Autophagy and Fasting: Is it Healthy for You?

When the word cleansing or detox comes to mind, what do you think of? Adopting a specific detox diet, or liquid cleanse, or enema perhaps? While there are some key steps you can take to cleanse your body, our body also has the innate ability to clean bad cells and toxins out through a recycling process of autophagy in order to maintain homeostasis. And due to its benefits, it’s been getting a lot of attention. Autophagy is a cellular cleansing process that enables the body to get rid of old cells and damaged protein that it no longer needs and re-use anything that is still good – and then, creates new cells to replace the old. When the body responds to heightened levels of stress as a result of intermittent fasting or exercise, the autophagy pathway process kicks into gear.

Researchers also suggest that it also assists with and wards off the risk of certain diseases, and even prolongs lifespans.

Not your typical protein shake, this 2-in-1 powerhouse not only specializes in optimizing your health but also helps with weight loss. So depending on your goals with autophagy and fasting, the Body Ecology Probiotic Protein Shake contains fermented ingredients, enabling the body to maximize the bioavailability of nutrients – an optimum addition to assisting with the success of a fast.

What is Autophagy?

This recycling process is the body’s way of utilizing what could be beneficial from damaged cells, getting rid of anything it can’t use from the bad cells and creating new cells in order to function optimally. Anything that is damaged or old not requiring much function is targeted for destruction and stripped for its good parts. If the damaged cells are left to accumulate in the body, they can become dysfunctional, which can then lead to various health issues.

The word autophagy, originating from the Greek words auto (self) and phagein (to eat), and was coined in 1963 by a Belgian scientist and Nobel prize winner named Christian de Duve who discovered the lysosome. The lysosome is a compartment that functions as the place where degradation of the cells takes place during autophagy. De Duve is one of many biologists who have studied how the process of when cells break down their parts and get reused, it can be vital to maintaining good cell health, and have a drastic effect on specific health conditions.

Molecular biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi first started studying autophagy in 1988, and ended up developing the first yeast genetics screen that identified the specific genes involved in the autophagy pathway. And he won a Nobel prize in 2016 for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy, which opened up the path to understanding the importance of autophagy in physiological processes such as the body’s response to starvation or infection. The most typical trigger of autophagy is lack of essential nutrients.

Additionally, Dr. Beth Levine and her team at UT Southwestern discovered beclin 1 – a key gene in the biological process of autophagy which helps regulate autophagy and cell death. Most recently, the team discovered that by mutating beclin 1, it would bind less tightly to its inhibitor Bcl-2. As a result, mice showed that they are more likely to live 10% longer lives, and live overall healthier lives. The data also suggests that this is an effective mechanism to increase autophagy, prevent premature aging, improve healthspan and promote longevity in mammals. (1)

When Does Autophagy Occur

The main way autophagy occurs in the body is through nutrient deprivation. It occurs within the cells of everything from the brain to the liver, muscles and skin.  Starting with sequestration, transport to lysosomes, degradation and utilization of degradation products, each sequential step is also vital to the autophagy process.  The level of activity is measured by the increasing amount of autophagosomes in the body.

1. Fasting

Time restricted feeding, whether you’re narrowing your eating window to 8, 10 or 12 hours, has the ability to reset the hands of time and activate the genetics that are hardwired to bring your body back to homeostasis. However, there may be a positive correlation between the level of autophagy activity and fasting for longer periods of time. (2)

Contrary to what some may believe, intermittent fasting isn’t necessarily a diet. It’s a pattern that provides a set-eating window that allows your body to reset its insulin output and better burn fat storages for fuel. Intermittent fasting 16/8 is the most popular, yet there are various types of fasting that also can come with a host of other health benefits such as regulating insulin levels, encouraging cellular repair, promoting gene expression to support longevity and more.

Unlike caloric restriction, where you can lose lean muscle mass, IF does the opposite. Refraining from eating for about 16 hours a day and eating in an 8-hour window burns the fat storages instead. And the fat storages are what provide the energy, not the protein in muscle. And then, starvation activates autophagy, and there is a degradation process that occurs when cells are starved. In fact, when nutrients become scarce, autophagy provides cells with oxidizable substrate. (3)

Before fasting, regardless of your health issues, we always recommend talking with a skilled practitioner first.

2. Low carb diet – keto or antiviral 

For some, keto and intermittent fasting can go hand in hand. And with a diet like keto (high fat, low carb) that can induce nutritional ketosis, the body’s metabolic pathways are shifted due to a stressful-type situation. The body is required to switch from burning sugar to burning fat. It then can start producing ketones as a result of such severe carbohydrate restriction, which induces autophagy by using ketones as an energy source. This way, the body sees itself as being in a fasting-type state.

3. Restricting protein for several days

It takes extra energy to digest animal-based protein, and many people don’t have enough hydrochloric acid to support the massive amounts of animal protein we eat each day. Restricting protein, or limiting protein for several days, can help boost digestion and immunity by allowing the body to recycle protein.

Bacteria and other disease-causing microorganisms need certain amino acids for their survival. Amino acids come from protein-rich foods. In our own bodies, protein provides us with building blocks to produce things like cells, greater muscle mass, and even neurotransmitters. However, a moderate amount of protein is enough to do the job.

