Autophagy is basically a scientific process of recycling dead cells, or “self-cleaning” that occurs when the body is under stress, either from fasting, exercising, or ketosis.
Lets Debrief on Intermittent Fasting:
One of the more esoteric but much beloved tools in the paleo dieter’s tool-kit is intermittent fasting.
What is intermittent fasting? I.F. is the practice of maintaining overall caloric intake while consuming those calories in fewer meals or in reduced time windows throughout the day. The goal is to create conditions of fasting in the body, but not for extreme lengths of time.
Some examples of intermittent fast strategies include 10, 8, or 5 hour eating windows throughout the day, or perhaps eating just two meals each day: one in the morning, and one at night. The evolutionary premise — the argument that proponents of intermittent fasting make — is that humans evolved to optimize their health under less-than-optimal conditions. Intermittent fasting, they say, is a natural and perhaps even necessary part of being human.
The modern-day scientific correlate appears promising, too:
Most people are nowadays aware that a calorie-restricted diet has the ability not just to decrease body weight but also to lengthen a human life. Emerging research is beginning to show, however, that intermittent fasting is just as effective as calorie restriction in ensuring these health benefits! Amazingly enough, this happens without any of the psychological crippling side effects of cravings and food obsession that practitioners of calorie-restriction often experience.
Intermittent fasting, proponents say, also may benefit the fight against cancer, diabetes, and autoimmunity. Here is an excellent, up-to-date review of the “benefits” of fasting. It is wholly understandable that fasting is all the rage these days.
Intermittent fasting women is a specific interest of mine because of what I have witnessed both in myself and in working with literally thousands of women in the PfW community.
In Comes Autophagy:
It has been proven that the body runs its biological processes similar to a recycling plant. Old cells that are degraded or just no longer needed in the body can be “eaten” by the body to help streamline and allow our bodies to exist more efficiently. One of the ways the body can enter this self-cleaning mode is by fasting. Most of our cells are already pre-programmed to do this in a process called apoptosis. Apoptosis basically means cells are programmed to die after a certain amount of time to benefit the body.
Autophagy has been studied in relation to its effects at killing cancerous cells in the body. There is not a tremendous amount of data on how this process works and how we can harness it to our benefit. The studies are in effect, however.
Ketosis and high intensity interval training can also engage autophagy in addition to fasting. You get a lot of the same metabolic changes and benefits of fasting without actually fasting while in ketosis, which is typically the main appeal of ketosis versus intermittent fasting.
Negative Side Effects:
- We just don’t know exactly what we are dealing with and how it will effect our biochemistry long term.
- Growth is occurring. By recycling, autophagy is also allowing new growth to occur in the body. This means bacterial cells or cells like Lyme can be produced or encouraged to grow.
- This is the same to note when thinking about cancer cells. If not harnessed properly, the same growth could occur with cancer cells, instead of just death. This is why autophagy is looked at often as preventative tool, not a treatment.
- Every persons biological makeup has their own unique traits. Again – we do not have the information to make a quantitative and educated guess on whether this is successful and beneficial in the short and long term.
- Autophagy is a stress induced response, so in order to activate it you have to produce more stress in the body. This is a common parallel that we see with over-exercising especially with programs like CrossFit. People maintain success to a certain point on these programs but is the overall detrimental effects of putting our body through more stress worth the rewards? Does the stressed state of our body even let us benefit from these rewards or are the effects inhibited?
- a) Women in studies often do not experience increased insulin sensitivity with IF regimes and
b) intermittent fasting women actually experienced a decrease in glucose tolerance. These two phenomena mean that women’s metabolisms suffered from IF, the primary and preferred catalyst for autophagy.
Positive Side Effects:
- Reduced inflammation levels in the body
- Prevention or delay of neurodegenerative diseases (Parkinsons and Alzheimers)
- Increased life span
All that being said, that’s it. That’s all that exists! Women don’t have much to go on. Its up to you to determine whether the benefits of autophagy are really worth the stress that can occur with fasting.
As for fasting, there are a few rodent studies. They found that when alternate-day fasting,female rats and found significant negative hormonal changes occurring in the females.
There are even fewer human studies. Human studies on alternate day fasting have not been conducted on women of reproductive age at all, nor have any studies analyzed reproductive responses to fasting.
Moreover, the few studies that have been conducted on non-obese women have demonstrated that their metabolic responses are not nearly as robust as those of men, and may in fact be antagonistic to their health.
An important distinction to make is between different body weights. Overweight and obese patients appear to experience significant improvements with IF regimes, but normal weight patients do not show the same across-the-board benefits. For women this may be a particularly sensitive issue. Overweight women may experience metabolic benefits, whereas normal weight women do not. I suspect that that may roughly be the case, but who knows. Honestly, no one at this point.
The practical solution, then, I believe, is to look at options, to be honest about priorities, and to listen to one’s body with awareness and love.
Is fasting worth trying if a woman is overweight and trying to improve her metabolic markers, and so far hasn’t had much success? Perhaps. Should it be undertaken if a woman is of normal weight? What if she is a light sleeper? What if her periods begin to dysregulate? Or stop? What if she starts getting acne, getting a stronger appetite, or losing her appetite altogether? These things happen, and I see them in women who fast and contact me time and time again.
We women (people!) should be honest with ourselves about our priorities, and act constantly with our mental and physical health foremost in our minds. All women are different. But the literature is so sparse in this area that we cannot make any real statements or predictions about the effects of fasting, other than that we just don’t know, and that we should continue to emphasize the centrality of awareness, caution, and loving nourishment in moving forward.
IF is one realm in which the female body has unique characteristics and needs that demand attention. There are boatloads of others. If you’re interested in reading about the collective set of them and learning how to optimize female skin, weight loss, and hormone balance, for a few examples, you could do worse than my best-selling book, Sexy by Nature, here.