Help your cells eat themselves

Autophagia literally means eating yourself. Before this year’s Nobel Prize I only knew of the term in relation to a very strange medical condition where people actually wanted to eat parts of their bodies, such as their fingers. It turns out that our cells also eat themselves and this process of cellular self-eating is vital to good health.

Dr. Ohsumi won this year’s Nobel prize for medicine for describing how cells ranging from yeast to the human cell, rejuvenate by partially eating themselves. This process of self-eating is how the body and the cell gets rid of broken, worn pieces and recycles the parts. It apparently may play a role in preventing Alzheimer’s, fighting infection and even in living a healthier longer life.

The fascinating part of this is that turning on autophagia may be as simple as brief periods of fasting. Science is showing that putting the cell under stress forces it to clean itself up, to eat bacteria and remove and recycle worn down parts. The studies are showing, at least in rodents, that short periods of fasting and exercise are great ways to stress the cells and force them to increase autophagia.

About two months ago, I wrote a column on short-term, intermittent fasting becoming the new fad for weight loss and for helping yourself to feel well. This research on autophagia is helping us understand why short-term fasting actually works. For those that missed or forgot the previous article on intermittent fasting, the most common methods of healthy fasting include the ways noted below.

1. A couple of times a week, or even every day, consider not eating after dinner, skipping breakfast the next day and eating your first meal around lunch. If you do that you would have fasted overnight 14-16 hours and that appears to be enough to help with weight loss and probably enough to encourage autophagia.

2. Another method is called the 5:2 method. That is two days a week just eat a single light meal of about 400 to 600 calories. This amounts to approximately a generous salad.

The exercise needed to turn on autophagia has been studied in rodents. As little as 30 minutes on a rat treadmill induces healthy cellular self-eating. We know less about the amount of fasting or exercise necessary in humans because we don’t usually sacrifice them afterwards to study their cells but the assumption is that the fasting and exercise components would have great similarities.

Bottom line, skipping breakfast may be really good for humans. It seems to promote eating one’s own fat, causing weight loss, decreasing inflammation, improving diabetes, regulating blood sugars and now the evidence is showing that skipping meals may actually jumpstart a whole process of continual cellular spring cleaning.

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Dr. Lee Evslin is a retired physician. He has lived and practiced on Kauai since 1979. He also served as the CEO of Kauai Medical Clinic and Wilcox Hospital. His goal will be to present new ideas on health-related issues.

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