You’ve probably already heard about the benefits of fasting, especially if you are following the keto diet. There is a lot of talk about how healthy intermittent fasting can be. The main reason for this is that fasting triggers autophagy. The main seven benefits of autophagy and fasting are now being understood and studied more than ever.
There is widespread recognition of the fact that it’s not just what you eat but when you eat that is important.
The old calories in/calories out thinking about weight loss and health no longer stands up to the latest science.
A lot of the most recent research has helped with the understanding of what exactly happens when we fast and begin the process of autophagy, the processes that is triggered in our bodies once we go without food for more than 12 hours.
There is an amazingly long list of health and longevity benefits of autophagy, and more research is ongoing to better understand this ancient and self healing system that has evolved along with us.
Many people begin with intermittent fasting in order to lose some weight, and this is a very effective way of reaching that goal.
However, they soon discover that the health benefits of triggering autophagy go way past simply loosing some body fat.
Seven benefits of autophagy and fasting
1.Autophagy may prolong your life: It’s been known for a long time that reducing food intake expands lifespan. This is true of all of the different organisms that have been tested.
As we age our cells become more damaged and less able to function properly. When the body senses a lack of nutrients, the process of autophagy begins.
Autophagy repairs damaged cells and proteins as well as removing toxins. This literally gives your cells a new lease of life and reduces your biological age.
Autophagy also repairs damage to the mitochondria which is the cell component responsible for the generation of energy.
These damaged mitochondria also release free radicals into our system. So when they are repaired the amount of free radicals and oxidative stress is also reduced.
This leads to a greatly reduced chance of developing age related diseases and enhances the body’s ability to fight infection, leading to a longer possible life span.
As we age we naturally experience a drop in the amount of times we enter autophagy. It becomes increasingly important that we induce this process by diet and exercise as we get older.
In 2015 a scientific paper “Essential role for autophagy in life span extension” 9 was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation (Frank Madeo, Andreas Zimmermann, Maria Chiara Maiuri and Guido Kroemer).
2. Reduces inflammation:
Inflammation has also been implicated as the cause of many neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer disease or Parkinson disease.
In Alzheimer’s disease autophagy removes amyloid, and in Parkinson’s autophagy removes ⍺-synuclein.
There is overwhelming evidence that the modern carbohydrate heavy diet is a major cause of inflammation in the body.
Sugar in particular has been singled out as an inflammation causing food.
3.Autophagy reduces the development of some malignant tumors:
There have been several studies showing the link between chronic inflammation and the development of malignant tumors. One study even suggests that inflammation is essential for the development of all cancers. You can read the study here 5 .
This study states that “The process of autophagy, or bulk degradation of cellular proteins through an autophagosomic-lysosomal pathway, is important in normal growth control and may be defective in tumor cells.”
In other words, the lack of autophagy may be playing a part in the growth of tumor cells.
However, autophagy is a “double-edged sword” in tumors, depending on the cell/tissue types and the tumor stages, which hinders the clinical application of autophagy activators or inhibitors.
Autophagy is an area of ongoing and important research into the causes and prevention of cancer.
4.Autophagy can reset the immune system:
Autophagy and the immune system are now known to be linked and the immune system uses Autophagy to regulate many of its systems.
Autophagy is involved in seeking out pathogens, and has a role in the fields of vaccines and aging 6
Autophagy has been reported to modulate immune system components, mainly containing natural killer (NK) cells, macrophages, dendritic cells (DCs), and T and B lymphocytes.
It has an influence on their homeostasis, survival, activation, proliferation, and differentiation, which represent innate and adaptive immune responses. Meanwhile, it also influences the release of cytokines and antibodies.
Autophagy also acts as an immune effector that mediates pathogen clearance.
5.Autophagy improves your skin:
One of the reasons for lose skin in a loss of collagen. Collagen is produced in your body by fibroblasts.
Fibroblasts are a type of cell that not only makes collagen but is also involved in tissue repair and remodeling.
This means that when the production of fibroblasts is low, then the effects are going to show up in your skin.
Autophagy increases production of fibroblasts, and therefor collagen and helps to regenerate skin cells.
This study showed that as the rate of autophagy decreases it leads to aged dermal fibroblasts, which leads to deterioration of dermal integrity and skin fragility.
So there is scientific evidence that autophagy can support skin health and help to tighten and strengthen it too.
