The Balanced Life

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Autophagy and the Benefits of Intermittent Fasting



The choices we make in terms of nutrition have a profound impact on our health. Our relationship with food is an important determinant of our long-term health. Much of the eating we do is triggered by stress and being unable to control our emotions which has led to the current obesity pandemic we are currently experiencing worldwide. Weight gain does not have to be a normal function of aging.

In sharp contrast to the way the world ate in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, where most households ate 3 meals a day, currently, we are constantly snacking for most of the day. Another really important distinction when it comes to meal frequency or how frequently we’re eating is the debate over sugar burners versus fat burners. In the decades mentioned above, there were fewer processed foods than there are now. Today, our constant munching on sugary and processed foods leads to constant inflammation of our organs. This is basically because they are overworked. The pancreas and digestive system that convert these foods into energy, have to work double or triple to do so. Furthermore, the meals we are eating, lack nutritional value and so we have to eat more and more of them for the energy required to go through a day. Meal timing and how frequently we are eating is crucial for long-term health and aging.

Let’s view some Obesity statistics from the United Nations World Health Organization:

  • Global obesity has tripled since 1975;
  • Approximately 2 billion adults are overweight;
  • Being overweight and obese is more of a health hazard than being underweight;
  • 38 million children below the age of five were obese in 2019; and
  • Obesity is preventable if we engage in healthy eating strategies.

No strategy is more powerful than intermittent fasting. The typical timeframe that is recommended to people who are starting intermittent fasting is 16/8, 16 hours a day fasted with an eight-hour feeding window. This might seem overwhelming at first, but once you start and get past the first few weeks, it will feel natural and you will even have more energy.

Intermittent fasting is an important way to fuel fat loss especially visceral fat around our abdomens around our major organs. Intermittent fasting improves mental clarity given that during fasting we have low insulin levels. It also increases the production of human growth hormone, responsible for lean muscle mass. Fasting for prolonged periods also triggers autophagy. Autophagy is the body’s way of renewing damaged cells. Other benefits are that fasting helps regulate our blood pressure and our cholesterol profile, and also decreases your risk of developing cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.

Autophagy is a natural regeneration mechanism that occurs in our bodies at the cellular level. It reduces the probability of contracting certain diseases and prolongs life expectancy.

In 2016, Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize for his research on the mechanisms of autophagy, a process that has not been widely studied yet. His progress contributed to a greater understanding of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s or dementia.

The word, derived from the Greek, refers to the idea of “eating oneself”, which would be the mechanism by which the cells of our body degrade and recycle their components. Thus, cells use autophagy to get rid of damaged proteins and organelles, which are the different structures contained in the cytoplasm of a cell. They do it through a kind of recycling bag called lysosomes.

For example, after infection through the autophagy process, we can destroy viruses and bacteria.

Since the recognition of Ohsumi’s research, both the pharmaceutical industry and the academic world have launched a search for drugs that can stimulate this natural process of regeneration.

Now experts and pseudo-experts in diet and wellness have also stepped on the autophagy train, saying the process can be naturally induced through fasting, high-intensity exercise, and carbohydrate restriction.

In 2016, a large study with 1,422 subjects who fasted between 4 and 20 days. The subject base was very diverse and conducted a normal fasting schedule. The study evidenced that there was significant weight reduction. Both types of blood pressures were reduced. The glycemic index went down and ketone bodies in the urine increased significantly. The blood parameters changed displaying a decrease in cholesterol levels. In another study, fatty liver was normalized and the sedimentation rate and other inflammation parameters were diminished significantly. Another interesting confirmation of intermittent fasting was that the blood cells were reduced given autophagy which led to an elimination of old and damaged cells that were self-digested and recycled. In the group, there were 500 subjects with some issues such as diabetes 2, cardiovascular diseases, gastritis, skin problems, depressed and fatigued people. Of this group, 85% documented a subjective huge improvement in these conditions. The subjects displayed improvements in both emotional and physical markers. Of the subjects in the study, 93% did not feel hungry during the fasting period.

Intermittent fasting is not for everyone and just as you should do with any radical change in diet, you must consult your healthcare practitioner before beginning a fasting regimen. If you suffer from diabetes or are of an age greater than 70 intermittent fastings might not be for you. If you are pregnant if you have chronic heart issues, kidney, or, or renal issues you might not be suited for intermittent fasting. If you have a history of a disorder with food, whether it is anorexia bulimia, or binge eating, you should not engage in intermittent fasting.

When you are in your 8-hour eating window, it is best if you eat colorful vegetables and keep yourself well hydrated. You can also have plain coffee or tea. In addition to this, you want to ensure that you try intermittent fasting for at least 30 days before you determine if it’s the right strategy for you.

Despite its increasing popularity, the scientific community has been divided on the subject of intermittent fasting.

The criticisms are based on the lack of scientific evidence since until now most of the studies have only included animals. But as more research has been done on humans, the concept of fasting is starting to gain traction. One study included 107 overweight and obese women who were divided into two groups. The first was given a regular low calorie and the second a regimen that included intermittent fasting. After six months of follow-up, the leader of the work, Mark Mattson, neuroscientist of the National Institute on Aging, in Maryland, found that both groups lost weight, however, those on an intermittent fast lost more weight, especially, in the waist area, where fat creates an increased risk of diabetes and coronary heart disease. Improvement in blood sugar and the preservation of muscle mass was also evidenced in the study.

Another study by Krista Varady, a researcher at the University of Illinois, showed that alternating a day of fasting with a day of a normal diet in obese patients helps to lose an average of six kilos in eight weeks. “We thought that people would overeat on normal days to compensate but that did not happen,” the expert told The New York Times. But the effects of the diet went further, as there was also a reduction in bad cholesterol (LDL), blood pressure, triglycerides, and insulin. The benefit would appear because fasting forces the body to use fat instead of glucose for fuel.

Fasting also appears to be good for preventing diseases like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and stroke. University of Southern California professor of biological sciences Valter Longo recently experimented with people who fasted for five days in a row per month for three months. The trial showed that cell regeneration markers increased while decreasing the risks of diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and aging. They hypothesize that fasting would function as mild stress that strengthens cells and prepares them to withstand more severe biological stresses in the long term.

Intermittent fasting has already been shown in mouse studies to extend life expectancy by 30 years. Mattson is currently conducting rigorous research to verify its benefit in stopping the cognitive decline in individuals between the ages of 55 and 70, prediabetic, and at high risk for Alzheimer’s.

Despite these results, one of the drawbacks of intermittent fasting is that it is difficult to stick to a regular regimen consistently. In fact, in the Varady studies, between 10 and 20 percent of participants dropped out very early. Although much more evidence is still missing, a growing community of health practitioners envisions a day that intermittent fasting is regularly prescribed to promote overall health and longevity.




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