular stress the process of autophagy is upscaled and increased.”
In plain English, the process refers to your body’s ability to recycle damaged cells, and in some cases kill cells that no longer serve a purpose. The term autophagy is Greek in origin, and can literally be translated as “self-eating” from auto meaning self, and phagy meaning eating.
Autophagy can be induced through fasting for an extended period of time, because your cells needs to experience starvation in order to turn to themselves for sustenance.
Benefits of Autophagy
A powerful tool for longevity, there are several proven benefits of undergoing autophagy.
Autophagy has been shown to:
- Assist in optimal aging
Aging is the degradation of cell functioning over time and is a phenomenon every living thing will experience throughout their lifetime. Because autophagy is the process of recycling and repairing old and damaged cells it would only make sense that it would have potentially profound effects on the aging process. Billions of dollars are spent on the cosmetic and health & fitness industries each year by desperate consumers trying to slow down this unstoppable occurrence, but it turns out autophagy is the closest thing we’ve come to halting aging, or even potentially reversing portions of it, and it doesn’t cost a cent.
- Aid in the maintenance of metabolic health
Important for maintaining proper function of the metabolism, inducing autophagy has been shown to lower insulin resistance in compromised patients, making it a promising tool for those suffering from pre-diabetes, and for generally keeping blood sugar levels stable.
- Protect from neurogenerative disease
The accumulation of certain toxic proteins in the brain have been linked to brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s. Autophagy is thought to act as a built in defense system to help clear out the injurious matter, although research is still ongoing.
- Improve cardiovascular health
There is mounting evidence that autophagy is advantageous to those suffering from heart disease. Once again, it does this by clearing out old and damaged cells to maintain homeostasis.
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Fasting to Induce Autophagy
Fasting is a great way to jumpstart the process of autophagy in your body. The term “fasting” refers to going for a determinate length of time without food, forcing your body to make changes to adapt to the stress it experiences when it thinks it’s going to starve. Autophagy has been shown to begin only when glycogen stores have been depleted and the body must turn elsewhere for energy. The timeline of when this happens can vary by individual case, and the exact indicators of such are still being studied, but we do know a few things about how the length of fasting affects the progression of cell cleaning.
Short vs Long Fasts
There is no definitive guide to fasting and the ultimate length of time to go to get the best results, but one of the more popular methods is intermittent fasting. Autophagy is thought to begin at around 16 hours without food or caloric intake, but it may take longer in some individuals.
Intermittent fasting is popularly done by allowing meals only within a 6-8-hour window each day, leaving the remaining 16-18 hours as the fasting portion. Normally this is achieved by skipping either dinner or breakfast (and presuming you sleep 8 hours a night, this should bring you to at the least the 14-hour mark).
Another more extreme method of intermittent fasting has come to be known as the one-meal-a-day diet, or OMAD for short. With this technique fasting periods are longer and reach up to 22-23 hours a day in length, with a 1- or 2-hour window to eat a large meal. The body eventually becomes much more efficient at employing the nutrients it seeks with this form of eating. The benefits of autophagy are thought to hit a sweet spot at around the 20-24 hour mark, potentially making longer fasting periods more powerful than shorter fasting periods.
Additional Methods for Inducing Autophagy
- Try the keto diet
Studies have shown that when your body is used to being in a state of ketosis, it more readily jumps back into and achieves a higher level of autophagy upon beginning a fast.
- Hit the Gym Often & Go hard
There’s a larger amount of autophagy related gene activity in those that have been active for longer periods of time (as in their whole lives, as opposed to the last two weeks). That being said, intense exercise has revealed itself to play a big role in exercise-induced autophagy.
- Drink coffee
In mice, coffee, regardless of its caffeine level, was shown to induce autophagy in mice. Hmm, it couldn’t hurt to try.
The Bottom Line
We still have a lot to learn about the process of autophagy, and although we are aware of its potential for disease prevention and anti-aging we’re still not really sure what the optimal levels of autophagy are yet, or when they occur. So, keep these guidelines in mind but don’t worry about fasting for the perfect amount of time– you’ll get some of the benefits of autophagy regardless.
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