Autophagy: The "Fountain of Youth" For Your Cells
When I first traveled to Calabria, Italy to learn more about the powerful superfruit citrus bergamot, I was introduced to a term I’d never heard before: autophagy. You see, the reason why citrus bergamot provided so many health benefits was because it activated a vital process in the body known as autophagy. I was fascinated and knew I had to learn more.
Quite simply, autophagy was the key I didn’t even know I’d been searching for. Since then, it has become an important factor in almost every decision I made going forward—from future travels to interviews with leadings scientists and, ultimately, the products I’ve created to promote true well beauty.
So, let’s take a closer look at autophagy and break down what it is and how it works, what autophagy does for your body, how to induce autophagy, and, finally, how to know the autophagy process has been activated in your own body!
What Is Autophagy?
Let’s start with what autophagy actually is. Autophagy is a fundamental process in your body in which your cells maintain optimal health and balance by performing their own removal of cellular waste, which repairs damage, restores, and rejuvenates your cells—providing a healthy body from the inside-out.
In order for your cells to perform their own removal of this waste, they recycle dysfunctional tissue through an internal “housekeeping” process best explained by looking at the meaning of the word autophagy.
How Autophagy Works
Autophagy can be a complex topic to grasp, so I like to start by breaking down the word autophagy: auto means “self” and phagy means “to eat.” So, your healthy cells are consuming and therefore eliminating the unhealthy, damaged, toxic cells in order to remove them—thereby leaving only healthy, more efficient cells in your body. Think about autophagy like a little Pacman going into your body and eating up all of the junk that is no longer needed inside of your cells so that your body can run healthier, happier, and more efficiently.
Perhaps another way to visualize the process of autophagy is that your healthy cells crowd out or “push” out the unhealthy cells, leaving only vital, optimally working cells in their wake.
Now, you may be wondering how your cells become so toxic and damage, and that’s a fair question!
There are two types of buildup in your cells: normal byproducts and dangerous byproducts.
Normal byproducts result from our daily life. Simply living and breathing, it turns out, creates good stress within the body. This results in normal, healthy metabolic processes that occur at a constant rate create waste that must be removed. As proteins and organelles degrade and new tissue is formed, cells must recycle and “take out the trash” to maintain a clean environment to continue the cycle.
Similar to how strength training stresses muscle fibers, which enables your protein to repair and rebuild itself into stronger muscle, cells become damaged as a result of your body’s metabolism—the chemical reactions involved in converting food into energy.
Dangerous byproducts, on the other hand, result from external factors such as chronic stress, processed foods, lack of sleep, household chemicals and products, and more of many of the things that make daily life more “convenient.” Some of these dangerous byproducts are alleged to have the ability to change a cell’s structure and have been linked to many disease states.
Over time and due to other health-related factors, your body’s natural ability to activate autophagy can slow down—meaning your body is less able to clean and repair cells, making you more susceptible to the damage caused by aging.
As you age, the damaged proteins accumulate and your body can’t clear the trash as effectively, and skin health deteriorates as a result. If autophagy cannot be activated, then it’s less likely to be able to repair the cells associated with skin and with aging. This results in excessive inflammation and damage through such mechanisms as a decrease in fibroblasts, collagen production, and more. But if you can activate autophagy, that helps with the cellular cleanup process, and thus reduces the amount of damage your skin sustains.
By activating autophagy, you can effectively rid your body of these byproducts and support whole-body health. When autophagy is working properly, you feel better and look better—all because your cells are functioning at their best. An active autophagy process supports whole-body health benefits that include healthy cardiovascular function, skin health, the ability to better fight infection and inflammation, and longevity.
It’s the process that slows aging and keeps your cells—and thus your body—young. That’s why I call active autophagy your “internal fountain of youth!”
6 Amazing Health Benefits of Autophagy
Now that you know why autophagy is important, let’s take a look at some of the amazing health benefits it can provide.
Before we dive in, it’s important to note that enthusiasm for autophagy benefits has spilled into the mainstream population largely due to the popularity of the keto diet and intermittent fasting. You see, autophagy is important to the keto diet because this diet is often combined with practices that help induce autophagy, such as intermittent fasting (also sometimes known as autophagy fasting), which we’ll discuss in more detail in the following section.
