In 2016 the Nobel Prize in Physiology & Medicine went to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his research on the mechanisms of autophagy. Autophagy, a natural process, means “self” “eating”. This is a process that our bodies undergo cellularly to recycle or rid itself of old parts within the cell, such as organelles and microbes. Essentially, autophagy is self-cannibalism. However, it is much more than that because it is a key to understanding detoxification at the cellular level and that is where we can finally understand chronic degenerative diseases and how to prolong life.
Probably the most effective method of “detoxing” is something that has been talked about for millennia but is only recently getting the public recognition it deserves. That method is fasting or intermittent fasting. Part of Dr. Ohsumi’s research showed how the effects of fasting and calorie restriction came to increase autophagy. For those who work in the natural health fields, this research gives scientific proof to fasting, and how restricted oxygen (hypoxia) aid in detoxification and cleansing ourselves.
Many religions and cultures have ritualistic days of fasting or periods when eating could only occur at certain times. Springtime is often associated with this because in ancient times, many people had used up their stores of food during the winter months. Today, in our society we are blessed with plenty all year long, so to recreate this, many authors have written books on intermittent fasting to generate the health benefits long known to man about undergoing periods of deprivation of food. Science has supported this idea and back in 1935 a study on calorie restriction done on humans suggested it could extend lifespans. A later study lasting 20 years on two groups of Rhesus monkeys, one with a diet that was 30% lower in calories showed that the restricted group had a reduced age-related death rate by three-fold.
What did Yoshinori Ohsumi discover?
There are two types of autophagy. One type is selective autophagy that is done routinely for maintenance in our bodies. The other is non-selective autophagy which occurs during a survival mode such as fasting. In both cases, all cells identify parts of the cell that are old, and needs to be recycled, or substances in the cell that need to be eliminated. In the case of survival, recycled parts feed the cell until such time as conditions improve. There should be enough recycling from old parts to build back cells with the recycled raw materials, such as new fatty acids and amino acids to rebuild for example new heart and brain cells. Autophagy also removes intracellular pathogens such as bacteria, viruses or other microbes. Too little autophagy, and like an overflowing recycling container in your kitchen, too little recycling takes place to rebuild ourselves and we don’t eliminate toxins such as unwanted bacteria. Examples of this would be inadequate recycling of misfolded proteins called amyloid deposits, and neurofibrillary tangles that accumulate and are found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, or failure to eliminate viral loads or bacterial loads in chronic Lyme disease.
David Sinclair PhD, another researcher on autophagy found that autophagy when working properly turned on a set of seven genes called the SIRT2 genes. SIRT stands for silent information regulator 2 genes and they protect us from ageing. He found that as we age certain ageing genes turn on for unknown reason that would without the intervention of the SIRT genes accelerate the ageing process. Sinclair also found that fasting along with resveratrol turned on the SIRT2 genes and increased autophagy. Other genes such as the mTOR genes are inhibited during intermittent fasting. mTOR stands for mammalian target of rapamycin. These are a set of genes that control protein synthesis but are adversely affected by excess glucose, and insulin which then can cause excessive growth such as cancer and inhibit autophagy.
Oxygen and Autophagy
Exercise, especially H.I.I.T. exercise which is high intensity interval training has been shown to increase autophagy. This is short burst of intense exercise which produces hypoxia (low oxygen) for brief periods of time. E.W.O.T. (exercise with oxygen therapy) offered here in my office, can contrast between high and low levels of oxygen. When entering the hypoxic phase, known as adaptive contrast, autophagy of cells is enhanced, and detoxification can be achieved.
Where is all this headed?
Autophagy was a term hardly anyone knew about several years ago. Now, because of the buzz from this Nobel Prize research, the term autophagy is making its way into the vernacular of mainstream health and science circles. There are thousands of research papers studying various aspects of this very complex topic because understanding autophagy has crossover applications into genetic pathways and to some of the most difficult to treat conditions today. Pharmaceutical companies are busy studying how to find a way to turn on this process for new drugs to combat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other neurological diseases along with the possibility of other drugs such as cancer and obesity medications. It is known that autophagy can suppress tumor initiation. There might be a day when a drug just for longevity will be developed based on this research.
As you might expect, I am wary of the pharmaceutical industries attempts to artificially induce autophagy. Other research is showing that in addition to resveratrol other habits and natural substances can increase autophagy too. In no order, sleep, exercise, ketogenic diet, coffee, green tea, coconut oil, ginger, reishi mushroom, curcumin, vitamin D, nicotinamide, melatonin, ginseng, and lithium can induce autophagy too. There are many books and articles out about intermittent fasting and other fasts like bone broth fasts or plain water fasts. I would suggest reading more information about it or talking directly with me if you are considering doing this. For those with hypoglycemia, a complete water fast may be too stressful to undergo initially. A gradual shift from a glucose dependency to a ketone adapted state achieved through intermittent fasting, will take time.