The Miraculous Health Benefits of Autophagy Fasting: How to Switch on Your Longevity Genes
BY ALBERTO VILLOLDO, Ph.D.
Switching On the Longevity Genes
We spent many millions of years feasting and then fasting. When food was abundant, nature turned on reproduction. Females became fertile, and both males and females buffed up and put on muscle mass and stored fat reserves. When times were lean, nature sensed our survival was threatened by possible starvation—females became infertile and all the repair and regeneration systems were turned on, ensuring our survival until more abundant times.
If we can create the conditions that mimic starvation, while keeping ample nutrients on board, we can trigger the DNA switches that allow us to grow a new body. This article will help you better understand the profound benefits of autophagy and fasting.
Autophagy and Intermittent Fasting
Abstaining from food for short periods as a way to cleanse body and mind has a history going back millennia. Indigenous medicine men and women, Buddhist monks, Christian mystics, and others would subsist on only water for a few days to prime the brain to function optimally and pray. In the process, they would repair and upgrade their body naturally through a biological process called autophagy. However, there’s no need to fast from good carbs, including fruit, for more than 18 hours at a time. Brain repair starts to happen quickly, and brain fog begins to clear in a matter of days. Even during Ramadan, the month-long period of fasting that is one of the most sacred practices of Islam, Muslims fast only from sunrise to sunset each day. As long as you drink plenty of water and refrain from vigorous exercise while you’re fasting, you may find that you don’t even experience hunger pangs, or if you do, that they’re mild enough not to bother you.
One form of intermittent fasting involves not eating any grains or anything that turns into sugar in your bloodstream between 6 p.m. and noon the next day. This daily 18-hour fast will bring you into ketosis, a metabolic change that happens when your cells exhaust the energy from carbohydrates and sugars and break down fats into a powerful fuel known as ketones. Then your brain starts burning ketones for fuel.
Ideally, you will follow this fasting routine for the rest of your life, or at least for as long as you wish to keep your vibrant health.
Hunger pangs while fasting are good; they are an indication that you’re switching from the glucose fuel to the ketones, and your brain is beginning to burn fats. But your ancient limbic brain, that runs on sugars, may try to convince you that you’ll die if you don’t eat a glazed doughnut right away. Don’t give in to it. Simply observe your cravings, knowing that in fact, your body has enough fuel reserves to get you through the next 40 days without eating—though I don’t recommend it!
“Hanger” pangs are different. Hanger is what happens when you become angry as you get hungry. If you find yourself getting hangry as you do the daily 18-hour fast from sugars, it is because of Candida overgrowth in your GI tract. They want to be fed and want to be sure that you know this, and they begin releasing toxins that signal the brain to increase the levels of ghrelin, the “hunger hormone.”
The purpose of intermittent fasting is not for weight loss. That’s a dangerous misuse of the practice. You fast in order to go into ketosis and turn on the body’s fat-burning system and repair mechanisms. Autophagy fasting brings about detoxification at a cellular level. Reducing the intake of sugars and processed carbs for more than a few hours triggers a process called autophagy, in which more than 90 percent of the “waste” inside the cells is recycled into amino acid building blocks the cells can reuse for repair, and the remainder is eliminated as garbage. Cells have the most efficient recycling system. If our cities were as effective in recycling waste as our cells are, we would hardly have any garbage in our landfills.
As you detox, you release cellular waste into your bloodstream, where it’s carried to the GI tract and to the liver to be flushed out of the body. But fasting can be dangerous if your liver is not working properly because if you are not eliminating the toxins in your bloodstream, you are recycling them. And the worst place toxins can end up in is the fatty tissue in the brain.
When Eastern sages and Western Christian mystics fasted, they did not have to deal with a toxic burden in their body or brain that modern humans have. They were not exposed to the chemicals you find today in our foods, in cosmetics, in water, and in the air. The Chernobyl nuclear tragedy had not contaminated the air and gardens in Europe, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster had not contaminated the waters of the Pacific Ocean and the seafood that ends up on our dinner plate.
Upon entering ketosis during fasting, their bodies would go into repair mode, and they would activate higher order neural networks in the neocortex. They would begin to grow a new body as they attained mystical Oneness.
