What Exactly Is Autophagy & Why Is It Important To My Health?
Autophagy is a Greek-derived term that means "self-" (auto) "eating" (phagy). While that may sound like a pretty gnarly horror flick, it's actually your body's way of clearing out old, damaged cells and proteins to make room for new, healthy ones. In other words, autophagy is the ultimate natural body cleanse.
The process has been connected to weight loss, better insulin control, and even a reduced risk of conditions like heart disease and cancer.
But is autophagy something that happens on its own, or can you control it? We checked in with some experts on the subject to get a deeper explanation of autophagy and how to make it work best for you.
What is autophagy?
As you age, and as a normal response to just going through life, proteins and organelles in your body get damaged or die. If they're not cleared out, these damaged particles accumulate in your cells and jam things up. When this happens, your cells can't divide and function normally—this can cause cell death1 and age-related diseases, contribute to poor tissue and/or organ function, and even become cancerous.
Enter the process called autophagy. During autophagy, the body marks damaged parts of cells, unused proteins, and other junk in the body for removal and clears them out. This is a form of cellular cleansing and, really, the true meaning of a detox. Autophagy also helps deliver nutrients1 to cells that need them.
"Autophagy can dictate not only how well we live but perhaps how long we live," says board-certified integrative neurologist Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D. "It is a key physiological mechanism that has been conserved throughout evolution for the distinct purpose of allowing the human species to thrive. But when the autophagic mechanisms are overwhelmed or dysfunctional, cells are unable to perform optimally and disease can occur, as well as more rapid aging."
Autophagy is absolutely essential for healthy, functioning cells and if it's never kicked on to its full potential, you can get sick. One of the most notable ways these dead proteins accumulate is seen in Alzheimer's disease2. Because they are never cleared from the body, dead proteins travel to the brain and get stuck there, causing the characteristic plaques associated with the disease.
Think of it this way: Autophagy is like the robot vacuum you have in your house. When things get messy, it kicks on, cleaning up debris and unwanted junk, leaving you with a nice clean slate and preventing a buildup that can lead to a bigger mess down the road.
Health benefits of autophagy.
Having a clean body and properly functioning cellular pathways is the foundation of health. That's why autophagy has such far-reaching benefits:
We all get older, but have you noticed that some people seem to age faster than others, in terms of appearance and overall health? That's because cellular aging3 occurs as a result of the accumulation of damaged proteins and organelles that interfere with normal body function and repair—and some people have more of these damaged proteins (and do less to clear them out) than others. As one research review published in Journal of Clinical & Experimental Pathology explains, regularly stimulating autophagy can help keep cells healthy3 and repair pathways to help the body age healthily.
When it comes to weight loss, board-certified internist Vincent M. Pedre, M.D., calls intermittent fasting a "tactic that almost always works when everything else has failed." That's because obesity and related metabolic disorders, like insulin resistance and diabetes, are related to a lack of autophagy. On the other hand, as a research review published in Nature suggests, stimulating autophagy4 may help clear damaged proteins to reduce weight and weight-related complications.
Autophagy helps shut off inflammation5 by controlling the actions of several types of inflammatory cells, including macrophages, neutrophils, lymphocytes, and cytokines—as cited by a research review in Clinical and Translational Medicine. Because autophagy is a powerful anti-inflammatory, stimulating autophagy may help reduce the severity of several inflammation-related conditions, like Crohn's disease, cystic fibrosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Autophagy also helps balance insulin levels, which decreases inflammation and has positive effects on your gut health. Something Pedre calls "an often-overlooked but crucial aspect of losing weight and cultivating overall health."
Better brain health
"It is notable that most neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, are associated with the accumulation of misfolded proteins or pathologic proteins," says Ruhoy, "so impaired autophagy may contribute to these diseases, but the exact mechanism by which it does so is not completely understood."
The process may also provide protection against other neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), as cited by a review in the journal Neurobiology of Aging. The same research further suggests that this is because autophagy helps clear out damaged proteins6 that can accumulate in the brain, which ultimately contribute to aging and brain-related diseases.
Reduced risk of heart disease
Defects in autophagy have been connected to heart disease, heart attacks, and hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). Stimulating autophagy may help clear out damaged heart cells, keeping your heart healthy and protecting against atherosclerosis, suggests a research review published in Clinical and Translational Medicine.
Better blood sugar control
Autophagy is essential for the proper functioning of your beta cells7, the cells in your pancreas that produce insulin. Some research—including a study in the Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine that looked at both human and rat insulin‐producing cells (INS‐1)—connects the development of type 2 diabetes to hampered autophagy. On the other hand, stimulating autophagy may keep beta cells healthy and help improve insulin sensitivity8 and insulin signaling.
