8 Ways To Stimulate Autophagy & Maybe Even Boost Your Life Span
It seems like everyone's talking about autophagy lately in regards to boosting brain health and possibly even longevity—and as an integrative neurologist, I can tell you that it's a process worthy of the hype it's generating. But what exactly is autophagy? And is it possible to stimulate or amplify it? Here, I delve into how you can harness the power of this fascinating cellular process.
What is autophagy, and why is it so important?
In its most basic definition, autophagy (literally meaning "self-eating") is the natural process by which cells disassemble and clean out unnecessary or dysfunctional components. The organelles, proteins, and debris that are no longer efficient or effective are packaged and sent on their way either by degradation or release—so you can get back to more optimal functioning.
Autophagy can dictate not only how well we live but perhaps how long we live. 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 also encompasses mitophagy, the removal of damaged mitochondria; lipophagy, the breakdown of lipids by lysosomal organelles; aggrephagy, the clearance of other cellular proteins and debris; and more. 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—so impaired autophagy may contribute to these diseases, but the exact mechanism by which it does so is not completely understood.
Regardless, we do know the regulation of autophagy can be affected by our lifestyle, our environment, our nutrient status, and external and internal stressors—meaning, you have some control over it.
8 ways to optimize autophagy and boost brain (and overall) health.
As mentioned above, autophagy can be affected by a number of factors that we control. When I discuss these measures with patients, it seems a bit overwhelming at first. But when we appreciate how far we've veered from our natural state of being, we recognize this is what it may take to truly optimize our bodies and brains.
Consider intermittent fasting.
Restriction of calories with intermittent fasting upregulates autophagy. Studies demonstrate caloric restriction is associated with an upregulation of autophagy in the liver, fat, brain, and muscle as well as being associated with longer, healthier life spans. This is thought to be due to increased availability of substrates and precursors for other essential biochemical reactions.
Eat more antioxidant-rich plants.
Intracellular enzymatic reactions require not only substrates but also co-factors for proper functioning. Co-factors are often vitamins that can be obtained from a wide array of plant-based foods. Excess protein and saturated fats, on the other hand, impair autophagy as they require too much cellular energy to digest with a consequent increase in pro-inflammatory reactive oxygen species.
Plant-based foods contain a vast amount of antioxidants to reduce oxidative stress. Some key foods I recommend including in an overall plant-heavy diet are berries such as barberries, a source of the antioxidant berberine; broccoli seed sprouts, a source of sulforaphane; and green tea, a source of polyphenols. For a potent antioxidant fix, I also recommend juicing turmeric and ginger roots and drinking them daily. You should also avoid or scale way back on ultra-processed vegetable and seed oils (sunflower oil, palm oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, and soybean oil), saturated fat, sugar, and processed foods. These items are pro-inflammatory and can burden the mitochondria, impairing their function and role in autophagy.
Get that blood and oxygen flowing.
Regular aerobic exercise improves delivery of oxygen and nutrients to your cells by increasing blood flow to your vital organs. It also improves the transport of packaged and degraded inflammatory metabolites and waste by-products. Improving oxygenation has positive effects on autophagy1 and can also be accomplished by hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). HBOT helps wounds heal2 in part due to its regulation of autophagy. HBOT has also been shown to improve neurogenesis3 and decrease inflammation. An additional method of improving oxygenation and perfusion is compression technology equipment.
Take steps to prioritize your sleep.
The glymphatic system and autophagy are highly active during sleep. They work synergistically to improve the health and functioning of your brain. We should all work hard to respect the circadian nature of our brains and our bodies as this will help improve quality of sleep. It can be simple but requires motivation and dedication. Go to bed at the same time each night and wake at the same time each morning. Get outside in the morning for a dose of natural light. Eat at regular mealtimes and exercise at similar times each day. The use of melatonin 30 minutes prior to bedtime can also be helpful, and recent research supports this hormone's neuroprotective role.
Avoid gene-altering pollutants.
Epigenetic changes can have a significant impact on autophagy. And, while we don't have much control over this, we should all strive to reduce exposure to electromagnetic radiation, chemicals, pollutants, and toxins, all of which can negatively affect our genomes.
Amplify the AMPK pathway.
The adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK) is an enzyme that is critical for cellular bioenergetics. 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.
So, how do you amplify it? Cold temperatures have been shown to upregulate AMPK, the basis behind cryotherapy, but could also be accomplished by cold showers, cold baths, cold swims, and the use of cold packs. There are also some natural medicines, such as cordyceps, that can regulate AMPK. Intermittent fasting and a diet low in saturated fats can be helpful as well.
Get outside and interact with nature.
Exposure to nature has been repeatedly demonstrated to decrease inflammatory mediators such as prostaglandins and interleukins as well as upregulate inducers of autophagy.
It sounds strange, but cells can actually hold on to trauma. There is a physiological basis to this, as when we hold on to pain, bitterness, regret, guilt, and resentment, our bodies and our cells are under chronic stress, which creates pathophysiologic changes that can interfere with autophagy. Consider seeing a therapist to get the help you need and deserve.
Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., is a board-certified neurologist practicing integrative pediatric and adult neurology in Seattle. She is the owner and founder of the Center for Healing Neurology and is on the faculty of Seattle Children’s Hospital. Her holistic approach includes full neurological care with the addition of acupuncture, neurofeedback, and herbal and nutritional guidance. She received her M.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and completed her neurology training at the University of Washington in Seattle. In addition to becoming a certified medical acupuncturist, she has also completed the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the University of Arizona. Her Ph.D. doctoral dissertation studied the effects of environmental toxins on our nation’s water systems.