Autophagy has been in the news a lot lately with numerous books about fasting being released in the past few months. But, what the heck is autophagy and why is it the secret weapon behind fasting success?
What is it?
The literal translation is “self-eating.” Gross. But when it comes to the cells in our bodies, this is actually a really good thing. Over time our cells can become damaged due to a variety of factors such as genetics, aging, lack of nutrients, and environmental toxins (*). Through the process of autophagy, our cells are able to clean up the damaged parts and either remove them completely or recycle them to be used for cellular repair (*).
What are the benefits?
Perhaps one of the biggest benefits that autophagy boasts is the role it plays in anti-aging. Whereas aging is the result of a buildup of damaged cells as cellular repair mechanisms fail over time, it is autophagy that cleans up these damaged cells and builds new ones (*).
Additionally, autophagy plays a critical role in preventing diseases such as cancer, neurodegeneration, cardiomyopathy, diabetes, liver disease, autoimmune diseases and infections (*).
How can you trigger it?
Autophagy is primarily thought of as survival mechanism during times of starvation and nutrient deficiency, thus, fasting is the most effective way to induce it (*). In a fasted state, glucose levels become low, so our bodies must derive energy from other means. Glucagon a hormone that counterbalances insulin, achieves this by turning on gluconeogenesis, which is the process of converting non-carbohydrates, such as lactate, amino acids, and fats, into glucose (*). As glucose levels drop, so does insulin, which causes glucagon to rise. And it is well known that glucagon induces autophagy (*).
In a state of ketosis, your body’s chemistry closely resembles that of a fasted state, which means you don’t need to fast for nearly as long to activate autophagy (*). Think intermittent fasting, which when combined with a ketogenic diet can be an amazing way to hack this natural process.
When we exercise, we expose the cells in our bodies to stress. For example, when we lift weights, we actually tear the muscles and as they repair themselves, they get bigger. It turns out that autophagy is part of the process (*).
Autophagy occurs while we’re sleeping because this tends to be a time when we’re fasting - unless you eat a huge meal right before bed. Getting a good night sleep provides your body an optimal time to go in and clean up the junk. Plus, it makes intermittent fasting that much easier. Let’s say you’re following the 16/8 method where you eat all of your calories in an 8-hour window and fast for the remaining 16 hours. If you’re getting 8 hours of sleep at night, then you only have to fast for 8 hours while you’re awake.