Autophagy and Fasting: Is there a Connection to Cancer?

Autophagy and Fasting: Is there a Connection to Cancer?
Autophagy and Fasting: Is there a Connection to Cancer?

The traditional, conventional approach to cancer management generally involves well-known cancer therapies like radiation, immunotherapy, chemotherapy, and surgery.

Unfortunately, these approaches still have limited abilities to kill tumours and are highly toxic to the rest of the healthy cells of the body.1

This is why novel therapeutic strategies continue to be studied in cancer research.

How are Autophagy and Fasting Linked?

Enter autophagy, an interesting, new therapeutic approach2 with the potential to beat cancer.

Autophagy is an evolutionary mechanism1 where the body clears away its damaged (and potentially dangerous) cells.

This helps with the regeneration of newer, healthier cells.

Fasting kickstarts autophagy, keeping the body going by breaking down cellular material and reusing it for energy and other necessary processes.

Many other metabolic changes also take place,1 such as decreasing blood glucose levels.

Autophagy may also activate key stress pathways and protect body cells from damage.

Can Autophagy Help with the Risk of Cancer?

The role of autophagy, fasting, and cancer is complex. Because autophagy can slow down tumours, researchers propose that autophagy could be a new therapeutic strategy in the treatment of some cancers.

Scientists think that the process of autophagy helps to recognise and remove damaged cancerous cells.

There are some new and exciting studies that suggest that cancerous cells may be removed by autophagy.

Because autophagy protects healthy cells, this means the body is protected against damaging processes that may affect healthy cells, like cancer.

This could lessen the need for toxic therapies like chemotherapy, which destroy both the cancer cells and healthy cells alike.

Are there any Risks to Fasting with Cancer?

While fasting and the resulting autophagy may be exciting in treating cancer, a word of caution must be raised.

Some researchers3 say that this new enthusiasm is excessive and even unjustified.

The concern is that the cancer patient, whose body is already weakened by intense muscle loss, with a high risk of malnutrition from poor appetite, may further deteriorate.

Cancer patients also have high energy needs because of the rampaging cancer cells and fasting may mean these patients cannot meet these extremely high needs.

Using fasting as a way to ramp up autophagy (but without malnutrition) is possible with the support from trained professionals like a registered dietitian.

The possibility of using fasting as a secondary cancer treatment is worth keeping an eye in future.


  1. Antunes F et al. Autophagy and intermittent fasting: the connection for cancer therapy? Clinics. 2018;73;1.
  2. Nencioni A et al. Fasting and cancer: molecular mechanisms and clinical application. Nature Reviews Cancer. 2018;18:707-709.
  3. Caccialanza R, Aprile G, Cereda E. et al. Fasting in oncology: a word of caution. Nat Rev Cancer. 2019;19, 177.
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