Autophagy (pronounced "aw-tof-uh-jee") is a process of cellular renewal that is always in motion within the body. Only recently though, has it been described that this process is greatly increased when the body experiences nutrient deprivation, aka fasting. Starting at around 16 hours of fasting and extending beyond this time, autophagy begins to have a profound impact on our health. The implications of autophagy in the formation of chronic disease is only now being researched, this is a hot topic, but unfortunately we must be patient and wait until researchers can tell us more.
Autophagy translates to “self-eating”. Perhaps you can imagine autophagy as a form of self-cannibalization. When the body recognizes certain stressors, in this case fasting, certain genes are expressed that lead to signals that tell the body to recycle components in the cells.
The inside of our cells are packed with many structures, these include organelles, such as the mitochondria or ribosomes, also proteins, which are used for signaling, structure and transport, I could go on but it is sufficient for now to recognize that the cell is a busy place. These structures in the cells are made of either or a combination of proteins, fats, and nucleic acids. When these structures are damaged they become an unnecessary burden on the health of the cell, and if enough cells are affected the health of the organism can deteriorate. In fact, certain diseases such as Alzheimer’s are possibly linked to a dysfunction of autophagy due to a build up of plaques from mis-folded proteins.
Autophagy is a process that exists in organisms as small as individual yeast cells and as big as complex multi-cellular organisms like mammals. Our multitude of cells act just like the single yeast cell when, through one form or another, starvation is detected. In response to this signal, the cell can produce new energy by recycling unneeded junk. Using something called a lysosome, this junk can be broken down into its constituent parts such as amino acids and fatty acids. These newly liberated amino acids and fatty acids can then be used as energy or can be used as building blocks for building new structures.
So, basically, inside each and every one of our cells is a little garbage disposal (the lysosome). It eats up the poorly functioning components inside that cell and spits out the building blocks to create energy for the body (which is much-needed during a fast) and regenerate these damaged components that were broken down.
The human body truly is stunning. We are highly complex and amazing organisms designed to repair and protect ourselves even in times of ultimate stress. It’s so simple when you consider it…of course, historically we wouldn’t have always had food in abundance as we do now. Our bodies thrive when experiencing the occasional stress of fasting. Even animals fast when they are sick because they seem to have an instinctual knowledge to give their body rest and time to heal.
Being chronically fed and even over-fed is part of a cultural design to separate us from the deep connection with our own survival. We are out of touch with seasons and natural light cycles and many of us in first world countries have rarely experienced what it feels like to be hungry…unless on the recent trendy diet as seen on TV. Now, while being relieved from our primal ancestors’ burden of hunting and gathering our food, one could argue that we are free to pursue greater knowledge and understanding of our world. Although, in my observation, I see many humans spending that extra time cruising social media and watching Netflix instead of contemplating the greater mysteries of their plane of existence (present company not excluded).
Fasting can be a strategy to, not only experience cellular renewal through the process of autophagy, but also re-connect with our ancestral knowledge of healing and survival.
For more info on prolonged or intermittent fasting protocols, be sure to reach out. Fasting can be intimidating to approach at first, but it's all about cultivating the proper mindset.