Autophagy can also make your metabolism more flexible, according to resilience and stress expert Eva Shelub, M.D. That means you can switch from burning glucose (or sugar) for energy to burning fat more easily. "The longer the fasting period, the more the body will eventually revert to lipolysis, or the breakdown of fat to fatty acids to use for fuel," she previously told mbg.
Lowered risk of cancer
The role of autophagy in cancer is a little controversial. In the early stages of cancer, autophagy can prevent tumor growth and prevent cancer from spreading, as cited by a recent review in Molecular Cancer. However, if tumors are in the late stage, autophagy may actually contribute to their growth. In other words, autophagy may help stop cancer before it starts, but if you have cancer, stick to your doctor's recommendations for treatment.
How can you induce autophagy?
Since autophagy is really the foundation of keeping your body healthy, clean, and free from cell pollution, it's important to activate it regularly. Fortunately, most of the things that turn this powerful cellular cleansing process are actually really simple to incorporate.
According to Ruhoy, some things that induce autophagy—and can also improve your life span—are:
- The right diet (more on that later)
- Reducing your stress levels
- Quality sleep
- Taking cold showers/baths
- Going outside
- Social connection
- Releasing trauma
But many experts seem to agree that the single most effective way to kick autophagy into high gear is through intermittent fasting.
Intermittent fasting for autophagy.
Nutrient deprivation—or going without eating—is the primary trigger for autophagy. That might sound like something you don't want, but that's exactly what intermittent fasting is. And it's a physiological state that your body actually thrives on.
"The adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK) is an enzyme that is critical for cellular bioenergetics," says Ruhoy. "During nutrient-depleted states, AMPK is activated to upregulate autophagy so your body can maintain homeostatic demands. Impairment of the AMPK pathway has been associated with aging, cancer, neurodegenerative disease, and endocrine dysfunction."
On the other hand, "In humans, it appears that autophagy does not remain as active when any food is consumed," Benjamin Horne, Ph.D., a genetic public health researcher who has published research on the effects of intermittent fasting previously told mbg. But this is important, too, since autophagy left unchecked can cause its own set of problems, like cell death9. That's why intermittent fasting is a great tool. It alternates periods of eating (or feasting) with periods of fasting (or nutrient deprivation). This balance ensures that damaged cells get cleared out but healthy cells remain intact.
Are there foods that promote autophagy?
While intermittent fasting is thought to be the most effective way to create a nutrient-depleted state, the keto diet—a high-fat, low-carb plan—is one way to mimic one. When you follow a keto diet, you deprive your body of glucose. This lack of glucose is an internal signal that activates AMPK10 and turns on autophagy.
If you're not willing to go full keto, there are some other dietary measures you can take to help promote autophagy, especially if you're also intermittent fasting.
Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D., an immune system expert often dubbed "the Father of Functional Medicine," recommends starting with a plant-rich diet, especially with plants that are rich in phytochemicals that haven't been stripped out through food processing or modern agricultural practices.
Some phytochemical-rich plants include:
Bland also explains that certain antioxidants, like N-acetylcysteine, ubiquinone, glutathione, and vitamins C and E, can stimulate autophagy in damaged cells. The kicker is that if you're eating a lot of antioxidant-rich foods regularly, you actually have a lower need for autophagy since antioxidants help protect your cells from damage anyway.
Some antioxidant-rich foods11 (and drinks) that deserve a regular spot on your plate (or in your cup) are:
- Goji berries
- Dark chocolate
- Pomegranate juice
It's also a good idea to avoid sugar, processed oils, and processed foods. "These items are pro-inflammatory and can burden the mitochondria, impairing their function and role in autophagy," Ruhoy previously told mbg.
Autophagy has some pretty impressive benefits, but there's no magical internal switch that turns it off and on. If you really want to reap the benefits of autophagy, you have to make inducers like intermittent fasting a regular part of your life. For healthy people, doing so is virtually all reward and no risk. However, if you have diabetes, hypothyroidism, or adrenal gland dysfunction, you should talk to your doctor first.
To fully reap the benefits of autophagy, it's also important to pay close attention to the other foundations of a balanced lifestyle, like sleep, exercise, eating the right foods, and addressing and dealing with uncomfortable emotions.
Lindsay Boyers is a holistic nutritionist specializing in gut health, mood disorders, and functional nutrition. Lindsay earned a degree in food & nutrition from Framingham State University, and she holds a Certificate in Holistic Nutrition Consulting from the American College of Healthcare Sciences.
She has written twelve books and has had more than 2,000 articles published across various websites. Lindsay currently works full time as a freelance health writer. She truly believes that you can transform your life through food, proper mindset and shared experiences. That's why it's her goal to educate others, while also being open and vulnerable to create real connections with her clients and readers.