When we’re burning carbs, the body is in building mode; insulin levels are high as we build muscle. When we stop utilizing carbs as our primary fuel, even for a few hours, we go into ketosis. An autophagy diet allows the body to recycle waste and repair itself. It triggers the production of stem cells in the brain and every organ in the body. It also awakens the higher order neural networks where we can have a spiritual experience, even when we are not looking for one.
Even during a short fast, amazing things happen to the body and brain. In just 24 hours, the production of human growth hormone increases by 1,500 percent, repairing cells that make up our tissues. Not eating carbs for as little as 18 hours switches on the longevity genes.
Intermittent fasting should be done carefully if you are hypoglycemic or diabetic. You should not undertake any long-term fasting until your blood sugar levels are regulated. Do not attempt this program while trying to maintain a diet made up primarily of sugar-filled, processed carbs. This means that you need to eliminate the pizza, pasta, bagels, croissants, potato chips, soda pop, and so on before starting this program. Be sure to fill your diet with high-fiber vegetables, avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, and raw nuts.
The payoffs of the 18-hour daily fast are as follows:
+ Increasing your metabolism. This is one of the most popular benefits of fasting. After you exhaust the sugars in your bloodstream, your cells will begin to burn fat for energy.
+ Providing a higher-quality fuel for your brain. The ketones (fats) are jet fuel for the brain and will switch on the higher order neural networks involved in creativity, discovery, exploration, compassion, and the experience of oneness necessary to grow a new body.
+ Lowering levels of insulin. When you lower the levels of glucose in your bloodstream, your need for insulin is reduced because insulin’s job is to remove glucose from the bloodstream. Insulin receptors in the cell have a chance to reset and reduce insulin resistance and the risk for diabetes.
+ Increasing the detoxification of every cell in your body. Ketosis allows for autophagy and recycling of cellular debris, emptying out the garbage.
+ Preventing cancer and reducing the proliferation of existing cancer cells. While cancer cells can readily burn glucose (sugar) for fuel, their impaired metabolism makes it difficult for them to burn ketones (fat). In addition, ketosis lowers the levels of the tumor marker IGF-1. That is a sign that the ketosis is preventing cancerous tumors from growing or spreading.
+ Protecting the brain. Ketosis reduces inflammation in the brain and body and turns on the production of stem cells in the brain. It does this by activating BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which enhances brain repair.
However, when implementing an intermittent diet, be sure that you give your liver support for eliminating the toxins that will be released into your bloodstream from your fatty tissues as you begin to burn fat for fuel. Zinc, B12, magnesium, and glutathione will help your liver do its job. Without these nutrients, the liver will not eliminate toxic waste effectively, and the toxins may end up in your brain.
Two Meals a Day
Who said that we need to eat three meals a day, that breakfast, lunch, and dinner are necessary or desirable? Our nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors ate whenever they got hungry (and had food available), and so did the Native Americans when Europeans first arrived in the New World. Abigail Carroll, author of the book Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, explains that the Europeans believed their regular eating habits and “civilized” mealtimes distinguished them from the “grazing” practice of the natives, a habit they associated with animals.
How wrong they were about timing your eating!
Ditch the three-meals-a-day-plus-snacks habit that we have been accustomed to. If you are interested in growing a new body through an autophagy diet, you need to think of a new golden rule of eating only one or two meals a day and skipping breakfast (and sometimes dinner). I prefer skipping breakfast rather than skipping dinner because it draws out the period of recycling and ketosis provided by intermittent fasting. You can eat organic, plant-based, nutrient-dense, and calorie-poor foods until full during the six-hour window.
It will take a few weeks to persuade your gut flora to become comfortable with eating only one or two meals a day. Remember that they are the ones who eat first, and you have trained them to eat three meals a day or more. Once your body has shifted into fat-burning mode, you will find it easy to go for 18 hours without feeling hunger pangs. Your cravings for sugars will gradually dissipate as you eliminate the Candida and restart your fat-burning engines that have been dormant for decades.
