by Rahul Kapur
The incidence of cancer is increasing as it continues to be the leading cause of death worldwide. Moreover, current cancer therapy is limited. It is not ideal for killing tumors and it is extremely toxic to healthy cells. Therefore, researchers are seeking novel therapeutic techniques that can improve current treatment (1). One such technique is termed autophagy. Autophagy occurs at the cellular level and it is the ability of cells to “self-digest” themselves. It is a natural process whereby cells can get rid of damaged parts (2). Autophagy can either slow down or speed up cancer cell growth depending on various factors, such as tumor stage and type. Researchers have found that dietary restriction, such as intermittent fasting, can induce autophagy and provide a way to control and use it to fight cancer.
The term autophagy comes from the Greek, “auto-” meaning self and “-phagy” meaning eating (2). It is a process that dates back to the earliest human ancestors when food was in scarce supply and the timing of meals more than uncertain. During periods of famine, cells will only make the most essential molecules and recycle or destroy the rest (3). This allows cells to maintain their function in a nutrient deficient environment and is a beautiful example of the bodies resilience and ability to maintain equilibrium in extreme circumstances.
The role of autophagy in cancer is complex and depends on many factors. Ovary, breast, and liver cancers exhibit defects in autophagy genes. Genes are the building-blocks of a cell. If the genes are defective for a certain process, in this case autophagy, then that process will not work properly. In solid tumors, autophagy may promote tumor cell survival. It helps to maintain function of the cell by increasing in areas where it is most starved for oxygen and nutrients.
Intermittent fasting provides a way to kill cancer cells through autophagy. Although the role of autophagy in cancer is complicated, researchers have found that through a combination of conventional cancer treatment and intermittent fasting, autophagy may be used to kill tumor cells (1). Intermittent fasting is the practice of abstaining from eating for a certain period. The duration can vary based on the specific fast, however, it can last from 8-16 hours at a time, with studies showing 24-48 hours having the strongest effect (4).
Aside from destroying cancer cells, research shows that intermittent fasting has many health related benefits. For example, it can lead to fat loss by causing the body to switch from glucose to fat as a fuel source for cells. It can lead to anti-aging by providing cells with better coping mechanisms for cellular stress and increased disease resistance (5). Also, studies show that intermittent fasting plays a role in treatment-resistant seizure disorder (6). Also known as epilepsy, this disorder is extremely difficult to treat. Investigators added intermittent fasting to the dietary regimen of six children with seizure disorder resistant to medication. They found that four of the six children showed 50%-99% seizure reduction after a 2-month period. Although the results are preliminary, the researchers conclude that intermittent fasting may provide an effective therapy for drug-resistant seizure disorder.
In terms of cancer, intermittent fasting actually increases the effectiveness of many chemotherapeutic drugs. Moreover, it lessens the side-effects of these drugs and protects healthy cells from becoming damaged as well (1). This can have potentially life-altering implications for cancer maintenance and treatment.
Moreover, researchers state that intermittent fasting with conventional chemotherapy causes tumor cell death. As stated earlier, during periods of food scarcity, like during fasting, cells will undergo autophagy. Researchers believe that autophagy, DNA damage, and cell stress all play a role in tumor cell destruction in these instances. It seems, then, that under the right circumstances autophagy is a tool for cancer treatment.
Autophagy by itself can either be deadly or protective for cancer cells. However, with the addition of intermittent fasting and cancer-killing drugs, autophagy becomes a weapon against tumors. Intermittent fasting itself has many proven benefits for health so it is no surprise that it can aid in fighting cancer as well. It increases the sensitivity of cancer drugs towards their targets and it decreases the side effects of many chemotherapeutic drugs, such as nausea, vomiting, weakness, and fatigue. Through a complex interplay of fasting, traditional cancer treatment, and cellular mechanisms, science has uncovered a promising treatment towards fighting one of the mankind's deadliest enemies.
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by Khyati Kapur
by Rahul Kapur