Intermittent Fasting and Autophagy: All that you need to know about this age-old practise

Intermittent fasting is not about what you eat, but rather about controlling the pattern in which you eat.

When a trimmer and fitter looking Ram Kapoor’s selfies surfaced on social media, his fans and netizens went gaga over the transformation. Kapoor credited his 30 kg weight loss to workouts and the 16:8 diet he had been following. Kapoor is not the only celebrity who vouches for such a diet - Kourtney Kardashian, Hugh Jackman, Alia Bhatt, among others follow the diet and swear by its results.

All religions practise some form of fasting or abstaining from eating food. The 16:8 diet, which is a part of intermittent fasting (IF), is just that – a method of losing weight and limiting illnesses by controlling the pattern in which you eat food. While we naturally fast during the time that we sleep, to practice intermittent fasting, you can extend this fast period for longer durations.

Today, many health practitioners recommend IF as a means of reducing weight and keeping certain illnesses at bay. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine has revealed that intermittent fasting may help in reducing the Body Mass Index (BMI), while another study published in the Journal of Endocrinology reveals that IF may help to motivate people to exercise. This is because, as per the study, IF triggers the release of the ghrelin, the hunger hormone, which, along with giving you an appetite, also gives you the motivation to work harder – possibly due to the effort that is traditionally required to procure and prepare food. Studies have also shown that fasting helps reduce blood insulin levels drastically,

Types of IF:

Apart from being cost-free and effortless (no need to make special food or spend on gyms), IF is also a flexible method of diet control. While there are different variations of IF, the most popular ones are:

16:8: Here you eat during an 8-hour window, and fast for 16 hours. Hence, if your last meal of the day is at 8 P.M, the first meal of the next day would be 16 hours later, at 12 PM. There are also no restrictions on what you can eat, however, it is better to ensure that you do not binge on unhealthy food during the eating phase.

5:2: Also known as the Fast Diet, the 5:2 diet is another commonly followed diet, which involves eating normally for 5 days a week and consuming just 500-600 calories per day for the rest days two days. Studies have shown that the diet is effective in reducing insulin levels and improving insulin sensitivity.

Alternate day fasting: Here, you fast every alternate day while eating normally during the non-fasting days. Though you will need to restrict your calorie intake during fast days, you are allowed to take as many calorie-free beverages as you need. Some people also follow the modified alternate-day fasting approach where they cap their calorie intake at 500 calories during fast days. Apart from being effective in overall weight loss, ADF is known to help reduce harmful belly fat.

Autophagy

Intermittent fasting and ketogenic diets are known to trigger a process known as autophagy. The Greek origin word literally means ‘self’ and ‘eating,’ and that is exactly what happens to your body during the process – it eats damaged cells to regenerate newer cells. Researchers have discovered that autophagy is not just beneficial for weight loss but also protects the body against illnesses such as cancer, infections, insulin resistance, neurodegenerative diseases and even aging.

Just like how a newer, stronger building can be constructed by breaking down the old, unstable one, our bodies can also break down older, damaged proteins and nonessential components and use them to provide the body energy and to regenerate newer proteins. Cells also use this process to fight against viruses and bacteria that invade the body. This process gets affected during illnesses such as cancer, Alzheimers and infections and immunological diseases.

While the term autophagy was coined in 1963 by Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve, it was after Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi started conducting experiments on Baker’s yeast during the 1990s, that the whole process by which cells recycle their content through autophagy became clearer. The cell biologist won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries on the process.

How do you start

So, how do you get your body to start eating itself? Well, your body automatically goes into autophagy mode when there is a stressful situation such as in case of a famine. Hence, to trigger the process you need to trick the body to think that it is going through stress.

Fast: You can either ensure you eat all your meals in an eight-hour window and fast for 16 hours, or you increase the number of hours you fast. The longer you fast, the deeper will be the levels of autophagy – a 20-28 hour fast will help remove toxin build-up in your body. Just make sure that your body is healthy enough to take longer periods of no food.

Reduce your protein intake: Restrict the amount of proteins you take to 15-20 gms once or twice a week. This helps trigger the process of autophagy as your body starts to clean up the dead organelles and damaged proteins. It also helps you reduce weight, as your body starts to burn fat for energy and further dips into the fat stored in your body.

Go on a keto diet: This is a very low carb, high-fat diet, which helps to put your body in a metabolic state known as ketosis. Keto diets are known to help trigger autophagy, cause reductions in blood sugar and insulin levels and also help reduce weight as the body becomes more efficient at burning fat for energy.

Sleep well: Our body’s circadian rhythm is connected to autophagy, making it extremely important to give the body the time to detox. Late eating habits affect the quality and quantity of sleep, which in turn, can slow down the process of autophagy.

While IF and autophagy is beneficial for health, it is important to note that each body reacts in a different way. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers should not fast and always check with your doctor before starting IF, in case you have any health problems. Also ensure that you are properly hydrated during your fast periods, and eat nutrient-rich food during your ‘eat’ periods.