Some bugs in your gut will not like this at all, particularly Candida that you have rewarded with sugary treats for years. So prepare your homemade S. boulardii and have it ready to take every morning!
How Much Protein Do We Really Need?
Humans and animals have co-existed side by side for a long time. We have been domesticating sheep, pigs, and cows before the dawn of agriculture, and have been eating animal products, including dairy and meat, since then. Even in our hunting and gathering days, our ancestors would feast on a lucky find of eggs. Granted, our Paleolithic forebears had meat infrequently, as they had to hunt it or fish for it; however, for the last few thousand years, animal protein has been a staple of the human diet. Though several studies have linked eating a significant amount of meat to various ailments, it’s not totally banned even when you are on an intermittent diet.
Today, meat is at the center of one of the world’s bloodiest food fights. Most of the meat consumed in the developed world comes from factory farms, where animals are treated with extraordinary cruelty, fed hormones, and antibiotics, and raised in unsanitary and inhumane conditions. But healthy, organic, grass-fed meat in small portions and wild-caught fish can foster freedom from heart disease, diabetes, cancers, and dementia.
Although we need protein, our cells actually cannot use protein and this is a primary reason why the concept of protein fasting is becoming more popular. Our gut bacteria must break protein down into amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. If your gut flora is damaged, you will not get the necessary amino acids. Amino acids cannot be stored, and the ones that are not used promptly get converted into glucose or fat, then burned for fuel.
There are many amino acids found in nature, but humans can only use 20 of them for building proteins. Essential amino acids are the ones you need to get from food because your body cannot make them. Nonessential amino acids are the ones your body makes on its own.
Protein makes up about 33 percent of the weight of a piece of beef, so if you eat a 100-gram steak, you are only getting about 33 grams of protein. Lentils, meanwhile, have 9 grams of protein per 100 grams. In contrast, salmon has nearly 25 grams of protein per 100 grams. A good general rule for most people is to limit your total protein intake (animal and plant-based) to 200 to 400 grams or less per week, depending on your weight. Your body does not need protein every day. Eat your protein, especially animal protein, on a cycling schedule, largely abstaining from protein on the days in between. Remember to feast and then fast!
Intermittent fasting can be hard at first, but it is worth it. If you are looking at these recommendations and thinking, You’ve got to be kidding. My body wants more meat than that!, it’s likely your gut flora is damaged, and you are not absorbing amino acids properly. The more damaged your gut is as a result of antibiotic use or age, the more protein you may require.
The key to animal protein is high quality, not high quantity. When we eat meat, we need to be concerned about what the animal ate too. Meats from animals that are not raised on the foods nature intended for them are not the best protein source. After all, animals did not graze on the corn that they are fed in the factory farms of today. Make sure that your meat is free range, grass fed, and vegetarian. Wild-caught fish are better than farmed fish, which are fed cereal.
Most important, forget about your daily protein intake, and think about weekly protein intake. Remember that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers who ate all their protein at once when they had a good day of hunting. They feasted and fasted, cycling their protein consumption.
The key is cycling protein. I consume about 300 grams of protein a week, which is perfect for my weight (165 lbs, or 75 kg) and level of activity (moderate exercise). I will eat most of my protein on days one and four of the week, in two sittings, just like our Paleolithic ancestors did when they found a fresh mammoth on their way home and shooed the birds away and brought it back to the village—except that instead of mammoth, I will eat a couple of hard-boiled eggs at lunch and a portion of fish in the evening.
So, Sunday and Wednesday, I will have a protein feast, maybe eating out at my favorite fish restaurant or having a double scoop of plant-based protein powder at lunch or a helping of black beans and rice, which is a typical Cuban dish and a complete protein.
I am on the road teaching and lecturing a lot, and I often have to go to dinner with the hosts of my program. If the night before I had a big protein meal, I know that my mTOR is activated; so that evening I will have a soup and salad with no animal protein, to again silence mTOR. (I explain mTOR in the next section.)
The key is protein cycling.
I know that what I’m telling you flies in the face of our current popular beliefs about our protein needs but stay with me. Years ago, I was a fervent advocate of restricting carbs. Now that new research has come out, and I have experienced for myself the benefits of restricting protein intake, I am convinced that eating less protein is key to growing a new body and to sustaining health and longevity. I believe that many Paleo dieters are exposing themselves to increased risk of cancer and degenerative disease because of excessive protein intake.
