Low protein, high protein, high fat or no fat. It seems every day you hear of a new dietary recommendation to adopt and what it promises to do for you, so you are forgiven if you find yourself completely confused and unsure where to turn. In many cases, though, the recommendations for dietary selection are associated with weight loss – go on a certain diet and lose a certain amount of weight. But what about adopting a diet that actually cares about our health and longevity? That’s the premise behind following a protein cycling regime and working to increase autophagy within the body.
What is Autophagy?
Breaking down into. “auto,” meaning self, and “phagy,” denoting cell eating, autophagy is essentially self-eating, where the body recycles its own cells. It is its natural method of cleaning house and is a critical component of maintaining our health at the cellular level.
Why is Autophagy Important?
Our cells are constantly being damaged through natural bodily processes, such as energy conversion, digestion and immunity. This happens even in healthy humans and is an important part of the cellular life cycle which allows the regular generation of new, young cells that can perform optimally in our body.
With age, stress, increased exposure to food and chemicals however, our cells can experience free radical damage, causing them to be compromised at a faster than normal rate. When this comes in, the body needs some way of getting rid of these damaged cells. Enter autophagy. The body employs natural mechanisms to clear out damaged and under-performing cells which are lingering in the tissues and organs. If these are not removed, they can trigger inflammation in the body, prevent the body from being able to efficiently carry out normal tasks, and lead to the development of diseases.
How Can Low Protein Cycling Impact Autophagy?
While the body can do this clean up alone, and indeed autophagy is active in all cells, there are many benefits to encouraging regular autophagy in addition to what the body initiates by itself:
- Regulate cellular mitochondria, which improves energy production in the body
- Protect the nervous system and immune system
- Encourage growth of new cells, especially those in the brain, enhancing cognitive function and the heart, protecting against heart disease.
- Help maintain integrity and stability of the DNA
One way to encourage this advanced level of autophagy is through protein cycling.
Protein cycling, preferably combined with intermittent fasting, involves alternating between periods of low protein consumption and periods of moderate to high protein consumption. Protein is an essential macronutrient for the body and is a source of energy in the absence of the body’s most easily accessible energy source, glucose. When fasting, the levels of glucose in the body are low, and therefore, so is insulin. Lowered insulin triggers increased glucagon, the body’s naturally produced hormone which can help stabilize blood sugar levels. The presence of this hormone signals the need for autophagy.
The connection to protein and the added benefits of protein cycling, is that lowered protein levels also encourage the release of glucagon, as there is neither glucose nor protein for the body to use for energy. As a result, the glucagon levels increase and so does autophagy within the cells. Furthermore, without the intake of protein, the body will resort to recycling the protein that it has, to extract usable amino acids for future protein formation. This recycling process is also a critical component of autophagy.
How to protein cycle
To really take advantage of autophagy it’s best to activate and inhibit the process, with low protein days and normal protein days. The best way to do this is to choose three non-consecutive low protein days intended to help you activate autophagy by starving your cells of nutrients. On your low days, you will do this by fasting overnight and into the morning (for a total of 16 hours) and then limit your protein intake for the remainder of the day to less than 25 grams. The remaining four days of the week you can eat whatever you like, preferably unprocessed wholefoods so as to complement this longevity strategy.
While the synchronization of cellular processes within the body, how the cells work together to create energy and what they do within our systems may be complex, one thing is simple: we need to encourage the body to eliminate under-performing cells to maximize cellular efficiency, and protein cycling is one of the best ways to foster this natural process.