Too much protein in the diet creates surplus. This ends up giving disease-causing bacteria the building blocks that they need in order to thrive (4).  When we restrict our protein and occasionally even eliminate it for a day or two, we actually give our immune system the chance to perform autophagy.

And “junk proteins,” which have lost function, can accumulate in our body. When protein is scarce or when we restrict dietary protein, cells turn on this recycling process. They begin to break down these junk proteins into usable amino acids.  Autophagy has been found to improve the health of cells and to promote longevity (5) (6).

This doesn’t mean that we believe you should completely omit animal protein from your diet, thinking you would be in a constant state of autophagy. One of the 7 principles behind the Body Ecology diet is the 80/20 principle. Eighty percent of what you eat should be from the land, the ocean, and fermented vegetables, while the other 20% should come from animal proteins OR grain-like seeds (not both in one meal).

4. Exercise

It’s evident that exercise can come with a host of benefits, and autophagy is definitely one of them. Studies in humans have shown that aerobic exercise, including eccentric and concentric exercise can activate autophagy in skeletal muscle (7). In fact, the role that exercise has on diabetes has been shown to be dependent on autophagy induction (8).

Since exercise can have a similar effect on the demands of energy in cells, Dr. Beth Levine and her team even conducted a study with mice that showed evidence of increased autophagy after 30 minutes of running on treadmills.

Autophagy Benefits

Many clinical and anecdotal studies are showing the positive outcomes that can result from autophagy such as…

• Lowering risk of neurodegeneration, namely Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (7)

• Lowering risk of coronary artery disease and diabetes (8)

• Significantly changing blood cholesterol levels (9)

• Helping suppress tumors, but it may also have an adverse effect by promoting metastasis (10)

• Slowing down the aging process (11)

• Providing mitochondria support to cells damaged by oxidative stress

• Increasing immune defense (12)

Nutritional Genomic Essential Summary:

Autophagy can be beneficial for those with specific health conditions or those who want to optimize homeostasis. It is a recycling process that is induced when the body is under stress from being nutrient deficient, usually as a result of fasting. Autophagy is a recycling process where the body recycles what it can from damaged cells and discards what it doesn’t need. Studies are suggesting that there are many benefits to autophagy including helping neurodegeneration, diabetes, heart disease, premature aging and longevity.

We highly recommend regardless of any health issues you may have to consult with a professional (someone who is versed in nutritional genomics) before making any short or long-term changes to your diet. If you are pregnant, we do not recommend intermittent fasting.

Because of the promising studies showing the benefits, research is currently being conducted on the potential of producing drugs that target autophagy in various diseases.


  1. Álvaro F. Fernández, et al. Disruption of the beclin 1–BCL2 autophagy regulatory complex promotes longevity in mice. May 30, 2018. Volume 558, pages 136–140.
  2. Mehrdad Alirezaei, et al. Short-term fasting induces profound neuronal autophagy. Journal. Autophagy. Volume 6, 2010, Issue 6., 702-710.
  3. Meijer AJ, Codogno P., Autophagy: Regulation and role in disease. Critical Reviews in Clinical Laboratory Sciences. 2009;46(4):210-40.
  4. RR Brown, et al. Implications of interferon-induced tryptophan catabolism in cancer, autoimmune diseases, and AIDS. Adv Exp Med Biol. 1991; 294: 425 – 35.
  5. N Mizushima, et al. Autophagy Fights Disease Through Cellular Self-Digestion. Nature. February 28 2008; 451 (7182): 1069 – 1075.
  6. K Jia, et al. Autophagy is required for dietary restriction-mediated life span extension in C. elegans. Autophagy. 2007 Nov – Dec; 3 (6): 597 – 599.
  7. Schwalm C. Activation of autophagy in human skeletal muscle is dependent on exercise intensity and AMPK activation. FASEB journal. 2015 Aug;29(8):3515-26.
  8. Kroemer G. Autophagy Mediates the Metabolic Benefits of Endurance Training. Circulation Research. 2012;110:1276-1278.
  9. Coupé B. Loss of autophagy in pro-opiomelanocortin neurons perturbs axon growth and causes metabolic dysregulation. Cell Metabolism. 2012 Feb 8;15(2):247-55.
  10. Horne, et al. Intermountain Medical Center. Routine periodic fasting is good for your health, and your heart, study suggests. ScienceDaily, 20 May 2011.
  11. Horne, et al. Intermountain Medical Center. Routine periodic fasting is good for your health, and your heart, study suggests. ScienceDaily, 20 May 2011.
  12. Bhutia SK, et al. Autophagy: cancer’s friend or foe? Advances in Cancer Research. 2013;118:61-95
  13. Meijer AJ, Codogno P., Autophagy: Regulation and role in disease. Critical Reviews in Clinical Laboratory Sciences. 2009;46(4):210-40.
  14. Emma Rey-Jurado, et al. Contribution of autophagy to antiviral immunity. FEBS Letters. Volume 589, Issue 22, 14 November 2015, 3461-3470.
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