By Dr. Justin Marchegiani
The word “autophagy” comes from the Greek “auto-phagein” which means “self eating.” Autophagy is a normal process in which compromised cells are cleared away. Even a healthy person must undergo autophagy, it’s one of the body’s natural modes of detoxification. Cellular damage can happen as a result of normal metabolic processes, but the rate at which damage occurs can be increased by things like stress, electromagnetic radiation, and free radicals.
“Self-eating cells” sounds scary, but it’s a good thing! By clearing out old, damaged cells, you make room for new cells that are young and healthy. Without autophagy, you would continue to accumulate dead, damaged, and oxidized cell parts which accelerate aging, neurodegenerative disease, and cancer.
Naomi Whittel, autophagy expert, uses the comparison of a kitchen. Imagine cooking dinner, then wiping the counter, throwing away the scraps, and putting the leftovers in the fridge. That is autophagy working correctly.
Now, imagine cooking dinner, and leaving the mess. Grimey counters, pile of dishes in the sink, and smelly food left out. In this scenario, the smell and mess will continue to build up to the point where you will get unwanted consequences such as mold and bugs. When autophagy is compromised, dead and damaged parts linger in the body, which also leads to unwanted consequences like disease.
Autophagy is being touted as one of the best anti-aging hacks. What exactly are the anti-aging benefits of autophagy? Read on to find out!
If you thought self-eating cells are weird: apoptosis is cell suicide! This programmed cell death can be useful for getting rid of seriously compromised cells, like those with disease, but in general apoptosis is much more wasteful than autophagy. Apoptosis also causes more inflammation and metabolic waste. Autophagy is a cleaner, more efficient way to keep cells healthy.
While a healthy immune system will turn off a virus making it dormant, it doesn’t actually get rid of them. The virus is still in your body and able to replicate. Cue autophagy, which is how your body can actually rid itself of the infected cells. If you’ve ever experienced nausea when sick with a virus, you know it’s hard to keep down anything (sometimes even water). This is your body’s way of inducing a fast–fasting sets autophagy into motion.
Fasting, whether for several days or intermittent fasting, is one of the most powerful ways you can call upon your body to stimulate autophagy.
One or two days of fasting is enough to induce autophagy, though days four and five is when you will reach peak autophagy. A fast-mimicking diet, in which you consume between 800-1100 calories per day, can also induce autophagy.
Intermittent fasting has a ton of benefits:autophagy being one of them! By restricting your eating window to an 8 hour block (or less), you can maintain a healthy level of autophagy daily. A common intermittent fast is skipping breakfast.
When we are eating a lot of carbs and sugar, our body is burning glucose for fuel, has sharp blood sugar spikes, and high insulin levels. By getting into ketosis, using fat for fuel, we stabilize our blood sugar, lower insulin, and start producing ketones. Mixing ketosis and intermittent fasting is a great combo: once you’re in ketosis, it’s easy to go longer between meals because you start burning stored fat for energy. Ketosis plus intermittent fasting is an excellent way to mimic fasting and induce autophagy.
Just like fasting, exercise is a ‘body stressor,’ but they are the good kind of stress! At least 30 minutes of exercise has been shown to induce autophagy.
Autophagy and metabolism follow diurnal circadian rhythm–your body’s sleep-wake cycle. By getting good sleep, you boost autophagy. These days, people face a lot of sleep issues, like insomnia. It’s important to practice good sleep hygiene in order to prepare your body for bed time. Blue blocking glasses, turning off electronics, and keeping lighting low at night can all help your body prepare for bed time.
The literal translation of autophagy as ‘self-eating cell’ does not do justice to the importance of the body’s natural process of cleaning compromised parts. Everyone can boost their levels of autophagy, whether by getting into ketosis or partaking in fasting. The anti-aging benefits will keep you looking, feeling, and functioning young!