Protein and Evolution
To understand our basic food requirements, we have to go back to when life first appeared on Earth—perhaps before the term autophagy diet was first used.
Around 2 billion years ago, the first bacteria appeared on Earth. Their mission was to eat and reproduce. When there was lots of food available, they grew strong and multiplied. When food was scarce during times of starvation, nature turned off reproduction, and all their resources went into repair and survival. These early bacteria needed a way to determine if there were abundant nutrients for reproduction or if they needed instead to conserve energy, using scarce food supplies to repair in preparation for a time when food would be more plentiful. This protein-sensing system is known as TOR (target of rapamycin), and it is shared today by all creatures from bacteria to whales to humans. You’ll learn more about TOR and its very important work shortly, but for now, know this: Consuming too much animal protein stimulates the TOR pathway, which can cause out-of-control growth of cancer cells. Cancer cells want to multiply quickly.
Why would our bodies be controlled by a process that could end up killing us? Remember that nature selects for the longevity of the species, but not of the individual. It wants us to reproduce so that our species doesn’t become extinct—and if you happen to die on the way to the species surviving, nature shrugs. Your challenge is to work with your natural intelligence to continue to enjoy good health and live long past your reproductive years. Restrict your protein intake and quiet TOR, and your chances of living a long and healthy life improve immensely.
For a species to survive, birth rates need to be higher than death rates—and this has to happen even when there are times of extreme hardship. But nature will not allow any animal to reproduce if there is a danger of famine or starvation. That’s because carrying and nursing offspring, as mammals do, requires a lot of energy and takes a huge toll on the mother, who must feed herself as well as the young she is carrying. When we practice intermittent fasting (with adequate nutrition), our body focuses on repair and renewal. We literally trick the brain into thinking that there is a danger of starvation and that its resources should go into growing a stronger and more resilient body.
The Grow a New Body program works by calibrating the level of TOR in your system!
During times of food scarcity, many creatures will go into a dormant state so they can wait out the long winter. We see this in bears that hibernate and in yeasts found in the skin of grapes. As winter approaches, a yeast cell will “sleep.” When food supplies become available again in the spring, TOR will sense an abundance of nutrients, and it will “wake up” again. Some bacteria can even withstand boiling and freezing temperatures, and endure many years of extreme weather before the TOR system detects the right nutrient conditions for germination. And while most of the genes of the yeast on the skin of the grape go dormant, the TOR nutrient sensors remain alert, ready to rouse the organism when there are adequate nutrients in the environment.
As I mentioned, humans have a TOR system, just as yeast do, and it’s called mTOR (“m” is for mammalian.) On the Grow a New Body program, you won’t be fasting for months, just hours, to get a similar result. Now that we understand the science behind mTOR, we know we can make dietary choices that downregulate it (restricting protein) and effectively send our bodies into repair and longevity mode. But, remember that you have to know how the program works first before you can fully enjoy the benefits of fasting.
How TOR Works
In periods of famine, women will become infertile—mTOR makes sure their bodies do this, and male sperm counts will go down dramatically. During this time, the resources in the body are dedicated to eliminating toxins through autophagy, switching on the longevity genes, and silencing the genes that create disease, all of which are fantastic strategies for long-term survival until food sources become plentiful again. Humpback whales fast for many months in the tropics, losing up to half of their body weight and clearing diseases evident on their skin. When their bodies have repaired, they migrate north where food is abundant and switch into reproduction and growth mode.
So, how important it is to calibrate our TOR when aiming for autophagy? The TOR sensors detect the presence of amino acids and sugars. Billions of years ago, when the first bacteria were feeding on the amino acids found in the young earth, some developed the ability to use light as a food source. These were the first cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, and they discovered photosynthesis—how to feed on sunlight. These early plants turned light and minerals into carbohydrates, and thus the first sugars appeared on the earth in significant quantities. These plants would become the food of the large herbivores that later walked the earth.
