When Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology on on October 3, lakhs of devotees in India were fasting during the traditional period of Navratri. What’s the connection, you ask? There is: a very strong one. The fasting of the devotees kick starts a process the study of which won Ohsumi the Nobel.
Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize for his study on autophagy. Jiji Press / AFP-Getty Images
Ever heard of “autophagy”? You can Google it and you’ll know, but to put it simply, autophagy is the process in which body cells eat up cells that are dead, deceased or decaying. This process helps the body gain energy in the absence of nutrients from food and technically slow down the ageing process.
In other words, even if you stop eating for a brief period, your body doesn’t stop functioning and cells keep gathering energy from dead cells so that you can continue on with your daily routine in as normal a way this energy permits. Since the cells of the body consumed for the creation of new energy-filled cells are non-working, autophagy is often compared to the process of recycling. It was Ohsumi of the Tokyo Institute of Technology who conducted experiments that debunked a previously held notion that the cells so formed were a ‘waste dump’.
So, fasting helps the cells clean up the body in a very natural manner. Therefore a right consumption pattern that involves a brief period of fasting actually helps the body detox itself.
Women having breakfast after garba practice during Navratri. Many across India observe fast during this period. AP
Mark Mattson, professor of neurosciences at the John Hopkins University, explained during a Ted talk
that by fasting one can actually help improve the power of the brain.
Now how does fasting help? Mattson explains that fasting is like a challenge for the brain to keep the body working. So while the cells inside the body start the process of autophagy, the brain becomes even more alert. It kicks into motion an adaptive stress response pathways which helps the body resist disease in the absence of food. “When animals are hungry, their nerve cells (of the brain) become more active,” illustrates Mattson. He elaborates how the body stores the energy gained from food in the form of glycogen in the liver. Eating constantly (say, three times a day) means that the body continues to store glycogen and gets no opportunity to deplete it.
Those who exercise “burn off fat” – this is the colloquial phrase for depletion of glycogen. But there are many who do not. So the best way for them to reduce glycogen is to follow an intermittent fasting schedule.
Having three meals a day (plus other snacks) does not help the body as the food industry claims. Since most people do not get time to exercise, the cells in their body do not get time to repair the structure or cleanse the body of bad cells. The only thing this does is build an unhealthy body more prone to diseases; and diseases only help the health industry.
The process of autophagy or ‘cell recycling’.
Based on studies, Mattson says that exercising while having three meals a day is less beneficial to the body than going on a fast for a day after having three meals – like intermittent fasting. Though both will kick start autophagy. You skip a meal and cells get time to repair the body. And when your body stays healthy and brain remains active, you cut down on your health expenditure. Isn’t that helpful? Thank those who told you fasting helps your body and applaud the research of Yoshinori Ohsumi.