Fasting Helps Remove Waste at the Cellular Level

 By Kollengode S. Venkataraman

 In February 2012, Gretchen Reynolds’s article* in the New York Times discussed the benefits of physical exercise in terms of “house-cleaning of the body” at the cellular level. For the biologically challenged engineers, technologists, doctors and others: Cells are the basic structural and functional units of all living organisms. They are the building blocks of life itself. Living organisms can be very simple unicellular species such as bacteria, or can be multicellular like plants and animals. Humans are composed of several trillion cells of different types in different combinations, varying in size between 1 to 100 microns visible under microscopes. One micron is 1/1000th of a millimeter.


What follows in italics is my summary of a part of Reynolds’ longer article. The words within quotes are Reynolds’ own words.

We all know about the benefits of physical activities and exercise: Good blood circulation and working the muscles and joints help to scavenge out the waste products of metabolism that accumulate in the body. We feel fresh and rejuvenated.

Cell biologists have known for a long time that waste products accumulate in cells during routine daily activity. These trash heaps of debris contain “broken or misshapen proteins, shreds of cellular membranes, invasive viruses or bacteria, and worn-out, broken-down cellular components … … within cells.”

Often cells sweep away these waste products, sometimes even wrapping them in special membranes within the cells and breaking them into simpler bits (or oxidizing them) to generate energy. This process is called autophagy, literally “self-eating.” Without this efficient cleaning system, the trash would congest the individual cells, and the healthy cells would die. Faulty autophagy is believed to be at the root of many diseases such as diabetes, muscular dystrophy and others. The slowing down of autophagy is believed to contribute to aging.

The self-cleaning autophagy, cell biologists believe, evolved in living organisms in response to the stress associated with starvation when living organisms on and off did not get enough food. When food is scarce, “cells would round up and consume superfluous bits of themselves to keep the rest of the cell alive. In petri dishes, the rate of autophagy increases when cells are starved or otherwise placed under physiological stress.” 

Exercises are physiological stress. But until recently, few researchers had thought to ask whether exercise might somehow affect autophagy within cells, and if so, what their influences to the body as a whole are. In controlled experiments, researchers found that mice having better autophagy were able to stay active before getting fatigued compared to the mice having poorer autophagy built into their cells.

I was astonished at how nature works in preserving its species even during starvation through autophagy. Starvation is externally imposed. Lower animals’ and plant species’ only response to starvation is to adapt or die. Animals starve when food is scarce, as when monsoons fail, or during massive deforestation, or new aggressive and voracious species are introduced in their habitats depriving food to existing species.

Human beings too have to adapt to changes from outside. But humans have the capacity to proactively bring about changes using their will power, as during fasting. Fasting, of course, is different from starving. The driving force for fasting is the power of the will where everything edible is available, but you do not eat them by choice by exercising your willpower. Since you do it by choice, you do not feel deprived.

In India, many traditional observers of religious rites periodically practice what is known upavaasam – literally meaning “subsistence living.” Jains and many Hindus fast for several days during the Chatumaas in the rainy season. Hindus fast on Ekadashi – the entire 24-hour duration of the eleventh phase of the waxing and waning moon every month. Muslims too, once a year, fast for 12 hours or longer during Ramadan.

Can human beings, using their willpower, deny their body food so that at the cellular level, they can initiate autophagic “housecleaning” and burn the cellular-level wear debris into energy, as can happen during fasting? The answer seems to be”yes.” If you web-search the phrase “Fasting and Autophagy,” you get a ton of affirmations from practitioners of fasting and even scientific studies on the subject.

So, is it worthwhile complementing daily exercise with fasting once a month for 24 hours, as many traditional Jains and Hindus practice even today?

It definitely is worth trying, provided you have the willpower to deny yourself of food for twenty-four hours in this gluttonous part of the world! 



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