As a result of this rise in popularity, people are becoming more and more aware of the amazing health benefits of autophagy:
1. Promotes smoother, healthier skin
The cells that you present to the world take a lot of damage from chemicals, air pollution, light, heat, cold, humidity changes, and physical damage. It’s a wonder they don’t look worse for wear! When your skin cells accumulate damage and toxins, they age in place.
Even though you make new cells often, autophagy helps to eliminate the damaged cells so that your skin can really glow! Skin cells, in particular, engulf bacteria that may damage your body, so it is very important to support them as they clear out the clutter.
2. Supports healthy aging
Studies have shown that reduced autophagy is associated with accelerated aging because an accumulation of toxic cells leave you more prone to developing degenerative conditions. By activating autophagy, you’re help your body to clear out these toxic, damaged cells, which promotes cellular health and, ultimately, whole-body health.
3. Promotes heart health
Another incredible benefit of autophagy is its ability to support cardiovascular health. Amazingly, research has shown that autophagy can actually remove the cholesterol that accumulates in artery walls, thereby potentially reversing atherosclerosis, which is the primary cause of heart attacks and strokes!
4. Boosts metabolism
Autophagy is a process of taking out the cellular “trash” and replacing damaged cell parts—and this includes your mitochondria, which are your cellular engines. They’re responsible for burning fat and making adenosine triphosphate (ATP), your body’s energetic currency.
There is a lot of harsh, toxic build up in mitochondria that can damage your cells, and breaking them down proactively saves future wear and tear on them. Autophagy of other cell parts helps the entire cell work more efficiently not only to burn fuel but also to make vital proteins, which supports a healthier metabolism.
5. Supports brain health
Many diseases of aging brains take quite a bit of time to develop because they are the result of abnormal proteins in and around your brain cells that are misfolded and don’t work correctly. Autophagy helps cells clean up those proteins that aren’t functioning properly so that they are less likely to accumulate.
For instance, in Alzheimer’s disease, autophagy helps to remove the protein amyloid, and, in Parkinson’s, it helps to remove ⍺-synuclein. If you’ve ever heard that dementia goes hand-in-hand with diabetes, this is why: Constant high blood sugar levels can prevent the activation of autophagy, making it difficult to keep those proteins functioning properly.
6. Promotes longevity
Recent research has confirmed that instead of taking in new nutrients, cells undergoing autophagy actually recycle the damaged parts they have, remove toxic material, and self-repair. And when your cells repair themselves, they work better and can behave like younger cells.
You may have heard or noticed that some people have a very different chronological (time) and biological (health) age. The amount of toxic damage in a body and its ability to repair that damage plays a major role in how different those numbers can be.
Simply put, autophagy is an ancient mechanism whose main function is to preserve your life. Activating it helps your body to maximize repair while minimizing damage, which, in turn, limits inflammation and promotes longevity.
How to Induce Autophagy
Autophagy sounds pretty great, right? I don’t want to burst the autophagy bubble, but there is a bit of a downside. In today’s world, we are exposed to more toxins in the environment than ever before. Toxins coming from pollution, chemicals, and stress collect in our bodies, damage cells and slow down the process of autophagy. The result is faster aging, weight that is harder to lose, and bodies that just don’t feel and function at their best.
Instead of autophagy being an unconscious process that just naturally happens, it is now up to us to implement strategies to promote it. So, like most things in health, achieving our goals isn’t magic; it requires we show up and exert a little effort. Here’s the great news: Inducing autophagy is actually a lot easier than many realize. You actually can control the on-off switch to help your body do what it can to improve your overall health and promote youthfulness.
Now, while autophagy has many health benefits, it is a repair response to stress and should not be on all the time. In book Glow15, I share with you how to turn autophagy on and off inside your cells to get the best of both worlds! But, for now, let’s take a look at the top ways to activate autophagy.
1. Intermittent fasting
One of the best ways to activate autophagy is through cycling between periods of eating and periods of fasting. So, how long do you have to fast for autophagy and what is the best way to fast for autophagy? Personally, I like to utilize two stages of fasting and fast for about 16 hours a day (that includes time spent sleeping), so that my window of eating is about 8 hours long. This is called intermittent fasting (also sometimes referred to as autophagy fasting).
