The Downside of Fasting and Excessive Autophagy
In the ever-evolving landscape of health and wellness, it seems that extreme measures that may lead to possible benefits are often celebrated, forsaking a safer, more common-sense approach to healing.
Think of exercise for example. It is a well-known fact that walking offers a host of health benefits, yet, it is not as sexy as high-intensity trainings such as Beach Body’s P90X, Insanity, or Insanity Max, which show off sweaty bodies and ripped abs. It’s something many desire, but few will ever achieve because these forms of activities require a level of commitment that few are able or willing to sustain.
Another trend that we observed over the last few years is cold exposure, specifically ice baths. While I personally love a cold shower to wake me up every now and then, I can tell you that over the last two decades, as I have worked with clients, very few feel tempted to jump into a bath filled with water and ice and stay in it for a few minutes.
And let’s not forget about the Keto diet, the Paleo diet, and the Lion diet. They all come and go, each touting a specific set of scientific benefits that will fade or will be proven wrong in the years ahead. However, one thing remains true…
The more extreme the practice, the more cult-like following and attention it gets. It is simply our human nature to go for the most shocking trends that promise a quick fix to our biggest pain points.
And these days there is one more trend that garners the attention of avid health enthusiasts – fasting.
As ancient as humanity, in modern days, fasting takes various forms, with intermittent fasting—a dietary approach that restricts food intake to specific windows of the day—serving as a popular variant. You probably heard about it and may have even tried it.
There are many variations:
1) alternate day fasting – when you fast every other day;
2) eat one meal a day, fast for the rest of the day (this means that you have to consume enough calories to last you the entire day!); or…
3) 8 hours for eating, 16 hours fasting – eat your calories within an 8-hour window, then fast for the rest of the day; or…
4) 6 hours for eating, 18 hours fasting… You get the point.
But, more recently, a new trend has been making waves: fasting for extended periods, such as 36 hours to induce autophagy (more about this in a moment).
The appeal of various methods of fasting is understandable. Proponents of fasting assert that it brings a host of health benefits ranging from improved metabolic health to enhanced mental clarity, increased longevity, and weight loss. And if we are honest enough, most who venture to take up fasting, do it specifically for weight loss reasons.
As with any health trend, however, it’s vital to delve beyond surface-level claims and explore the real scientific basis and potential risks involved.
FASTING INDUCES AUTOPHAGY
Central to the fasting discourse is the concept of autophagy. Often touted as a key benefit of fasting, autophagy is a natural process our bodies use to cleanse themselves of damaged cells.
The term “autophagy” is derived from the Greek words for “self” and “eating,” fittingly describing a process in which cells “eat” their own components to facilitate repair and rejuvenation. While it may seem like a new discovery to the science world, it is a part of our biology that has been around since the dawn of humanity.
In essence, autophagy is a form of cellular housekeeping. It removes and recycles damaged proteins and organelles, playing an essential role in maintaining cellular health. This mechanism helps our bodies adapt to stress, resist infections, and sustain proper cellular functions. While it’s beneficial, as the saying goes, ”Too much of a good thing…“ It is especially true when it comes to biological processes such as autophagy.
Despite its benefits, excessive autophagy can lead to potential adverse effects. A state of overactive autophagy can result in the excessive breakdown of necessary cellular components, leading to cell damage or even cell death. In specific contexts, heightened levels of autophagy could contribute to muscle wasting, support the survival and growth of cancer cells, or exacerbate the progression of neurodegenerative diseases.
Moreover, too much autophagy can potentially contribute to the progression of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s.
RISKS OF FASTING
Furthermore, fasting—particularly when carried out over extended periods—carries its own set of risks. Common side effects include increased hunger, headaches, lightheadedness, fatigue, mood swings, and digestive issues, such as constipation. In more severe cases, fasting can lead to malnutrition, an issue often overlooked in the pursuit of purported benefits.
Extended fasts can be particularly concerning, as they place two types of stress on the heart. Firstly, fasting can lead to the cannibalization of cardiac muscle for fuel. While our bodies strive to conserve muscle during a fast, some muscle will inevitably be sacrificed, especially at the start of the fast. Secondly, strict fasting can deplete the body’s intracellular stores of minerals vital for cardiac function, such as magnesium and potassium, increasing the risk of heart failure.
