Autophagy & Fasting – Process & Effects on Your Body
Autophagy: Or how our body eats itself, to repair itself.
Fasting. Either intermittent or otherwise, is quite the rage these days. Some do it for weight -loss, some do it for religious beliefs and some others for its many (claimed) magical benefits – from curing cancer to reversing tumors.
We at ‘and nothing else’ too, are big believers of Intermittent Fasting. And you’ll see a lot of posts on the topic in the coming few weeks.
But this post is not about IF as a diet. It’s about a very interesting aspect of the human body, that fasting supposedly triggers. Autophagy – or how our body eats itself, to repair itself.
Sounds macabre, yes. But it’s anything but. In fact, Autophagy is the human anti-aging function. So if you’ve been using anti-aging creams or hair-regrowth serums, you’d want to read this.
But before we get to eat ourselves, we must talk about dying first!
Let’s talk about death. What exactly is death?
Death, for any organism, isn’t one event. It’s a series of small events that eventually pile up. And this death, like any death, is essential for life. For new life.
Too far out? Allow me to explain.
All organisms are large, complicated cellular structures. And cells within any organism (like our bodies) get damaged and die all the time.
Old, damaged cells need to die, need to be wiped out, for new healthy cells to grow. It’s a process that’s continuously going on inside each one of us. Both at the cellular and the sub-cellular level.
But when and why do cells die?
Some cells can get damaged due to external factors, like injury or poison or infections. So when you get a cut on your finger, cells whose blood supply gets cut-off, die. This is called Necrosis.
But some cells don’t just die, they commit suicide.
Yup, cells kill themselves. Nothing external happens. Just that the cell becomes damaged due to excessive wear and tear, and the body decides its time is up.
This process is called Apoptosis. And as macabre as it sounds, apoptosis is key to living a healthy life.
When a fetus is taking shape inside a mother’s womb, it’s feet are webbed. Slowly, the webbing disappears and we get distinct fingers. The cells in the webbing die voluntarily. Apoptosis.
Our brains create millions of neurons at first. But only some of the neurons organize into neural pathways that become thoughts and memories. The rest die voluntarily. Apoptosis.
Think of your body as an equipment-rental company. Millions of cells that make it up, being the equipment it rents out.
We, both biologically and philosophically, are just tenants in our bodies. And we have a contract with this company. So whenever we need to perform a task, the company lends us a certain number of specific machinery built for the task at hand.
Want to lift a cup? The body mobilizes muscular cells in your fingers and performs the task.
Want to solve a hard problem? The body mobilizes neural networks in the brain and supports you.
Want to run a marathon? The body hates you but mobilizes everything from muscle fibers to ‘persistence’ neural networks in the brain to help you scrape through.
Now, due to prolonged use of this equipment, like any equipment, goes through wear & tear. It becomes damaged and isn’t able to reliably perform its assigned task.
But the body takes its contract very seriously. If you’ve been keeping your end of the bargain and giving it clean fuel for its equipment (aka food and exercise), it wants to ensure you get the right service every time. And it can’t guarantee that with damaged cells.
So it does continuous quality checks on its entire fleet. The equipment (cells) that it finds are beyond repair, are decommissioned (killed). Apoptosis.
The ones that can be fixed and made brand new are sent in for repair. Sub-cellular repair. Autophagy.
Greek for ‘eat oneself’. Gory, but again, essential for survival. And for once, a Latin word that means exactly what it’s supposed to.
To continue with the example, assume it came up in the body’s assessment that a cell has sustained some damage. Much like a car that’s otherwise fine but needs a tire change and an oil refill.
Rather than junk the entire car, the body instructs the sub-cellular component to ‘cleanse itself’. And the starting point for that, is to ‘remove’ the damaged component. And the body’s brilliant solution to that, is Autophagy.
Through a complex sub-cellular process (read this if the gore interests you), the body earmarks the damaged portion in the cell for repair and then begins its decomposition. During the decomposition, the absolutely worthless parts are discarded, while the retrievable portions become raw material from which the new part is manufactured.
Imagine a self-decomposing pile of waste. It feeds on itself. And then, using the retrievable junk, a new part grows in its place. Genius!
Fasting and Autophagy
Before I proceed, let me declare that this is purely based on secondary research. I have no personal experience of these claims. Neither are they visible changes that one can notice.
That said, there’s a whole body of research that’s now emerging, which supports the claim that nutrient-deprivation stimulates autophagy.
Going back again to our analogy, Autophagy is like car-servicing. And servicing can’t be done if the car is still in use.
One needs to bring it to the garage and let it lie idle there for the mechanic to work on it.
It seems that if we continuously keep eating, and our insulin levels continuously remain high, the body is unable to initiate this ’self-service’ protocol.
This is the part where the science gets really complex. Eating triggers insulin which triggers protein synthesis via a kinase called mammalian TOR or mTOR. And increased mTOR suppresses autophagy due an equally complicated process. Read this and this and this if you’re interested.
Just so you know, I too am yet to get my head around the science. It’s too gory for me right now.
But mice trials, as well as in-vitro human trials, do seem to suggest that fasting does, infact, stimulate autophagy.
Which is great news if true. Because a lot of the diseases we suffer from today — from cancers to tumors — are all due to unnecessary over-growths. Others, like Alzheimer’s, are due to rampant cellular degradation without renewal.
Perhaps, our modern diets and lifestyles, which are so constant and demanding, are keeping our internal equipment in ‘always-on’ mode.
We keep feeding ourselves at these ’never before in human history’ levels of food intake, and our bodies just keep growing and multiplying cells. Never once stopping to service or cleanse the old, dying parts that might be going out of service.
Autophagy, or self-cleansing, is essential to life. And nutrient-deprivation (aka fasting) seems to promote it.
Cell-degradation is aging.
As an organism ages, its autophagous abilities decrease. That means it can no longer service and repair itself as efficiently as it used to.
So cell-damage starts accumulating and over time, a majority of cells become damaged or defunct. Unable to carry out their designated functions.
When this degradation reaches vital organs, we die.
So anything that can help promote autophagy can, in principle, have anti-aging effects in the truest sense of the word.
That’s another big claim that IF proponents are making. Only time (and a lot of it if it’s true) will tell if it’s true.
For now, rely on IF for its fat-loss and calorie restriction benefits. The good health will surely make your time on earth better, if not longer.