What Is Autophagy and How Can Fasting Activate It?

Our bodies can perform some amazing things. If we stop for a moment to think about what is going on inside of ourselves, it’s quite astonishing. There is so much happening that we do not even have to orchestrate. Air exchanges, blood circulates, and food digests all day long, whether we are sleeping or awake. 

What you may not be aware of is that our bodies are also engaging in a type of recycling. Just as you toss out glass, plastic, and cardboard in hopes that it will be given a new lease on life by being recycled, this also happens within our bodies. On a molecular level, our cells are constantly repairing themselves in a process called autophagy. 

autophagy and intermittent fasting

Autophagy /aa·taa·fuh·jee/ is a natural occurrence that happens with all healthy humans where the body repairs itself. Recently, it has been found that fasting for an extended amount of time can induce this state and even prolong it. Fasting can aid this process of repairing and replacing old cells, so let’s delve in and talk about how. 

What is autophagy? 

Autophagy may seem like an unusual word, but it consists of two parts, both of which come from the Greek language. “Auto” is a relatively common term, and no, we are not talking about your car. Instead, think about words like autonomy and autobiography, where it means “self.” The term “phagy” is not quite as familiar, but it translates to “eat” or “devour.”

When the two halves come together, the term technically means “self-eating.” Primarily, the body engages in autophagy when it devours cell parts. This ingestion happens when microscopic parts are old, dying, damaged, or just not useful anymore. Without us being aware that it is happening, our bodies are doing their best to rid themselves of waste. The body stays in tip-top shape by adhering to the principle of “out with the old, and in with the new.”

Think about it as a way of cleansing and reusing worn-out parts, just on a cellular level. Our bodies consist of trillions of cells, and this regeneration is continuously going on in our body as cells grow, divide, and replace themselves naturally. This self-eating practice can break down foreign and harmful substances that enter the body. The process also breaks down cells to obtain nutrients when the body is undergoing starvation—what an incredible, self-sufficient machine we inhabit.

How was autophagy discovered?

The term “autophagy” was coined by Christian de Duve in 1963. De Duve conducted a series of experiments on rats. He observed that when the liver cells of a rat were perfused (in short, to be infused with a fluid) with glucagon—a pancreatic hormone—the cells started the process of autophagy. Although how this exactly happens on a cellular level is still a bit of a mystery, our overall understanding of the process has deepened since his discovery. 

In experiments, it has been found that yeast contains 32 genes that regulate and impact the process of autophagy. These genes are also present in other organisms, such as plants, invertebrates, and mammals, which shows that things in various stages of complexity perform autophagy on some level. 

Autophagy is also essential both to the individual cells and the organism as a whole. If the process didn’t occur, unusable organelles would collect inside the individual cells, resulting in extreme dysfunction or cell death over time. The method of clearing out dead organelles and reusing the nutrients is essential to keep an organism healthy and functioning at its best.

Also, it’s important to note that autophagy needs to be accompanied by replacement. Yes, a cell needs to clean house and get rid of unessential, unusable parts consistently. However, those organelles must be replaced for the cell to remain functional.

In 2018, Daniel J. Klionsky made a cartoon this reorganization to portray the process in layman’s terms. He likened the replacement to taking out furniture to clean a room—the furniture needs to be put back for a room to remain functional. Seating, lighting, and decor all have their purpose in a space, just like each organelle performs a specific function. Our cells do this in miniature, although dying organelles are swapped for new ones, whereas it’s obviously not economical to purchase new furniture every time you clean a room. 

The business of autophagy also stretches beyond our cells. Because this discovery was made just decades ago, ongoing research has heightened. Symposiums and autophagy conferences take place globally to share new findings and information among scientists. The process of cell part removal and replacement dramatically impacts the body and helps it fight disease. Therefore, it’s essential to consider how intermittent fasting can cooperate with the body and aid in successful autophagy. 

How can intermittent fasting help autophagy? 

When we consume food, the body is always activated to take care of the substances we bring inside. Food is chewed, swallowed, and digested. Nutrients are absorbed, and broken down materials are transported through our bloodstream. These vitamins and minerals are used by cells to carry on their various functions.

When we take a break from eating, as is the case with fasting, our bodies can focus on other things, such as repair and restoration. This regeneration happens automatically while we are sleeping, which is a type of fasting that we engage in nightly. While we are chasing our dreams, our bodies are still hard at work.

With intermittent fasting, there is an extended period of time where food is not consumed. Frequently, calories are restricted in conjunction with limited eating windows. When autophagy fasting starts to occur, cells can redirect their activities towards helping the body in other ways. Time-restricted eating is beneficial for many reasons, one of which is allowing our bodies to concentrate on recycling waste through self-consumption. 

What else can help increase autophagy? 

Interestingly, there are ways beyond intermittent fasting to aid the body in repairing cells. We already touched on the natural process of sleeping, but there are a few other ways you can help jump-start your body’s mode of recycling.

