au·toph·a·gy: fasting for gut health

What exactly is autophagy? The word autophagy means “self-eating” (auto: self, phagy: to eat). A more technical definition would be “the segregation and disposal of damaged organelles within a cell.” The purpose of autophagy is for the body to rid itself of senescent (old) cells, as well as damaged cells. Think of it as a spring cleaning of waste and toxic buildup in your body, a re-set for your whole system.

How does fasting enable autophagy? Fasting is just one way that autophagy is stimulated, but there are other research-based ways including: a ketogenic diet, moderate exercise, and “autophagy” foods. These foods include epigallocatechin gallate EGCG containing green and black teas, berberine (supplement form), and bergamot (tea or supplement). When fasting, cells use autophagy as a way of survival by digesting their own components. Old, damaged, or weak cell parts are the first to go.

Autophagy and the gut: During fasting the body uses fat stores for energy since no carbohydrates are consumed. In one study conducted by the Buchinger Clinic, findings show that fasting resulted in a decrease in gut bacteria that are fed by carbohydrates and an increase in bacteria that are fed from sources within the body. Any beneficial bacterial that was reduced was later repopulated and was back to original numbers 3 months after fasting, reassuring doubts that fasting may permanently affect these friendly bugs. Also, the increase that occurred were in bacteria that produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFA’s), which promote the integrity of the gut lining. When bacteria were observed 3 months after the fast, these numbers were higher than before the fasting began. It is important to note the importance of good nutrition during the time of regeneration after eating is resumed. Scientific research aside, it just makes sense to give the gut rest if we want it to heal.

When does autophagy begin during fasting? Although there is no definitive time frame, it is suggested that autophagy begins within 16-24 hours after fasting and various results will be achieved depending on the length of the fast. For this reason, extended fasts (36 hours or more), can be attempted once confidence is built with shorter fasts.

Types of fasting: There are several methods for shorter fasts including intermittent, time-restricted eating, and one meal a day (OMAD), An example of intermittent fasting would be eating an early dinner and waiting until late morning the next day to eat. If dinner is at 5 o’clock and the next meal is at 11 o’clock the following day, then an 18 hour fast has been achieved. Time-restricted eating is designating an amount of time to take food in a 24-hour period. For example, noon till 5 p.m. This is not a time for “calorie restriction,” plenty of nutritious food can be enjoyed. This would achieve a 19-hour fast. OMAD is also a useful strategy for fasting. Choose your time and eat one meal while eating plenty of nutritious satisfying food. This achieves a 23-hour fast. Combine these with moderate exercise or ketogenic eating and autophagy will likely increase. An extended fast is anything 36 hours or more.


*Always consult with your health care provider to see if fasting is right for you.

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