It’s pretty easy to do—all you’re doing is cutting out one meal a day (for many who do this, it’s usually breakfast). So, if you stop eating at around 8:00 p.m. at night and you start eating again at noon, that’s a 16-hour fast.
If you’re wondering if there’s an autophagy diet, I will note that during my eating window, I follow a high-fiber keto diet and make sure to eat plenty of filling healthy fats. Not only does it support satiety during my fasting window, but autophagy loves fat. It also loves ketones, and really doesn’t do well with lots of carbohydrates.
So, following a high fat, low carb ketogenic diet is a great way to activate autophagy. That means incorporating healthy fats, like those found in avocado and olive oil. And it also means reducing carbohydrates, especially those simple carbs and sugars.
Some of my favorite foods that are known to induce autophagy include:
- Blueberries (especially wild blueberries) and other berries
- Cacao and dark chocolate (at least 70% dark)
- Ceylon cinnamon
- Citrus bergamot
- Green tea
- MCT oil
- Red grapes
- Red wine
In addition to fasting and eating a diet high in healthy fats, I make sure to supplement with autophagy-activating and supporting supplements as well. Keep reading to learn which supplements I consider to be must-haves when inducing autophagy.
Resveratrol is a polyphenol found in red wine that has been scientifically shown to activate autophagy and sirtuins (which play a role in promoting longevity) and help to cool inflammation, support heart health, and even fight certain types of cancer. Additionally, it’s been shown to help enhance mitochondrial function, which boosts metabolism.
Astaxanthin is an extremely potent antioxidant, known to contain 6,000 times more antioxidant properties than vitamin C! Numerous studies have confirmed that this nutritional powerhouse can induce autophagy by helping to modulate immunity and inflammation.
I like to call berberine “exercise in a pill” because while it will never replace a good, old-fashioned sweat, research has shown that it can produce biological effects similar to those of exercise. But that’s not all: Clinical research has shown that berberine can help induce autophagy by activating AMPK, a protein known as the “metabolic master switch.” It’s the main reason i consider berberine the ultimate supplement to boost metabolism.
5. Citrus bergamot
Certain ingredients have also been shown to activate autophagy, and none more so than citrus bergamot (a fruit found in Italy and a component of Earl Grey tea). Specifically, research has shown that due to its incredible concentration of polyphenols, supplementing with citrus bergamot activated certain proteins associated with the upregulation of autophagy.
The primary active compound in turmeric, curcumin, is a phytonutrient known help induce autophagy largely thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties and its ability to support healthy blood sugar levels. Just make sure that you get a high concentration (at least 95 percent) of curcuminoids.
Signs of Autophagy
Two questions I’m asked often are:
- When does autophagy start during a fast?
- How do I know if I am in autophagy?
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always so simple. Instead of thinking of autophagy like an on-and-off switch, I like to think of it as a dial. Autophagy is always “on” to some degree, but the dial is turned down while eating and when insulin is higher, and then the dial can turn up during a fast.
In regards to an “autophagy timeline,” experts can’t quite agree on the optimal length of a fast for autophagy benefits, and the data available is limited. The autophagy fasting sweet spot may vary by individual and can depend more upon the person’s bioindividuality than the clock.
Signs of autophagy include:
- Entering into the state of ketosis, meaning higher ketone bodies.
- Increased satiety
- Improved mental clarity
- Temporarily lower energy levels (also known as the “keto flu”)
While the benefits of activating autophagy are clear, it’s important to note that the methods, such as fasting and following a ketogenic diet, may not be the best protocol for every person. As a result, it’s always best to consult your physician before starting any new dietary regimen.
Autophagy is a fundamental process in your body in which your cells maintain optimal health and balance by performing their own removal of cellular waste.
The process of autophagy repairs damage, restores, and rejuvenates your cells—providing a healthy body from the inside-out.
Some of the top benefits include: promoting skin health, supporting healthy aging, boosting metabolism, and more.
- The best ways to induce autophagy include: intermittment fasting and taking supplements such as resveratrol, citrus bergamot, astaxanthin, and more.