  • Exercise puts the body’s cells under stress, and autophagy is a natural response to counteracting that strain.
  • The spice turmeric contains curcumin, which aids cells in autophagy. This process, in turn, helps increase repair in brain and heart cells.
  • Coffee lovers will rejoice in the fact that the caffeinated substance also increases cell repair and replacement via autophagy. 
  • Red wine contains a supplement called resveratrol, which aids cell rejuvenation, although the amount in the wine is minimal, so you’d have to drink up. This is not advisable, but you can purchase resveratrol supplements to increase the effect. 
  • The keto diet has an effect similar to fasting in the process of cell repair. This way of eating can also help protect your body from seizures via autophagy.
  • Eating foods high in antioxidants can provide an optimum environment for cellular recycling. The nutrients from berries and green tea can be especially helpful in aiding the reuse of cellular material.
  • Reducing and relieving stress puts bodies in a better place. It’s natural for us to be under mental pressure at times, but allowing ourselves to take a break can help the healing process. This pause is beneficial when combined with communing with nature.
  • Practicing purposeful, restorative sleep is also vital. Creating some sort of routine of going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day can help us rest more soundly, which helps in the body’s natural process of autophagy while we sleep.
  • This goes without saying, but be sure to drink plenty of water. Doing so helps the body flush out toxins and cellular waste products.
driking water

What are the short-term and long-term benefits of autophagy fasting?

An autophagy fasting study was performed on two sets of rats. Both groups were allowed to consume the same amount of fatty foods. One section was only permitted to eat these high-fat substances during an 8-hour window to mimic intermittent fasting. The rats who underwent intermittent fasting had fewer health concerns than the free-eating group.

A similar study was conducted in regulating their eating hours. The mice who could only consume during certain hours were more active, had more youthful immune systems, and recovered quickly from specific ailments. The fasting mice were more responsive to cancer treatments and had slower tumor growth. Of course, humans are different from animals, but there are similar presumptions. 

An article by Cedars-Sinai states that autophagy fasting can help reprogram the heart after a heart attack. The process of stimulating cell repair and replacement creates more resilient heart tissues. Prescribed medications can also induce cellular recycling, but this is obviously for extreme cases and not regular body maintenance. 

There are many other ways autophagy helps our cells. Here are just a few:

  • Autophagy boosts the immune system by clearing out infections quickly and effectively.
  • Clearing out dead organelles is known to suppress inflammation in the body’s tissues, which can alleviate pain and help the body fight pathogens.
  • Cellular eating reduces damage from oxidative stress, which slows the process of aging
  • Cancers can be delayed or held at bay, although autophagy can potentially keep cancer cells alive longer once the tumor is in place.
  • Autophagy triggers quick regeneration and replacement of cells.
  • The process of clearing out dead parts removes toxins that cause brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, dementia, and Parkinson’s.
  • Removing and replacing unhealthy cell parts promotes healthy liver function.
  • Autophagy rids cells of waste and also repairs cells.
  • The process of autophagy has been shown to increase lifespan.
  • There is a decreased risk of cardiovascular and heart diseases due to removing damaged cell organelles and harmful proteins.
  • Cellular eating reverses and prevents diabetes by controlling a healthy blood sugar level.

What is autophagy fasting’s future? 

Although bodies have been practicing autophagy for centuries, the long-term results are still being studied. Many of the trials have been on rats and mice, especially when it comes to activating autophagy through a regular eating schedule, but scientists are taking cellular recycling seriously. In 2016, Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries of mechanisms of autophagy.

A 2019 study on humans did show that an 18/6 plan of intermittent fasting aided the restoration of the body’s cells. This plan consists of 18 hours of fasting and a 6-hour eating window, which is a bit more restrictive than the more common 16/8 way of 16 non-eating hours with an 8-hour consumption window, but both plans have proven to be effective in aiding autophagy. 

weight loss with fasting

This leaves the question that begs an answer. We can see the physical benefits of intermittent fasting, such as slimmer waists, fat loss, and overall health benefits, but when it comes to autophagy, how can scientists determine whether the process is happening or not and at what rate?

It’s fairly technical, but in short, blood can be tested for the presence of specific proteins formed during the process of autophagy. This testing has been performed in conjunction with intermittent fasting trials to ensure results. 

What does this mean for you? If you are practicing intermittent fasting, additional benefits are being discovered and studied, which further shows that going without food for set periods can enhance your body’s natural functions. It also aids in giving your cells a time of rest where they can perform a bit of housekeeping and stave off disease and illnesses. This natural, essential process all adds up to a healthier body that can perform at its best. 

With scientists around the globe making new discoveries, it’s being proven over and over again that autophagy is essential for a healthy body. Even if the concept of autophagy is unique to you, expect to hear more about it in the future. Disease prevention, toxin removal, and increased lifespan are just a few of the positives, and we hope to hear more about the benefits of autophagy—and how intermittent fasting can aid the process—in years to come.