Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2016 for his research on how cells recycle and renew their content, a process called autophagy. Fasting activates autophagy, which helps slow down the aging process and has a positive impact on cell renewal.
What is Autophagy?
During starvation, cells break down proteins and other cell components and use them for energy. During autophagy, cells destroy viruses and bacteria and get rid of damaged structures. It’s a process that is critical for cell health, renewal, and survival.
Ohsumi created a whole new field of science with his work studying autophagy in yeast. He discovered that the autophagy genes are used by higher organisms including humans, and that mutations in these genes can cause disease. Animals, plants, and single cell organisms rely on autophagy to withstand famines.
Although first discovered in the 1960s, Ohsumi’s research from the late 1980s and early 1990s through today has shown autophagy has a role in protection against inflammation and in diseases like dementia and Parkinson’s. When Ohsumi started researching autophagy, there were fewer than 20 papers published each year on the subject; now there are more than 5,000 each year, as it is the subject of diverse fields including cancer and longevity studies.
Fasting for Health
Scientists have found that fasting for 12+ to 24+ hours triggers autophagy, and is thought to be one of the reasons that fasting is associated with longevity. There is a large body of research that connects fasting with improved blood sugar control, reduced inflammation, weight loss, and improved brain function; Oshumi’s research provides some of the “how” to this research. Exercise can also induce autophagy in some cells, allowing cells to start the repair and renewal process.
“Sporadic short-term fasting, driven by religious and spiritual beliefs, is common to many cultures and has been practiced for millennia, but scientific analyses of the consequences of caloric restriction are more recent. Published studies indicate that the brain is spared many of the effects of short-term food restriction, perhaps because it is a metabolically privileged site that, relative to other organs, is protected from the acute effects of nutrient deprivation, including autophagy. We show here that this is not the case: short-term food restriction induces a dramatic upregulation of autophagy in cortical and Purkinje neurons … Our observation that a brief period of food restriction can induce widespread upregulation of autophagy in CNS neurons may have clinical relevance. As noted above, disruption of autophagy can cause neurodegenerative disease, and the converse also may hold true: upregulation of autophagy may have a neuroprotective effect.”