Autophagy: Is It Good or Bad?

If you’re an avid participant in the fitness or weight-loss world, you may have come across the term “autophagy,” specifically whenever fasting is discussed. Fasting is quickly becoming an accepted (albeit controversial) tool for health and weight-loss. So, how does autophagy factor in?

What is Autophagy?

Autophagy (‘auto-’ meaning ‘self’ and ‘-phagy ’meaning ‘eating’) is the body’s natural recycling mechanism that takes place within cells. There are three main types- macroautophagy, microautophagy, and chaperone-mediated autophagy (CMA). When the term ‘autophagy’ is used, it most often means macroautophagy.

The cells in our body have a lifecycle. They grow weak, and their intercellular components such as proteins and organelles degrade over time. Macroautophagy describes the body’s process of breaking down faulty proteins and organelles, making them available for cell metabolism. It is essentially recycling organic material and prevents cellular “trash/debris” build-up. Just as a construction worker wouldn’t build a house out of cracked and faulty materials, our bodies naturally need to avoid the use and buildup of unstable cellular elements. Autophagy maintains optimal cell function and is being studied for the prevention and treatment of many chronic diseases including cancer and neurodegenerative diseases (1).

It’s Connection to Fasting 

Autophagy is constantly occurring in our bodies. During fasting, however, the rate of autophagy is increased, which is why it is often discussed in the dieting world. Much research suggests that fasting allows us to reap many benefits of autophagy.

The weight-loss world is not the only one riding the autophagy pony. Lots of research on autophagy for the treatment and prevention of chronic diseases is underway (1). Its role in preventing inflammation, cell death, and genome stability makes it a key process in the study of cancer treatment.

So, Is It Good or Bad? 

Neither, it is an essential and ongoing cellular process that can be upregulated and downregulated. Both too much and too little autophagy have been associated with disease. Yet,  it remains a valuable tool that can be manipulated for therapeutic purposes (1).

Research on the manipulation of autophagy for health and longevity is promising and many more clinical trials are underway. It is possible that it will lead to therapeutic gains in the near future.

Autophagy for Weight-loss

The act of fasting itself greatly limits calories which contribute to weight-loss. Autophagy triggered by fasting helps to maintain nutrient balance during periods of restricted food-intake and gets rid of “cellular trash.” Improvement in metabolic parameters such as blood lipid levels,  pressure, and glucose have also been recorded as a result of fasting.

However, fasting is not for everyone. It can lead to troublesome symptoms such as headaches, irritability, weakness, and fatigue. Some find it impossible to fast while others love it, you’ll never know until you try. Given that the majority of Americans suffer from over-nutrition and not under-nutrition, limiting calories by fasting may do some good. Those with diabetes and other metabolic disorders should always consult a physician and dietitian before undertaking a restriction diet.

References-

  1. Thorburn, Andrew. “Autophagy and Disease.” Journal of Biological Chemistry, 13 Apr. 2018, www.jbc.org/content/293/15/5425.full.

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