The earliest sources of energy (food) in the earth were amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins and sugar. The TOR sensors measure the abundance or scarcity of these two foods. When things were good, TOR stepped on the reproductive accelerator. When food was in short supply, it put on the brakes on having babies, or cells dividing, and switched on the long-term survival systems. For humans, it meant recycling cellular waste to capture 90 percent of the amino acids from damaged proteins and maintain steady amino acid levels in the blood.
To summarize, we can think of our all-important TOR as the “brain” that senses nutrients and that controls growth and longevity in all animals. When we avoid sugars and reduce proteins, TOR instructs our cells to go into repair and longevity mode. Stem cell and antioxidant systems that protect the brain are activated, as well as all cells, and you prevent or delay the appearance of cancer and the proliferation of existing tumors.
The Discovery of mTOR
Rapamycin, a drug used to prevent rejection of transplanted organs, comes from a bacterium discovered in 1960 on Easter Island. Doctors were surprised to find that patients taking Rapamycin had a reduced incidence of cancer despite the fact that the medication they were taking suppressed the immune system, which the body depends on to kill cancer cells. It turns out that Rapamycin was downregulating mTOR (the target of Rapamycin). This causes the body to go into repair and longevity mode and inhibits rampant cellular replication, which is the hallmark of cancer. We are learning that downregulating mTOR through intermittent fasting is a key to preventing cancer and helping the body repair.
Debunking Other Dietary Myths
The only proven strategy for extending both life span and health span in mice and primates by up to 30 percent is reducing the total number of calories they consume, primarily the carbs that turn into glucose.
We know a low-carb diet will keep insulin levels in the body low. Combining that with a high-protein intake was thought to be the key to extending the life span of all the animals on a calorie-restricted diet. But it turns out that the longer life span was due to a protein called IGF-1, or insulin-like growth factor-1, a growth factor we need when we are young and are growing fingers and toes. But for adults, high levels of IGF-1 are associated with pathological growth—it indicates the likelihood of a cancerous tumor present or developing. As you lower your IGF-1 levels, you reduce your chances of developing cancer.
When blood sugar levels are high, IGF-1 tells mTOR that there is lots of food available, and mTOR shuts down repair and switches on cell growth. Therefore, the key to longevity is lowering sugar and protein intake, which can be achieved through autophagy and fasting.
The New Science on Diet
It turns out that long-term caloric restriction does not actually lower IGF-1, but protein restriction does. You can eat organic steaks, keep your blood sugar levels low, and be in mild ketosis, burning fats instead of sugars for energy—and this combination will allow you to feel great, lose weight, clear the brain fog, and have tremendous energy. But mTOR will still be activated from eating too much animal protein. Overeat meat and you will not be flipping the genetic switches to grow a new body; instead, you will be opting for an early death even as you tone and strengthen your muscles.
Amino acids are detected by mTOR directly. They do not need IGF-1 or mediating hormones to do the job. In a recent research study, Roberto Zoncu and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stated that “a significant advance in our understanding of the regulation and functions of mTOR has revealed its critical involvement in the onset and progression of diabetes, cancer, and aging.” Clearly, it’s important to not just avoid sugars but to also avoid overeating protein. The authors conclude that “recent findings suggest that mTOR signaling controls the rate at which cells and tissues age, and that inhibiting mTOR may represent a promising avenue to increase longevity.”
A high-protein, low-carb diet is great for weight loss and for achieving a toned beach body, which is one of the key reasons this type of diet became popular. Unfortunately, it is not very good for long-term health. The bottom line is that eating too much protein accelerates aging and the onset of cancer. Meat and eggs should be a side dish rather than the main course. I personally eat about 8 ounces of fish during the week, and a couple of eggs once or twice weekly. I generally avoid red meat but will have a bison steak once in a while or a small fillet of grass-fed free-range beef.
The Crux of the Matter
The solution turns out to be far simpler than we thought. The proteins that activate mTOR seem to be the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). There are three BCAAs: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. And they are found predominantly in animal products, including red meat, dairy, cheese, and eggs.
