Here is an excerpt from my book Minimal Medication on intermittent fasting.
There is a mythology that ancient people who survived into adulthood actually may have led healthier lives than modern people. This is said to be due to the cleanness of their environment and their food. Recent archaeological research has found that pollution even existed in the ancient world, but the real reason ancient people who survived childhood were so healthy was due to the fact they didn’t eat all the time. This enabled a physiological process autophagy.
The term “autophagy” is a combination of two Greek words that mean “self” and “eating. ” In the process of autophagy, individual cells in our bodies literally consume their defective parts. The get rid of nonfunctional organelles, tiny “organs” that perform specific tasks in the cell. They get rid of improperly formed proteins. They repair defective cell membranes.
Exercise physiologist Brad Pilon likens autophagy to car repair. When a part in our car breaks down, we take it to the shop and let the mechanic repair it. In the human body, the “mechanic” lives inside each part in the car, and when the conditions are right, repairs the part before a defect is noticed.
The cell gets rid of parts that don't work. It replaces them with parts that do. This is a natural part of its self-maintenance during its active life, long before it goes through a process called apoptosis to make way for younger replacement cells. This isn’t a routine part of modern health, because modern people eat too much and eat too frequently for it to happen very often.
If we eat all the time, our cells never get a chance to detoxify and rebuild themselves. Autophagy is a process of detoxification that the body carries out at a cellular level, but not all the time. Just as fat cells cannot both release fat and store fat at the same time, other kinds of cells cannot both break down defective parts and absorb the nutrients to build new cell parts at the same time.
When people eat as they please, very little autophagy occurs. In the absence of this vital repair mechanism, defects in the cell can accumulate. The energy-making mitochondria accumulate defects. This causes them to allow free radicals of oxygen to escape when they burn sugar to make energy.
These free radicals can “zap” DNA so that the cell loses its ability to make certain essential proteins. Malformed proteins tend to clump together uselessly inside the cells, so that even more toxic free radicals are released. The cell ages prematurely, and when masses of cells age prematurely, tissues wear out before their time, organs fail, and age-related diseases appear.
Fasting turns the process of autophagy on, but eating turns it off. It only takes a little food to stop this process of cellular repair. Just a tiny meal in the middle of a fast—a tiny protein meal, at that—is enough to stop autophagy and detoxification. Researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston found that finds that just 2 grams (about 1/15 of an ounce) of the amino acid leucine, is enough to cancel out the benefits of fasting.
This is about the equivalent of one twentieth of a whole egg or 5 grams (0. 15 ounces) of soy or fish. If you were to get this along with 10 grams (1/3 of an ounce) of other essential amino acids, that would certainly be enough to stop the process of breaking down defective proteins in every cell in your body. It would be enough to start the cell's process of manufacturing new proteins prematurely.
So just how important is autophagy to your overall health? There are entire medical journals devoted to the subject. In the thousands of scientific studies of autophagy, researchers have found that:
• Autophagy helps the body defend itself against both viruses and bacteria.
• Autophagy, induced by calorie restriction, has been used to stop the progression of Alzheimer's. It is more effective in people who have tested positive for a version of the APOE gene that usually leads to the disease. Fasting seems to accelerate autophagy in the brain, enabling neurons to remove damaged, tangled proteins and to repair defective mitochondria.
• Autophagy is a potential method of cancer treatment. Giving cancer-prone cells a break from food (not “starving” them, just giving them time to repair) turns on natural processes that change cancer cells back into normal cells.
• Autophagy is believed to be curative in alcoholic liver disease.
And as will be discussed in considerable detail in the next section, autophagy is one of the body's most important tools for fighting infection.
Horrible health problems can be relieved by autophagy, accomplished during short-term fasting. Of course, you don’t have to do fasting as a spiritual practice to benefit from it as a medical practice. It’s better, of course, if you do “prayer and fasting,” but sometimes it is OK just to do something because you want to develop discipline and self-control and good health.
For whatever reasons you pursue fasting, there are no medications, no supplements to buy, and no special foods to prepare. Fasting as little as 12 to 18 hours at a time is all that is needed to begin to the restorative process that has the potential to prevent the diseases, and fasting has beneficial effects that cannot be imitated by any diet.