This article is copyright © Nils Osmar 2019.
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Two interesting things happen when we go without food for an extended stretch: autophagy and apoptosis.
Imagine that you’re in the woods, and it’s cold outside (the equivalent of your body having no food for a while). So you gather up all the twigs and sticks lying around, and start a fire.
This is similar to autophagy, the period (when you’re fasting) when your body is going through its cells finding viruses, bacteria and random accumulated junk to “burn” for fuel.
The body needs at least 15 grams of protein just to keep the heart beating, so if no food is coming in, it finds the building blocks of protein by scavenging for them in your cells. (It breaks cellular debris down into amino acids, then re-assembles them into proteins to do the job.)
Eventually (in a day or two) you run out of twigs and sticks, or run low on them. (You’ve burned the ones that are readily available.) (And your body has burned all the easy-to-find debris in your cells.)
But it’s still cold outdoors. So you decide to cut down a tree, and use the wood for fuel. So you choose an old, half-dead tree to cut down, so as to do minimal damage to the forest.
This is similar to apoptosis, when your body kills its own cells for fuel. It happens two or three days into the fast. The body starts by killing old, broken, malfunctioning senescent cells — which is great, because they’re the sorts of cells that tend to trigger autoimmune problems and illness.
In a nutshell, autophagy “takes out the cellular trash.” During autophagy, the body starts scouring the interiors of our cells looking for items to use as fuel. The items found include things like viruses, bacteria, and various types of useless clutter which have accumulated in the cell over time — junk that is “overflowing the trash bins” of our cells. Burning this readily available “kindling” keeps our bodies happy for a while, but eventually the “trash” will be emptied, and we’ll have run out of available items to use.
Apoptosis occurs later in a fast, and involves the actual deaths of old, broken, poorly functioning senescent cells. Fasting for three days or more should move you deeply into apoptosis. The longer the past (within reason), the greater the benefit. After two or three days of fasting, the body is in “starvation” mode and has to make a triage-like decision. So it goes looking for senescent cells, which have special markers to make them easy to find. It then cannibalizes them, breaking them down into amino acids it can use to fuel essential bodily functions.
This may sound harsh, but it’s great for the body, because senescent cells are the ones that trigger allergies, autoimmune reactions, and even conditions like multiple sclerosis. And the cells that are “killed” weren’t really fully alive in a biological sense… they were broken, malfunctioning cells, lingering and accumulating in the body but carrying on no essential functions. Apoptosis doesn’t happen in a short fast, but can occur in a longer one, if you’re fasting for three days or more.
People are sometimes concerned about fasting destroying muscle tissue when deprived of nutrients. Recent evidence suggests that muscle is actually the last thing to go, i.e., that the body conserves muscle tissue during fasting and prioritizes getting rid of debris such as skin tags first.
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