Luigi Fontana and his colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, demonstrated that “a moderate reduction in total dietary protein or selected amino acids can rapidly improve metabolic health in both humans and mice. Reduction of dietary protein or total amino acids decreases fasting blood glucose levels and improves glucose tolerance in both species in less than six weeks.”
The verdict is in. The culprit is animal protein.
So, what’s the bottom line: how much animal protein should we eat?
Very little is the best answer I can come up with. It seems that the staples of the Western diet, meat and dairy, are partially to blame for the tremendous increase in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Valter Longo, Ph.D., a cellular biologist at the University of Southern California, found that starving a mouse receiving chemotherapy or other targeted therapies will protect normal cells and organs while making the therapy up to 40 percent more toxic to cancer cells. In human clinical trials, Longo found that periods of no food for two to four days at a time during a six-month period killed older and damaged immune cells and triggered the generation of new healthy ones. “We could not predict that prolonged fasting would have such a remarkable effect in promoting stem cell-based regeneration,” explains Longo.
One of the most promising benefits of fasting is it forces the body to use stores of glucose and fat as well as break down white blood cells. This depletion of white blood cells triggers stem cell-based regeneration of new immune system cells. Fasting reduces the enzyme PKA that extends longevity and is linked to the production of stem cells and pluripotency—the potential for one cell to become many different cell types. Fasting also lowered levels of IGF-1, the growth factor associated with tumor progression and cancer risk.
Longo explains: “PKA is the key gene that needs to shut down in order for these stem cells to switch into regenerative mode… and the good news is that the body got rid of the parts of the system that might be damaged or old, the inefficient parts, during the fasting. Now, if you start with a system heavily damaged by chemotherapy or aging, autophagy fasting cycles can generate, literally, a new immune system.”
Protein restriction is the key. And be sure to avoid the protein bars that are full of sugar and the packaged protein powders. Make vegetable proteins and legumes your main source of good amino acids.
It’s important to note that legumes contain lectins; these are anti-nutrients, proteins that can bind to sugars. These compounds reduce the body’s ability to absorb minerals from your food. So, when you prepare legumes, soak them overnight and rinse them well. I like to ferment them overnight with S. boulardii, to further neutralize the anti-nutrients they contain.
The Truth about Carbs
When it comes to “cheap carbs,” the worst offenders are the simple carbs in processed foods that turn to sugar right away in your gut. A slice of white bread, for example, raises your blood sugar more than a spoonful of white sugar. If you are running your system on sugars, you are using a short-lived energy strategy. The body stores glucose as glycogen, and you can only store about 100 grams of glycogen in your liver. This is enough for a 20-minute work-out at the gym! Your muscles can store about 400 grams, enough for 90 minutes of endurance exercise. But the average 165-pound man in good physical shape has close to 55 pounds (25 kg) of stored fat he can use for energy, which is nearly 1,000 times more fuel than that glycogen in his liver!
The complex carbohydrates in broccoli, cauliflower, and asparagus are long molecules of glucose that your gut bacteria break down into sugars. However, complex carbs do not spike your insulin, so they do little damage; they are also nutrient-rich, packed with phytonutrients necessary for good health. In addition, vegetables appear to quiet the mTOR sensors.
Choose your vegetables and fruits for color. To attain the best intermittent fasting results, be sure to include two or three dishes of vegetables every day. And it is best to eat your fruit during lunch so you can burn the sugars during the afternoon and go into ketosis, burning fats into the night and the morning. You may be wondering, If I have to go lean on carbs (even healthy ones) and low on protein, what the hell do I eat? For starters, fat.
The Skinny on Fat
Most of your calories should come from fat. When you eat a high-fat diet and low cheap-carb diet without excessive proteins, you enter into nutritional ketosis, so your body will be burning fats for fuel rather than glucose. If you are like most people, it will take a few days for your body to remember how to burn fats, as you have been running your metabolic engine on sugars for a long time. But once you switch on the fat-burning furnaces, you will notice that the brain fog will begin to clear, your muscle mass will increase, and you will naturally start losing weight. As your insulin levels drop and you lower your intake of proteins, you will be downregulating mTOR and reducing inflammation, and your levels of leptin (the anti-hunger hormone) will stabilize, reducing your food cravings.
