Autophagy: What You Need To Know

Autophagy: What You Need To Know

What is autophagy?

Autophagy is the body’s way of cleaning out damaged cells, in order to regenerate newer, healthier cells, according to Priya Khorana, PhD, in nutrition education from Columbia University.

The basic idea behind autophagy is that in the absence of external sources of food, the body begins to eat itself (auto: self, phage: eat), destroying and recycling its own damaged cell bits and proteins, so that new and healthy versions can be built. Autophagy is believed to be essential for helping protect against diseases like cancer and dementia, among others, according to The Cut. 

How can you activate autophagy?

Practice Fasting

Fasting is a practice that involves eating for a certain window of time and abstaining from eating during a certain window of time. There are many different forms and types of fasting that you can choose from to fit your goals and schedule.

According to Dr. Jason Fung, If insulin goes up, glucagon goes down. If insulin goes down, glucagon goes up. As we eat, insulin goes up and glucagon goes down. When we don’t eat (fast) insulin goes down and glucagon goes up. This increase in glucagon stimulates the process of autophagy. In fact, fasting (raises glucagon) provides the greatest known boost to autophagy.

Fasting also does much more than just stimulating autophagy. By stimulating autophagy, we are cleaning out old, junky proteins and cellular parts. At the same time, fasting also stimulates growth hormone. This tells our body to start producing some new snazzy parts for the body. We are really giving our bodies the complete renovation. (1)

Here is a great analogy from Dr. Jason Fung. “Suppose you own a car. You love this car, you have great memories in it, you love to ride it.”

“But after a few years, it starts to look kind of beat up. After a few more, it’s not looking so great. The car is costing you thousands of dollars every year to maintain. It’s breaking down all the time. Is it better to keep it around when it’s nothing but a hunk of junk? Obviously not. So you get rid of it and buy a snazzy new car.”

“The same thing happens in the body. Cells become old and junky. It is better that they be programmed to die when their useful life is done. It sounds really cruel, but that’s life. That’s the process of apoptosis, where cells are predestined to die after a certain amount of time. It’s like leasing a car. After a certain amount of time, you get rid of the car, whether it’s still working or not. Then you get a new car. You don’t have to worry about it breaking down at the worst possible time.”

“The same process also happens at a sub-cellular level. You don’t necessarily need to replace the entire car. Sometimes, you just need to replace the battery, throw out the old one and get a new one. This also happens in the cells. Instead of killing off the entire cell (apoptosis), you only want to replace some cell parts.”

How long do you have to fast to stimulate autophagy? Studies suggest that fasts between 24–48 hours probably have the strongest effects. (2)

Exercise

Another way to stimulate autophagy is to exercise. Recent research has shown that “exercise induces autophagy in multiple organs involved in metabolic regulation, such as muscle, liver, pancreas and adipose tissue.” (3)

What are the benefits of autophagy?

  • Protects the nervous system and the immune system
  • Protects against metabolic stress
  • Regulates cellular mitochondria, this improves energy production in the body
  • Encourages growth of new cells
  • Aides in healthy aging
  • Reduces risk of neurodegenerative diseases
  • Improves muscle performance
  • May help support a healthy weight
  • Improves skin health 
  • Helps your metabolism work better
  • May improve your quality and length of life
  • May assist in the prevention of cancer 

How do you pronounce autophagy?

Aw-TOFF-uh-gee

Did you know about the science and benefits of autophagy? What other questions do you have about autophagy?