What is Autophagy?

If you’ve read my novel Northern Survival and stumbled over the word autophagy linked with self-eating, you’re probably not alone. When I first heard it, I was the same way.

Looking up the definition on the Internet, autophagy sounds like a horrible thing.

autophagy: consumption of the body’s own tissue as a metabolic process occurring in starvation and certain diseases.

Who would subject themselves to that?

Looking further, this is what you’ll find on Internet health pages.

Autophagy is the body’s way of cleaning out damaged cells, in order to regenerate newer, healthier cells, according to Priya Khorana, PhD, in nutrition education from Columbia University.

“Auto” means self and “phagy” means eat. So the literal meaning of autophagy is “self-eating.”


Who wants to clean out damaged cells to regenerate new ones? I do. I think everyone does. But there’s a lot more to autophagy, and it’s all good.

Here’s the few paragraphs where Olive talks to John about autophagy. This was several days after the plane crash, and with the lack of food, both were fasting most days.


Olive secured the fishing line to the end of the four-foot stick she’d brought along and plopped the hook into the water near the boat. He caught her eye, and she smiled with an ease that relaxed his muscles.

“This is my favourite kind of fishing,” she said. “Trolling. We do this for hours on the ocean. Sit back and let the fish come to us.” She lay with her back against the bow facing him and holding tightly to the rod.

“Don’t catch too many,” he said. “I want those growth hormones to kick in.” He grinned. “Tell me more about fasting and this autophagy theory. I need to regrow a few brain cells, recycle the cell garbage. I might look ten years younger by the time this is over.”

Her laugh settled him further, and he listened contently while she explained the self-eating approach to a healthier, younger self. In truth, she could have talked about anything, and she’d have had his attention. Her easy-going nature was addictive and time passed without notice.

I stumbled onto vital information about fasting two years ago while researching the Keto diet. I had known about the practice, but I had never considered it seriously as a way to get healthier. Exploring fasting further, I came upon autophagy and it’s incredible benefits to the body.

In early 2019, over the course of four months, I slowly reduced the amount of food I consumed and reduced my three square meals a day to two. I had even eliminated snacks when I was more intent on seeing results.

My brain loves science, so I’ve dug deeper into autophagy on the cellular level than most care to think about. What I found was incredible.

We all have some idea that cells in our body die. They don’t live forever. In fact, the majority of our cells have an expiry date, and our body is constantly regenerating cells to replace them. The fuel we give our body directly affects the quality of cells created.

Unfortunately, for our body to run efficiently, it’s needs the right conditions. Eating often doesn’t provide that. If we look back through the centuries, we see fasting has been a practice for many cultures. Why did they do it? What did they know we don’t? Autophagy.

What is Autophagy?

Here’s how I explain it to someone for the first time.

Every part of our body, from muscle to organ, has cell die-off or cells that are damaged and not working efficiently. For these parts to generate proper cell growth, the dead and damaged cells need to be removed.

That means the recycling truck—not the garbage truck—must arrive to take them away. This truck delivers them to the recycling depo where the material is put into a regeneration machine. The recyclable parts of these cells are used to generate new cells. The non-recyclable parts are dumped into the trash and eliminated by the body.

This whole recycling process is done efficiently through autophagy. If dead and damaged cells are not removed, it creates problems, such as plague build up in the brain that results in diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease.

Benefits of Fasting

After listening to experts talk about fasting and reading articles on the topic, I’ve gleaned the estimated time-frame for these benefits. These are still up for debate because this is a relatively new area of study, so you’ll find information that contradicts these times.

  • 13 hour mark: the body has used up the contents in the stomach and starts to burn stored body fat
  • 13 hour mark: the body starts to generate new growth hormones
  • 16 hour mark: autophagy begins, and the body sends out the recycling truck to pick up the dead and damaged cells
  • 18 hour mark: the body starts to fix insulin resistance
  • 24 hour mark: the body starts to generate new gut cells and TB cells
  • 48 hour mark: the body starts to generate new stem cells and mitochondria (My favourite part of the cell – fell in love with this superhero back in the early 90s when I learned of its powers.)

I’ve read where people suggest a 5 to 7-day fast. Some suggest a 30-day fast for full benefits. One man went a year, but he was extremely overweight and had lots of stored fat to keep him going.

However, much of what I’ve learned suggests (and I could be wrong – do your own research), the best benefits are done with a 3-day (72 hour) fast. After that, the benefits are mild.

Most days, I eat two meals and a snack or two, depending on what I’m doing. This fall, I had found myself eating more, so earlier this week, I decided to correct this and get back to healthier eating. That means eating less and cutting out the sugary treats.

The maximum fast I’ve done was 26 hours. The slow progression to that length of time made it easy, but because my mind was focussed on food, I anticipated a good meal.

This time, I’m going to work my way up to three days. At the moment, I’m in my 21st hour of fasting. At 3:00 pm today (Friday), I’ll have reached 24 hours. I am not hungry. My last meal was a lovely bowl of homemade chicken soup. [I used the onion soup base recipe as the starter and added chicken meat, celery, onion, onion greens, carrot, garlic, lentils, peas, corn, parsley, salt, pepper and potatoes. I gathered most of this from my garden and the chicken was one I had raised over the summer.] For desert, I ate an apple.

During my fast, I am allowed as much water as I want to drink. Sometimes I put a drop of lemon juice in it. I’m also permitted three cups of herbal tea per day sweetened with a wee drop of honey. Many use coffee bombs to get through a fast, but I don’t like coffee.

Am I hungry?

No. My stomach is calm. It is not hungry or full. It’s just calm.

In my experience, eating sugar makes me hungry. Not raw white sugar but cookies, cakes, muffins and all other foods containing high amounts of sugar. The more of these items I consume, the hungrier I feel more often.

Is this for you?

I can’t answer that. Do your research. Ask your doctor, but don’t take their word as the final word. When I told my doctor I was doing it, he didn’t recommend it. But from what I’ve learned, doctors don’t receive much education on the role food plays in our health. Health organisations are more focussed on drugs and surgery to treat symptoms, not deal with the cause of the symptoms.

Learn More

There are many articles on the web about fasting and autophagy. One man I found particular educated and well-spoken on the topic is Dr. Jason Fung. He’s been interviewed many times and has produced videos of his own and posted them to YouTube.

He comes from the angle of a doctor studying and treating diabetes, so listening to him gives you a double bonus if you suffer from insulin resistance.

Here’s one video: Dr Jason Fung on Insulin Resistance, Intermittent Fasting and Autophagy.

How Does Fasting Make Me Feel?

This post is long enough. I’ll answer that in Tuesday’s post.

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