Everything You Need to Know About Autophagy: When, Why, and How
Did you know your body eats itself daily? That might sound strange, but it’s a process that begins the moment we’re born—and it’s nowhere near as painful or wacky as it sounds. Your body does it every day without you even noticing. The process is called autophagy, a bodily function that flushes your system of old or damaged cellular material and stimulates the regeneration of healthy cell renewal.
Autophagy is a critical process that can protect your body from disease and increase longevity. If you’ve been wondering how to increase autophagy or how intermittent fasting and autophagy correlate, here’s what you need to know.
What is Autophagy?
The word autophagy is derived from the Greek words “auto” meaning self and “phagein” meaning eat. Together, the name translates to “eat the self.” Luckily for you, the eating doesn’t refer to skin or tissue, but rather microscopic cells. There are 30 to 40-trillion various cells that complete numerous tasks in your body.
General wear and tear, infection, and inflammation can damage these cells and the organelles that comprise them. When this occurs, organelles called lysosomes locate damaged areas, salvage whatever possible, and break the rest of the cell down to recycle it. Recycled material can then be used to create new cells or provide existing ones with energy.
The History of Autophagy
Though autophagy has been occurring in humans for thousands of years, the process is a relatively recent discovery. It all began in 1963 when Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve launched an investigation into the effects of insulin on the liver. In the course of his studies, de Duve discovered an unheard-of process. He found that some cells cannibalized portions of their structure through organelles called lysosomes.
In 1974, de Duve won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, piquing public interest in autophagy and how this mysterious process could benefit the body. Then, in 1983, Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi identified specific genes that regulate the autophagy process.
Ohsumi discovered that these genes are what catalyzes the autophagy process and that without them, cells would not be able to repair themselves. His findings resulted in his own Nobel Prize in 2016 and a Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2017.
Is Autophagy Healthy?
You might be wondering, “Is autophagy healthy for me?” The answer may surprise you. When your cells begin the process of autophagy, they enter a period of preservation. So, as opposed to taking in energy, they use damaged or non-functioning cell components to produce their energy. During this time of conservation, cells become more resistant to disease and cellular stress.
This phenomenon led to the discovery of several health benefits of autophagy. For one, the recycling of old, damaged, or sick cells lessens the risk of cancer. The autophagy process helps prevent toxin accumulation in a damaged cell, removing harmful material and preventing infected cells from gathering.
Other benefits of autophagy include:
- Increased Longevity: The process removes damaged parts of the cell to prevent against disease and potentially increasing life span.
- Protects Mental Health: Mental illness is caused by neurodegeneration or damage to brain cells. Autophagy recycles healthy parts of your cells and creates new ones to off-set the damage caused by neurodegeneration. This protects you against the onset of psychiatric diseases.
- Protects Against Alzheimer’s: Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease are caused by an accumulation of abnormal proteins called prions. Autophagy prevents the accumulation of these proteins by breaking them down and clearing them from your brain.
- Fights Infectious Disease: Autophagy targets foreign and damaged components in your cells, such as bacteria or toxins that create disease. By eliminating these toxins, the process can protect you from infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV from multiplying and spreading in your body.
Learn How to Start Autophagy
Autophagy occurs regularly, and to help you understand how to increase autophagy, there are ways to trigger the process prematurely. You can increase autophagy by producing the appropriate proteins through exercise or fasting. Essentially, you must starve your cells of energy.
Your body creates a protein called mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin), which works with insulin to grow new cells. When your body is well-fed, the spike in insulin activates mTOR and triggers cell growth. In a period of fasting or restrictive eating, your body runs low on carbohydrates, and your insulin levels drop. Your body produces a gene called AMPK or AMP-activated protein kinase.
After you exercise, a similar protein is released to clear away damaged bits of cells associated with micro-tears in muscle. This protein signals to your body that it is running low on energy sources. In turn, your body will enter autophagy – and begin repairing damaged cells and breaking down old cells for fuel.
Intermittent Fasting and Autophagy
In addition to exercise or restrictive eating, intermittent fasting is one of the best ways to induce autophagy. However, waiting just a few hours between meals does not translate to immediate autophagy time. Your body requires low liver glycogen to enter this phase, which requires a 14 to 16-hour fast.
In a study of autophagy and fasting, researchers from the Taylor & Francis Group found short-term fasting periods of 24 hours resulted in a marked increase in the number of cells undergoing autophagy. You may benefit from a five-day fast for autophagy if you’re experienced with extended fasting and withstand more prolonged periods.
According to biochemist Valter Longo of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, following a 5-day fast can fight disease and slow aging by increasing the body’s rate of autophagy. However, autophagy does start sooner, so a more realistic 16:8 fast is likely the best place to begin.
Is Autophagy for Weight Loss Successful?
Are you curious if there’s a link between autophagy and weight loss? Generally, autophagy does not contribute directly to weight loss. However, the process does remove and repair cells which no longer function as needed, which can make metabolic processes more efficient. Likewise, autophagy can protect against disease, which can slow or halt your weight loss.
If you’re fasting, exercising, or doing a combination to induce autophagy, you will naturally lose weight as a result.Typically, you’ll try protocols like intermittent fasting and carbohydrate reduction for weight loss, which can contribute indirectly to autophagy. However, carbohydrates are a necessary nutrient and should not be restricted for long periods.
Is Extended Fasting for Autophagy Safe?
Extended fasting or intermittent fasting are both healthy methods to shed excess fat, balance your hormones, and induce autophagy. However, it is crucial to follow safety precautions when you embark on these protocols. No matter the length of your fast, drink plenty of water to remain hydrated. Up to 30-percent of the water your body needs is derived from the food you eat, so it’s essential to replenish the water you lost while fasting.
If you choose to try an extended fast, pay close attention to your electrolyte levels. Sodium, magnesium, calcium, and potassium are just some of the primary electrolytes your body needs to stay alert and healthy. Since the majority of these electrolytes come from the food you eat, it’s crucial to replace these minerals with a supplement. Otherwise, you may get headaches, dizziness, or lightheadedness.
The safest way to begin a fast for autophagy is to start small, especially if you’ve never fasted before. Consider implementing a 16-hour fast for autophagy, or a 16:8 fasting protocol. If you’re more experienced, you can start a 40-hour fast for autophagy— just be sure to remain hydrated throughout.
Refresh Your Body with Autophagy
Autophagy is regularly occurring in your cells, but you can speed up the process to reap the benefits. If you try an intermittent fasting protocol or dedicate time to exercise, you can refresh your body, increase longevity, and set out on the path to wellness.