Autophagy literally means to “consume your own tissue during a metabolic process that happens in certain diseases and in starvation.” Modern research categorizes autophagy as a stress-coping mechanism, which the body uses to increase its chances of survival during stressful events.
So, is it a good thing? Definitely yes! Perhaps the formal definition sounds a bit cannibalistic, but in actuality is our built-in renewal process. In fact, it is now believed to play a major role in the prevention of serious diseases like diabetes, liver disease, neurodegeneration and even cancer.
When it comes to anti-aging, autophagy acts as a recycling plant, using damaged cellular waste to create new building blocks for cellular repair.
Recent research reaffirms autophagy’s importance as a housekeeping and self-defense tool, especially against the detrimental effects of stress. Yet, the exact molecular mechanisms that underlie this process are still being looked into.
Benefits of Autophagy
Autophagy has many benefits, some of which are outlined below:
- Comprises a source of energy and building materials for the cells
- Recycles damaged cellular components
- Regulates mitochondrial function; mitochondria are the cellular powerhouses but are also prone to oxidative damage
- Promotes neurogenesis, cognitive function and neuroplasticity
- Protects the heart
- Boost immune health and aids immunity, especially against intracellular pathogens
- Safeguards DNA stability
- Protects against tissue necrosis
- Potential anti-cancer properties
Autophagy consists of many different types, including microautophagy, macroautophagy, and chaperone-mediated autophagy. Macroautophagy, the type that is involved in the recycling of macromolecules and large cellular components, is the one we mostly hear about.
Autophagy is a universally present biological phenomenon, and certainly not specific to humans. Besides mammals, autophagy has been observed in microbes (mold, yeast), plants, worms and insects. Genetic studies have identified at 32 genes that play a role in autophagic processes.
How Autophagy Relates to Apoptosis
Most studies so far suggest that autophagy shows selectivity in the removal of specific damaged cellular components. No definitive evidence exists so far to show that autophagy regulates apoptosis (=cellular death) or vice versa. It may be the case, however, that autophagy comprises another form of controlled cellular death.
The possibility of such a relationship is of major scientific interest, because it is postulated that through the modulation of cellular death (targeting dysfunctional cells and preserving healthy ones), it could be possible to treat neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and cancer.
How to Induce Autophagy
What triggers autophagy? Although, as a process, autophagy happens in every cell, it is increased as a response to nutrient deprivation (e.g., starvation or fasting) and stress. This means that you can take advantage of controlled stress, like the one caused by physical exercise and fasting, to give autophagy a healthy boost. In fact, exercise and caloric restriction have already been associated with longevity and prevention of age-related diseases.
- Try Fasting
Amongst lifestyle habits we can easily control ourselves, fasting is the most potent trigger of autophagy. Intermittent fasting, a form of dieting that is popular nowadays, is also included. Fasting is pretty easy to achieve: You simply stop consuming calories for a certain period of time. Drinking water and non-caloric beverages (e.g., coffee or tea) is OK.
Intermittent fasting is a form of periodic fasting where you employ what’s called “time-restricted eating.” Although there are many forms of Intermittent Fasting, the most popular one is the where you limit your entire daily food consumption in a 4-8 hour window every day.
What should the fasting duration be to induce autophagy? Research shows that peak effect appears somewhere between 24 and 48 hours, but this isn’t a realistic goal for most people. A more easily achievable target is fasting for 12 to 36 hours.
This can be accomplished by eating just one or two large meals instead of snacking all-day long. You can also take advantage of your overnight sleep (it counts as fasting too!) and eat your dinner at 7-8 p.m., skip breakfast and have lunch at 12 or 1 p.m.
You can also mix your strategies, e.g., do intermittent fasting for most days of the week, and, once you get the hang of it, do a more strict 2-3-day fast. Finally, if you wish to try alternate-day fasting, then keep in mind that on fasting days you eat very few calories (about 500), whereas you make up for them in non-fasting days.
- Try the Ketogenic Diet
The ketogenic or “keto” diet goes very high on fat, moderate to high on protein, and extremely low on carbs. Physiologically it works similar to fasting. On a keto diet you will be getting almost 3 quarters of your daily calories from fat, and only 5-10 percent from carbs. This induces a series of metabolic changes, where your body switches its primary fuel source from glucose to fats.
There are some food groups that facilitate this transition: High-fat, whole foods like olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, grass-fed butter, eggs, grass-fed meat, ghee, fermented cheeses, nuts and seeds. Vegetables (but no fruits) are also included as a source of vitamins, minerals and fiber.
The extreme carb restriction will cause fats to be burned for energy, leading to the production of ketone bodies, hence the name “ketosis”. Ketosis is thought to convey several benefits, including the display of neuroprotective properties. What’s more, it has been shown to induce autophagy just like fasting and starvation, which may explain why it has been shown to protect the brain from seizures in studies with animal models.
Exercise is another controllable stressor that can boost autophagy. It has been shown that physical exercise particularly induces autophagy in organs and tissues that are implicated in metabolic processes, such as the liver, the pancreas, and muscle tissue.
Does it sound peculiar that exercise is considered a stressor? We all think of exercise as a good thing, but in the microscopic level it’s war: it damages tissues and increases the production of free radicals, but the result for them to be repaired and reconstructed even stronger than before. While we don’t know exactly how much exercise needs to be prescribed, results so far show that intense exercise conveys the most benefits.
Things You Need To Take Care For Regarding Autophagy & Fasting
Although an exciting field, research on autophagy is still young and we have a lot to learn. Having said that, fasting and exercise seem to be your best bets at the moment.However, if you have any health issues for which are taking medicines, you should consult with your doctor before trying out fasting. For instance, if you are on certain anti-diabetic medications, fasting can induce hypoglycemia. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should also abstain from fasting. The same holds true for any other health condition, serious or otherwise.