If you are familiar with the health and fitness industry, you have probably heard the word “autophagy.” But do you wonder what it involves? This article will give you a complete guide to autophagy. Let’s discuss!
What is Autophagy?
The definition of autophagy is a consumption of the body’s own tissue as a metabolic process. This usually occurs during starvation or certain diseases. That sounds interesting, doesn’t it? Basically, it is recycling and cleaning cells in your body at the same time. It’s like hitting a “reset” button on your body, so it can reach its ideal performance. Now that we know what autophagy is, we can discuss the history behind it.(3)
History of Autophagy
In the 1970s and 1980s, researchers began looking at the process of autophagy. It had not been studied thoroughly at the time, and nobody really knew why it was important. In 1983, a breakthrough came through when researcher Yoshinori Ohsumi was conducting experiments in yeast. He found the genes that control autophagy. He discovered that the cells can’t repair themselves without those genes. He won the Nobel Prize in 2016 because his work was considered fundamentally important. Now that you understand the history of autophagy, we will discuss how autophagy works.
How Does it Work?
Although it sounds a bit scary, autophagy is a natural regeneration process in your body. This process occurs at the cellular level in the body. Basically, autophagasomes collect broken down cellular components. Then the autophagasomes combine with lysosome. Once they are combined, it recycles broken cell components into new cells and energy.
Benefits of Autophagy
Autophagy increases your lifespan while decreasing your chances of chronic diseases.(1) In fact, autophagy is so beneficial that it’s being called a “key in preventing diseases such as cancer, cardiomyopathy, diabetes, liver disease, autoimmune diseases and infections.”(8) It is called this because there is such a large span of benefits. Autophagy helps:
- Regulate Mitochondria Function
- Protect Nervous System Against Injury and Disease
- Improve Cognitive Function
- Encourage Growth of Brain Cells
- Anti-aging and Longevity
- Support Growth of Heart Cells
- Boost and Balance Immune System
- Remove Pathogens and Toxins from the Cell
- Protect DNA
- Fights Against Disease
Mitochondria function is important to our bodies because of cell repair. Once all of our cells are repaired, it helps our body run more efficiently and gives us more energy.(9)
Autophagy helps to control inflammation and boost immunity. In one 2012 study on mice, researchers found that autophagy also had an impact on:
- Neurodegenerative Disorders
- Inflammatory Diseases
- Insulin Resistance(6)
Another study from 2012 had results that a lack of autophagy can be actually be harmful. Scientists found that removing the autophagy gene in mice caused weight gain, lethargy, higher cholesterol, and impaired brain function.(5)
Autophagy can also help discourage chronic inflammation, genome instability, and the DNA damage response. This is important because they are often factors that indicate cancer. Researchers have genetically engineered mice to have impaired autophagy. Interestingly enough, these mice have increased rates of cancer.(6)
In addition, autophagy helps cells clean up the proteins that aren’t doing their jobs. This is why autophagy helps discourage neurodegenerative disorders. (7) Infections are also affected by autophagy in the same way.
The fact that autophagy supports the growth of heart cells is important because it gives us a healthier heart. This is important because of the large amount of heart disease in the United States today.
Another benefit is that autophagy can help speed up your metabolism. Your metabolism speeds up because during autophagy cells recycle themselves. When they recycle themselves, they burn fat and make ATP. There are a lot of toxins that can damage cells. Therefore, breaking them down helps you to reset your body. Autophagy helps the entire cell work more efficiently to burn fuel. The healthier a cell is, the more efficiently it will work. (6)
How to Induce Autophagy
When does autophagy occur? Autophagy is active in all cells. However, it is increased in response to stress or nutrient deprivation. This includes fasting and starvation. This also means you can use “good stressors” like exercise and temporary fasting to boost autophagic processes. Both of these strategies have been linked with benefits like weight control, longevity and decreased diseases.
Diet and wellness experts have been successful in discovering a few ways that will induce autophagy. Some of those ways are:
- High-Intensity Exercise
- Restricting Carbohydrates
Fasting is beneficial for inducing autophagy because you are restricting calories from your body. This is important because once your body has restricted enough calories, it will begin to start producing ketones. Once your body is producing ketones, then your body is in autophagy.
When it comes to diet and lifestyle habits that are in your control, the habit that has the largest affect is fasting. Fasting is simply when you abstain from eating for a certain amount of time.
You can have success with this by practicing intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting is a type of cyclic fasting that involves only eating during a certain time period. There are a few different forms of intermittent fasting. There is an alternate day fasting. You can also choose to limit your daily eating time to between 4-8 hours per day.
Many people wonder how long you must practice these fasting patterns to induce autophagy. Studies suggest that fasts between 24–48 hours probably have the strongest effects.(4) We suggest trying to fast at least fast for 12 to 36 hours at a time. An easy way to do this is to eat just 1 or 2 meals per day. For example, if you usually eat dinner at 7 pm then try fasting until at least 7 a.m the next morning. However if you can handle it, you may see better results if you don’t eat until 11 a.m. or 12 p.m.
Another alternative for fasting is to occasionally do a 2–3 day fast. If you prefer alternate day fasting, then you will severely restrict the amount of calories you eat on non-fasting days.
Exercise is another advantageous way to induce autophagy. This is because autophagy is a response to stress in your body. Recent research has shown that “exercise induces autophagy in multiple organs involved in metabolic regulation, such as muscle, liver, pancreas and adipose tissue.”(6) Exercise is a beneficial stress because it is just enough for you to increase a physical change.(2) The change is just enough to make your muscles stronger and induce autophagy without putting yourself in danger. If you are looking for optimal results, you should aim for approximately 20-30 minutes of exercise a day.
Restricting carbohydrates will also help to induce autophagy. This happens because when you restrict carbohydrates, your body is low on sugar. Once your body reaches a low enough amount of carbohydrates, it goes through ketosis. Ketosis and fasting bring positive stress to the body that results in the body going into survival mode.
A good way to do restrict carbohydrates is by following the ketogenic diet. The ketogenic diet is a very high-fat, very low-carb diet that works in a similar way to fasting. This diet involves getting about 75 percent or more of your daily calories from fat. However, your diet should be limited to no more than 5–10 percent of calories from carbohydrates. The advantage of this is your body is forced to go through some major changes. This causes your body to go into ketosis and it starts using fat for fuel.
Now that you know more about autophagy, you should give it a chance. Beginning to induce autophagy by incorporating fasting and regular exercise into your routine is a great place to start.
However, if you are taking medications to control any health conditions, you should consult your primary care doctor about introducing fasting. It is always better to be safe than sorry.