6.Autophagy improves metabolic health:
Diabetes type 1 and 2 are the two most common metabolic disorders and are associated with sustained high blood sugar levels.
One of the triggers for type two diabetes is reduced autophagy.
This causes the beta cells in the pancreas to become damaged over time and impair their ability to produce insulin Autophagy and its link to type II diabetes mellitus
When autophagy is active, your metabolic rate is slightly increased, not decreased.
There is zero evidence that we need to eat three times a day, let alone the five or six times that some people are chowing down.
Non stop eating prevents autophagy from taking place, and when this natural and necessary process is reduced then our health suffers.
Eating far too often doesn’t even reduce hunger. In fact, due to the multiple elevations of insulin and its crashes a few hours later, we feel more hungry when eating every few hours.
The sustained high levels of insulin within our bodies acts as a signal which blocks the use of stored fat, as the body is able to survive on the incoming food alone.
In order to lose weight effectively, insulin levels need to be lowered to the point where they signal our bodies to begin using our stored fat as fuel.
To lower insulin levels we need to be eating a very low carb diet, and/or practicing intermittent fasting.
Simply reducing calories but still eating foods too often will keep insulin levels high, causing the body to use only the food we’re eating for fuel.
As we are now eating less ( but not less often) the body will sense a lack, and lower its metabolic rate with disastrous outcomes for any weight loss programme.
When fasting our stored fat is used as fuel and our body maintains its metabolic rate. We also benefit from all the cleansing and repair of autophagy.
How long do you need to spend in autophagy to get the health benefits?
Short term fasting will give all the benefits
Fasting is a normal and natural thing to do, we all fast every night while we sleep, hence the meaning of breakfast which means literally to break fast.
Some people are worried about the health effects of fasting but here is no reason why short term fasting should negatively affect your health.
A healthy adult will be able to fast for at least three days without any worries. By fasting, I mean no food but plenty of water, tea or black coffee.
If you do have a health issue, you should talk it over with your doctor before you begin. If you’re taking any medication, this could be affected by fasting so again, seek medical advice.
As you have read, there are now many studies that support the fact that short term fasting will promote autophagy.
Mehrdad Alirezaei et al. in their paper “Short-term fasting induces profound neuronal autophagy” found that short term fasting promoted Autophagy and had a profound effect on neurons.
They went on to state that ” short-term food restriction may represent an attractive alternative to the prophylaxis and treatment of diseases in which candidate drugs are currently being sought.”
In other words, short term (or intermittent) fasting which produces autophagy could be of even greater benefit than the drugs currently being developed for the treatment of neurodegenerative conditions.
More than enough reason to give some serious consideration to making intermittent fasting a part of your regular routine.
So, what is the best length of time to fast?
Just an overnight sleep is enough to get Autophagy started, and there is some evidence that a 12-hour fast is enough.
Other studies have demonstrated that between 18 and 24 hours there is the greatest drop in insulin levels which is implicated as a signaler for autophagy.
It has to be said that there are many differing opinions about the ideal time to reap the most benefit from Autophagy.
Most of the evidence suggests times that range from 12 hours or more.
In my opinion, it seems that a fast of 16 -36 hours is optimal to gain all the benefits of Autophagy.
Certainly, the 16-hour fasting/ 8 hour eating schedule is one of the most popular ways of intermittent fasting.
This is normally done a few times a week, although many practise this way of eating every day.
Personally I don’t recommend that you fast for longer than three days, although some have suggested up to five days, done once every four or five months.
I don’t see any compelling evidence to suggest that this is necessary. If more studies are done in the future, then I will be updating my information to take account of any new findings.
Too long on a fast changes the fast from being healthy to being in a state of starvation which is dangerous. it’s important to make sure that you eat nutritious foods on the times that you’ve set aside for eating.
Your average intake over an entire week should be enough to maintain your weight, or at the very least to stay within your weight loss goals.
See my article here which goes into detail about intermittent fasting.
It could be useful to weigh yourself once at the beginning of your fast to ensure that you are reaching your daily nutritional needs.
Don’t overdo autophagy
More is not necessarily better when it comes to autophagy.
You don’t want to be in autophagy too often because it would prevent the growth and repair of your body.
Too much autophagy may lead to muscle wasting and dysfunctional cell death.
You need to balance your times in autophagy with time spent refeeding with nutrient dense whole foods to enhance growth.
This balance will ensure that you are able to enjoy your optimal health.