Starve the Beast

by Tom Swift

I’m not an expert on intermittent fasting (IF) but that won’t stop me from dishing out some opinions on this tasty topic.

I have read a fair amount and watched several videos — a Japanese scientist, Yoshinori Ohsumi, won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the topic so if you want to get wonky, you can — and I have played around with IF, to varying degrees and in varying frequencies, over the past eighteen months. The one thing I will say is that I will never again fight a garden variety cold or flu without that arrow in my quiver.

This morning I feel better than I have in more than a week, I am finally excited to exercise again, and I haven’t yet blown my nose or sneezed or coughed. I missed zero days of work — even if, admittedly, my functioning was not A-game good all day every day last week — and it seems certain the worst is behind me. (That sound you hear is me knocking on wood.)

I may have just been lucky. But I feel quite certain than intermittent fasting helped lessen the time and the severity of my symptoms.

Autophagy (which your autocorrect won’t know what to do with) is the specific process for which Ohsumi won his prize. A Greek term meaning “self-eating,” autophagy is an essential process the body already uses but that speeds up during a fasted state. Specifically, according to the description in a October 23, 2016 New York Times article on Ohsumi’s groundbreaking work, during starvation “cells break down proteins and nonessential components and reuse them for energy.” During autophagy cells also “destroy invading viruses and bacteria, sending them off for recycling.” I liken the way cells use autophagy to get rid of icky cells this way: it’s the body‘s version of a self-cleaning option on our bodily oven.

Just like with a self-cleaning oven, you aren’t necessarily going to rid the body of all gunk in one flip of that switch. Or even by running the self-clean option every day. It depends on how much stuff is in there. But it seems there is no doubt you are going to burn off at least some amount of icky. And if the malady at hand is mild, as mine was, well, to me, it’s a no-brainer.

It could be placebo but I don’t think so: this past week nearly every time I ate, my congestion increased and my energy level dropped.

Two years ago, before I had skipped a single meal, I got sicker over a two-week stretch than I had at any point at least since childhood. It was in February when I got the winter crud going around work that year. It started with a scratchy throat, then turned to flu, then turned to bronchitis. I recall how I kept making sure to eat, even if eating meant merely Progresso chicken noodle and crackers, because I thought my body needed food for fuel. Can I say that had I known about Ohsumi’s work then I would have avoided the worst of those two weeks? I cannot. Illness is part of life. Autophagy is not a panacea. But I do wonder. And I won’t wonder again.

Especially if you have a chronic or acute condition please check with your doctor to see if IF is right for you. (Don’t be surprised, however, if he or she asks you the same thing the late Gary Coleman character used to: “watchu talking about, Willis?” Autophagy is not a household term yet, not even in hospitals.)

How often and how much use intermittent fasting, like most everything else, it’s going to be different for different people. (Even Ohsumi would say there is such a thing as too much autophagy.) IF is not The Answer — there is no single answer — but it’s a weapon. A potentially very useful weapon.