Some studies have found that people who regularly fast more than 16-18 hours a day have a higher risk of gallstones. (Source)
For people who take certain medications, such as for blood pressure or heart disease, fasting can be life-threatening.
Moreover, there are mental health considerations to bear in mind. Long-term fasting can potentially lead to disordered eating patterns, even in otherwise healthy individuals, and serve as a form of self-punishment or control for individuals battling eating disorders. The energy or “high” that can accompany fasting may also become addictive, leading some individuals to ignore physical dangers in pursuit of this sensation.
There are cases when therapeutic fasting, such as water fasting, which should be done under medical supervision, can be life-saving. Perhaps, one day, I will write an article about it. However, the idea of fasting as a daily practice will set up health enthusiasts for eventual disappointment. Do we really want to shove over 1500 calories down our stomach per meal only to feel faint and groggy a few hours later? Or do we want to skip a day and a half of eating, so we can double down on caloric intake the day after?
PROMOTING NATURAL AUTOPHAGY
If autophagy (cleaning of debris from our bodies) is our goal, it’s crucial to understand that autophagy is a natural process that can be induced without resorting to extreme fasting measures. We can promote autophagy through a balanced lifestyle that includes adequate rest, a nutritious diet, regular physical activity, proper hydration, and effective stress management.
A balanced diet, such as a whole food plant-based diet, supplies our bodies with diverse nutrients while also potentially being lower in calories, promoting a healthy weight. Regular physical activity not only strengthens our bodies but also helps regulate our metabolic processes. Ensuring proper hydration aids in maintaining your body’s physiological functions, including autophagy. Consuming an adequate amount of water each day helps in flushing out toxins from the body, aids in digestion, and maintains cellular health.
And if you really wanted to fast, fasting is an already built-in benefit of a healthy lifestyle. If you do all the things I just mentioned, and you have your last meal a few hours before going to bed and then do not eat until breakfast, you will have naturally fasted without starving yourself. For example, you can have your last meal at 7 pm, go to bed by 10 pm, and have your breakfast at 7 am. This will give you 12 hours of fasting.
BALANCE IS KEY TO HEALTH
In a world where the quest for optimal health often leads individuals down the path of extreme dietary protocols and health practices, it’s essential to remember that our bodies thrive on balance. A lifestyle as we teach in 360 Impact Health Program, promotes regular physical activity, adequate rest, a nutritious whole foods diet, trauma healing, detoxing using the body’s existing mechanisms, and positive mental health practices will go a long way in achieving and supporting overall well-being.
In extreme cases, therapeutic fasting can be a part of achieving a major health breakthrough when done correctly and under professional medical supervision. However, it’s not the only pathway to improved health, and it should not be taken to extremes. While the scientific community continues to unravel the complexities of autophagy and its role in health and disease, it is clear that it is a naturally occurring, built-in mechanism our bodies possess, and our only goal should be, to make it more effective by following the things I’ve just mentioned. A balanced approach, rather than extreme measures, is key to harnessing the benefits of autophagy. It’s vital to strike a balance – common sense, and creating a sustainable lifestyle will always win the health race.
If you are considering undertaking fasting for weight loss, there is a better way to achieve this – a balanced whole foods plant-based diet, rest, hydration, exercise, trauma-healing, reducing inflammation, and working toward being medication-free (under medical supervision) is a certain way to a slimmer waistline compared to a cult-like commitment of “crash and burn” of health fads.
My clients lose an average of 0.5-2 lbs per week following an easy-to-implement, common-sense approach to health. It may not be the enticing “lose 30 lbs in 30 days” promise of unsustainable fad diets, but, there is no skipping meals, no counting calories, or measuring their foods… while also reversing severe thyroid, hormone, and autoimmune disorders.
In conclusion, consider that it is essential to approach the practice of fasting and the pursuit of autophagy with a balanced perspective. The benefits of promoting natural autophagy, without resorting to excessive fasting, outweigh the risks associated with such extreme practices. Before you decide to sit at the feet of another health fad guru, whether you’re considering fasting or other lifestyle practices to improve health or lose weight, remember that health is a marathon, not a sprint, and the journey should always prioritize safety and sustainability over quick fixes.
Holistic Master Health & Life Coach
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