As a nutritionist it’s no surprise that I say that what you eat really matters. However, as science into this area explodes, what we are becoming increasingly aware of is that not eating is almost as important. Not eating allows time for an incredible process in the body to take place – autophagy. It’s the body’s clean-up mode, helping to keep you in tip-top condition by getting rid of waste material. What I want to tell you about today is a little bit more about this process and why it matters so much so that you can see whether you’d like to encourage this in your body. I’ll then show you exactly how to do it yourself.
Why the cells in your body need a clean-up
Small as they may be, our body’s cells are tiny hubs of activity, and just like in our own world, activity creates waste. Each cell contains a nucleus, where the genetic material is stored, and various organelles – tiny organs that have various jobs to do. But things wear out: mitochondria – the cells’ ‘batteries’ – get old and malfunction, other organelles and parts of the cell break down. All that rubbish cannot be left floating around, so there are organelles for waste collection, too: phagophores. These are the bin men of the cell world, collecting all the bits that no longer work, even mopping up invading microbes, such as bacteria and viruses as they go.
They then take the rubbish to the lysosomes – aka the cell’s dump – where enzymes break down the waste, recycling what they can. Simply put, proteins consist of chains of amino acids. When an old protein is broken down into its components, those components – amino acids – can be recycled to make new proteins or be used as extra fuel for the mitochondria. In times of famine, this process can even provide nutrients missing from the diet. It is called autophagy, or ‘self-eating’ and it is a wonderful thing!
Side-effects of a good clean-up
In addition to providing energy, scientists now think that autophagy may offer some protection against brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Nerve cells are particularly active. Their mitochondria have to work especially hard and as a result break down sooner. Fortunately autophagy mops them up before they can do too much harm. Indeed, researchers believe that damaged mitochondria that have lost their ability to use fuels – fat and glucose – efficiently may be behind a whole range of illnesses.
Autophagy does a great job of keeping everything running smoothly. As if that wasn’t enough, even cancerous cells find it harder to multiply and spread during autophagy. I think it goes without saying that you want autophagy to work properly in your body.
Is your clean-up switch on or off?
Many processes in the body oppose each other, and there are feedback mechanisms that make them work. Think of this as a bit like a light switch. When one process is happening, the other cannot.
In the case of autophagy, it is opposed by the activity of mTor, an enzyme required for growth that monitors the body’s fuel supplies closely. When you eat, and food is plentiful, mTor is switched on and works in growth and repair mode. If you’ve not eaten for a while and nutrients seem in short supply, it is switched off, and autophagy kicks in to clean up and extract fuels from the waste like I described earlier. Both processes are vital, but this incredible system evolved to get us through lean times … only there are hardly any lean times nowadays.
When there is always plenty of fuel (the food you eat), mTor is working overtime and autophagy rarely gets a chance to perform its magic. No surprise then that waste builds up, and you become vulnerable to disease. Autophagy only works when you are not eating (and have not eaten for a little while), and this is the reason why fasting is so good for you.
How to get yourself into autophagy
The easiest way to make it work is to eat less or stop eating altogether – to fast or to trick your body into thinking that you are fasting. There are a few ways you can do this:
- Switching to a very low-carb, high-fat diet – the ketogenic diet – where carbohydrate supplies are very low, starving the body of easily-available fuel and triggering autophagy.
- Fasting. Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you go without food for a days on end. Just a few hours – known as intermittent fasting – are enough to trigger autophagy.
What is the easiest way to fast?
There are two methods of intermittent fasting that are very popular right now and have the science to back them up. Both are easily ‘doable’ and can fit into your week with very little disruption.
The best-known method is probably the ‘5:2 Diet’, made popular by Dr Michael Mosley a few years ago. It involves eating just 600 calories on two non-consecutive days a week while eating normally on the other five days (although, in later books, he increased the calorie allowance on fasting days to 800 kCal). The beauty of this method is that you can plan the fasting days around your schedule, changing them from week to week according to your plans. In addition, the five days off really are that, days off with no need to even think about fasting!
Another way of intermittent fasting is time-restricted eating (TRE), in which you stop eating for a certain number of hours within a 24-hour period, ie. 16:8 (eating only within an 8-hour window each day) or 14:10 (eating in a 10-hour window).
In a 16:8 scenario, for example, you would have a late breakfast at 11am and stop eating after an early dinner, not eating anything from 7pm to 11am the next morning. In practice, this will feel like simply skipping breakfast. Or, if for you breakfast is the most important meal, you start and stop early. You would have a good breakfast and stop eating earlier in the afternoon. Interestingly studies found that not eating in the evening led to better weight loss results, if that is a goal of yours. If this sounds like something that you could fit into your day, try starting with 12:12 and build up from there.
How does it benefit the gut?
As well as switching on autophagy, intermittent fasting also gives your digestive system a well-deserved break. Instead of being bombarded with food and snacks late into the evening and again first thing in the morning, it can concentrate on properly digesting and absorbing what it already has in the system. In turn this can lead to better digestion, less bloating and more regular bowel movements. If poor digestion bothers you, you might also like to introduce 4-5 hour periods of fasting between meals to increase this even further.
Foods that trigger autophagy
The ketogenic diet and fasting are not all that you can do to promote autophagy. It has been discovered that there are certain foods and nutrients that also trigger it.
Good news for coffee drinkers: coffee is one of them. Another is C8 oil. This is a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil, a type of fat that occurs naturally in coconut oil, for example. Often used in the ketogenic diet, you can buy it readily in health food shops and online.
Other foods that contain nutrients to promote autophagy are seeds, fish and shellfish, olives and olive oil, brassicas (plants from the cabbage family, such as cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale and broccoli), mushrooms, blackcurrants, berries, turmeric, ginger, green tea, hibiscus, mint and bergamot (think Earl Grey tea).
Foods that block autophagy
On the other hand, there are foods that block autophagy, such as excess carbohydrates and excess protein, the latter especially from meat and dairy. Resistance exercise or strength training, too, blocks autophagy.
So, for better health, give your body a break from eating now and then. Try intermittent fasting and see which version works best for you. Perhaps you’d also like to give the ketogenic diet a go, or at least try cutting down on carbohydrates each day while getting a good supply of healthy fats.
When you do eat, stick with real food as that gives you the best chance of stocking up on those vital nutrients that help autophagy work better.
If you would like to learn more or try out fasting or keto with some professional guidance, book a health review with me and let’s discuss it further.