When you switch over to burning fats, you turn on your cell’s recycling systems or autophagy. I like to point out to my students that probably the most important workers in New York City are the garbage collectors. If you go for a walk through Manhattan late in the evening, you will see stacks of garbage bags piled on the sidewalks. Yet by morning, they are all gone, and the streets are clean again. Imagine what would happen if the garbage collectors went on strike even for a few days! Autophagy fasting provides a big help in the garbage collection (and recycling) process in the body. And for many of us who have been living on a sugar-rich diet, the garbage collectors inside us have been on strike for many years. Consequently, cellular waste has accumulated inside and outside our cells, and broken-down proteins have not been recycled.
By having a low-carb diet and consuming the right amount of proteins, you turn down the volume on mTOR and switch on autophagy. Voilà! The strike is over, the workers return to clean up the garbage, broken proteins are recycled—which reduces the need for dietary intake of proteins—and you begin to grow a new body.
When you limit your intake of carbs and proteins, you have three incredible, measurable benefits. The first is that you trigger the production of new mitochondria, the fuel factories in every cell in your body. That phenomenon is known as mitochondrial biogenesis.
The second benefit is that you increase your levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which switches on the production of stem cells inside the brain. A few decades ago we did not believe that the brain could regenerate or that we could grow new neurons. Today, we understand that we can activate the growth of new neural stem cells that repair and upgrade the brain by turning on the production of BDNF. It also reduces your levels of a death-promoting protein, BAX, associated with neurons dying in your brain. This may be important in preventing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Last, and perhaps most important, reducing carbs and proteins will switch on the SIRT-1 genes: these longevity proteins silence the genes that create disease and wake up the genes that create health. I like to think of the SIRT-1 family of genes as the immortality genes. And they are only active when you eat a low-carb, low-amino acid diet. In a high-carb, high-protein environment, the SIRT-1 genes go silent.
The key to receiving all the intermittent fasting benefits I have just described is not only eating more fats—such as avocados and the coconut oil, olive oil, and grass-fed butter that you use to prepare and enhance your meals—but burning your own fat through ketosis.
Even if you are not particularly interested in losing weight, you want your body to run mostly on fats rather than sugar. As you are cranking up your metabolic engine, you can help the autophagy fasting process by adding good fats to your diet, including coconut oil, olive oil, avocados, and so on. But you do not want all of your fats to come from these outside sources, or you will not be turning on autophagy. The garbage inside cells will not be cleared away, and the recycling of amino acids will not be as effective as when you are burning your own fat stores.
Your body in its great wisdom will not allow you to burn your own fat stores until you eliminate the toxins that are stored there. Remember that the body stores toxins in fat tissue. In your fat, you may have the residual mercury from your own and from your mother’s dental fillings and from the time you played with mercury at the age of eleven when a thermometer broke; pesticides in the food you ate as a child; lead from the lead pipes in your home or coming in from the street; and aluminum from cooking pots (or the aluminum foil you cooked with). All of these are stored in your fat tissue, together with the endotoxins, or internally created toxins, including the products of incomplete breakdown and elimination of spent hormones. Your fat tissue has been holding on to all of that for a long time.
If you are thinking that burning fat sounds good but eating a high-fat diet doesn’t, you should know that government guidelines have been revised in 2015 to no longer limit the amount of fats or cholesterol in our diet. Saturated fats, found commonly in coconut oil, dairy, and meat products, were once maligned and blamed for heart disease being the number one killer in America. Today we know that that there is no link between them and heart disease.
In fact, the higher the amount of saturated fats that you consume, the better for your brain and your health. These are anti-inflammatory, are stable, and do not oxidize easily. (Oxidation is the process involved in steel rusting, copper turning green, and a cut-open apple turning brown.)
Fats do not cause a spike in blood sugar or trigger the release of IGF-1. That means they don’t upregulate mTOR. Instead, they contribute to quieting it.
