Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2016 for his research on how cells recycle and renew their content, a process called autophagy. Fasting activates autophagy, which helps slow down the aging process and has a positive impact on cell renewal.
What is Autophagy?
During starvation, cells break down proteins and other cell components and use them for energy. During autophagy, cells destroy viruses and bacteria and get rid of damaged structures. It’s a process that is critical for cell health, renewal, and survival.
Ohsumi created a whole new field of science with his work studying autophagy in yeast. He discovered that the autophagy genes are used by higher organisms including humans, and that mutations in these genes can cause disease. Animals, plants, and single cell organisms rely on autophagy to withstand famines.
Although first discovered in the 1960s, Ohsumi’s research from the late 1980s and early 1990s through today has shown autophagy has a role in protection against inflammation and in diseases like dementia and Parkinson’s. When Ohsumi started researching autophagy, there were fewer than 20 papers published each year on the subject; now there are more than 5,000 each year, as it is the subject of diverse fields including cancer and longevity studies.
Fasting for Health
Scientists have found that fasting for 12+ to 24+ hours triggers autophagy, and is thought to be one of the reasons that fasting is associated with longevity. There is a large body of research that connects fasting with improved blood sugar control, reduced inflammation, weight loss, and improved brain function; Oshumi’s research provides some of the “how” to this research. Exercise can also induce autophagy in some cells, allowing cells to start the repair and renewal process.
“Sporadic short-term fasting, driven by religious and spiritual beliefs, is common to many cultures and has been practiced for millennia, but scientific analyses of the consequences of caloric restriction are more recent. Published studies indicate that the brain is spared many of the effects of short-term food restriction, perhaps because it is a metabolically privileged site that, relative to other organs, is protected from the acute effects of nutrient deprivation, including autophagy. We show here that this is not the case: short-term food restriction induces a dramatic upregulation of autophagy in cortical and Purkinje neurons … Our observation that a brief period of food restriction can induce widespread upregulation of autophagy in CNS neurons may have clinical relevance. As noted above, disruption of autophagy can cause neurodegenerative disease, and the converse also may hold true: upregulation of autophagy may have a neuroprotective effect.”
Fasting in the blue zones
Throughout the history of humankind, fasting has been part of religious, spiritual, and health practices. In the blue zones region of Ikaria, long-living people there observe about 150 days of religious fasting a year.
Note: Fasting for long periods should always be done under the supervision of a doctor. If you don’t eat after 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. the next morning, then that is technically a 12-hour fast and why our first meal of the day is called “breakfast.” Dr. Valter Longo, the director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, recommends most people eat two meals a day if they have trouble with overeating. If someone eats their last meal at 4 p.m. and has breakfast the next day at 7 a.m., then this is a 15-hour fast.
“As research into autophagy has expanded, it has become clear that it is not simply a response to starvation. It also contributes to a range of physiological functions, such as inhibiting cancer cells and aging, eliminating pathogens and cleaning the insides of cells. We have also begun to see a small explosion in research that demonstrates a new function with the knocking out genes that contribute to autophagy. However, there is still much we do not know about the mechanism of autophagy and this calls for serious study. I hope to go on to study autophagy at the molecular level, to tackle the mechanism head-on. That is my mission.”
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