The Truth about Fat
Here’s the skinny on the different types of fats:
1. Saturated fats: The best are the MCTs, or the medium-chain triglycerides, which are used quickly by the body and do not go into storage in fat cells. The best MCTs are found in coconut and olive oils, as well butter and avocados. MCTs are jet fuel for the brain, and supplementing with them during the Grow a New Body program will help keep your mind clear as your body starts to burn its own fat reserves. It will provide a great transition until you begin to produce ketones from your own fat stores.
You might be wondering: Aren’t coconut oil and other saturated fats bad for you because they raise cholesterol? Turns out that the fats that cause heart attacks are the ones that come from eating sugar and carbs, not from eating fat. Remember that your liver converts excess sugars into fat. In effect, the role of insulin is to convert sugar into fat—the sugar our ancestors ate at the end of summer when the fruit was ripe for all of six weeks was stored as fat to help take them through the long winter. The saturated fats protect against heart attacks and come from animal products like cheese and butter. Saturated fats are essential for our immune system. They raise LDL cholesterol but also increase HDL (“good” cholesterol), while sugar lowers HDL. While coconut oil is 40 percent saturated fat, people from countries that consume the most coconut oil seem to have the lowest rates of heart disease in the planet.
As you are relearning to burn fats for fuel, you may want to help your system with a mixture of MCT oil (made from coconuts) and coconut oil. A tablespoon of each in the morning is a great way to kick-start your fat burning. The MCT oil provides ketones immediately, while the coconut oil turns into ketones gradually, fueling you throughout the day. Repeat two to three times daily as needed.
2. Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs): MUFAs are your good friends. They are found in olive oil, avocados, nuts and nut oils, olives, and butter.
3. Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs): PUFAs can be good and bad. The two most important ones are omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-3 reduces inflammation, switches on the production of stem cells in the brain, helping to repair the memory and learning centers, and protects you from heart disease. Omega-6 is pro-inflammatory, so you have to be careful with this fat.
Before we lived in cities and discovered what autophagy and fasting are, our prehistoric ancestors consumed omega-3 and omega-6 in a ratio of 1:1. Today our processed foods provide us with nearly 20 times more omega-6 than omega-3. In the Lyon Diet Heart Study, more than 300 subjects and an equal number of controls were followed for four years. Researchers found that decreasing the amount of omega-6 the people consumed and increasing the omega-3 fat intake resulted in 70 percent fewer heart attacks, reduced the overall mortality rate, and protected against cancer.
Omega-3 fatty acids are abundant in avocados, grass-fed meat, flaxseed and flaxseed oil, and fatty fish like salmon. And you should supplement with 2 to 3 grams of omega-3 daily.
4. Trans fats: These fats are the problem! A few decades ago, hydrogenated oils (trans fats) replaced butter in processed foods in a misguided effort to lower the consumption of saturated fats. We now know that these fats contribute to dementia, inflammation, and diabetes and increase the risk of cancer. Avoid anything that says “hydrogenated” in the label!
If you are intermittent fasting, you should stay away from any of the seed and vegetable oils, including corn oil, soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, and margarine. Instead, choose organic, cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil. You can pour it directly on your food, including salads, fish, and cheeses like fresh mozzarella. You cannot eat too much of it, but do not cook with it, as it has a low smoke point. (Cooking with oils above the temperature of its smoke point causes the creation of toxins and free radicals.) Use coconut oil in your smoothies, to make a vegetable stir-fry, or to cook with, as it has a high smoke point.
Serve fats with every meal! And remember, although fats go great with veggies, a sure way to put on weight is to add in starches and sugars—plus, you will raise your bad cholesterol.
This article is excerpted from Grow a New Body: How Spirit and Power Plant Nutrients Can Transform Your Health by Alberto Villoldo. © 2019. Used by permission from Hay House.
About The Author
Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D., has trained as a psychologist and medical anthropologist and has studied the healing practices of the Amazon and Andean shamans. Dr. Villoldo directs The Four Winds Society, where he trains individuals in the practice of shamanic energy medicine. He directs the Center for Energy Medicine in Chile, where he investigates and practices the neuroscience of enlightenment. Dr. Villoldo has written numerous best-selling books, including One Spirit Medicine; Shaman, Healer, Sage; The Four Insights; Courageous Dreaming; and Power Up Your Brain. Visit her website: thefourwinds.com