Autophagy: Your Most Pressing Questions Answered


I’ve spent so much time recently entrenched in—and amazed by—the world of autophagy. The word is a mouthful, I know. And it even took me some time to learn how to pronounce it. Think of it like this: aw-TOFF-uh-gee. And while it may not be a household word (not yet at least!), I truly believe that this frontier of science will be the key for improving your health—and making your whole body more youthful on the inside and out. 

I have loved learning about the process, how it works, and what benefits it has, as well as what you can do to help trigger autophagy benefits on your own. I’ve been amazed at the response that I’ve received about autophagy (you can see some video interviews here, and I also explore it in-depth in my New York Times bestselling book, Glow15). And I have loved the questions I have received about it. Here are some of the most common ones I get:

Auto-what? What does Autophagy mean?

Literally, it’s auto (self) and phagy (to eat). So it’s self-eating—a self-cannibalization process that improves the function of your cells by repairing them. The way I like to think about autophagy is I think of like a little Pacman going into my body and eating up all of the junk that is no longer needed inside of my cells so that my body can run healthier, happier, and more efficiently. 

How did you get interested in Autophagy?

It began with my interest in the citrus bergamot fruit and how powerful it is for balancing our cholesterol profiles. I had read the scientific research about it. But I wanted to meet the scientists who had done the research and visit the only place in the world this miracle fruit grew. So, about five years ago, I headed to Calabria, Italy to learn more about this antioxidant-rich fruit. I wanted to explore all of its benefits and share them with our global community.

So what did you learn about Autophagy?

I met with Dr. Elzbieta Janda, and she introduced me to the word autophagy. I was completely blown away. She had me in her laboratory drinking the citrus bergamot tea all afternoon. At the end of the day, I said to her, “Hey tell me a little bit more. I love this tea because it reminds me of when I was in Okinawa when we would drink four, five, even six cups of green tea every day, but why so much of the citrus bergamot?” And she laughed and she joked a little bit and said, “You know I have to have some anti-aging secrets of my own!” That’s when she introduced me to the concept of autophagy, and she told me that the citrus bergamot fruit is part of what activated it. I became completely obsessed with learning everything I possibly could. 

So where did you go from there?

I started talking to more and more experts who had studied this—and largely under the radar. Two of my favorite interviews have been with the 2016 Nobel Prize winner Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi and the brilliant Dr. William Dunn. They taught me so much about the science of the body and how it all works. You can check out my interviews with them here

Why is it so important then?

The best part: This process already exists. You just have to learn how to activate autophagy. When you do, it helps clean toxins, repair damage, and give you more energy. It even helps suppress autoimmune diseases. Autophagy supports all of these systems to create an overall improved sense of well-being, and it’s actually a lot easier than one would think. You actually can control the on-off switch to help your body do what it can to improve your overall health and youthfulness. 

What I can do to activate Autophagy?

Here are my top four ways to induce Autophagy:

1 Sleep: When you’re sleeping, your body is naturally working its hardest to activate the youth inside of the cell. That’s when the autophagy is removing, recycling, and really regenerating at a cellular level. Just think of autophagy as a clean kitchen after you cook a meal. If you were in a kitchen and you were making a meal, your autophagy would start working. After the meal, you clean up the surfaces so that they are all beautiful. The compost is put in the compost bin, the recycling is put in the recycling bin, the garbage is put in the garbage bin, and everything smells clean and fresh and you’re ready to start preparing your next meal. When autophagy is not working well, that’s when you start to accumulate too much food in the kitchen, the garbage can gets filled up, the recycling bin can’t go out to the edge of the street because the garbage man and the recycling company isn’t coming for a couple of days. Well, when you get one and a half cycles of sleep rhythms throughout the night you utilize your circadian rhythm. This is the clock that’s in every single one of your cells that allows autophagy to work its best. When you do not get enough sleep (both in quantity and quality), then your body can’t get into a rhythm of repair and rejuvenation.

2 Good Fats: Autophagy loves fat. It loves ketones, and it really doesn’t do well with lots of carbohydrates. So 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.

3 Fasting: One of the best ways to stimulate autophagy is through cycling between periods of eating and periods of fasting. I like to fast for about 16 hours a day (that includes sleeping), so that my window of eating is about 8 hours. This is called intermittent 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 about 8:00 pm at night and you start eating again at noon, that’s a 16-hour fast. 

4 Exercising: When you’re exercising, that creates a short-term stress on your body (your muscles are working harder, your heart is beating faster). That’s a good thing for autophagy because it loves acute, good stressors like this (it doesn’t do so well with long-term chronic stress). Use it as a way to introduce the 2 exercises.

I prefer two kinds of exercise to create this shorter-term stress in your body and activate autophagy: 

Interval Training: You work at a higher intensity for a period of 30 seconds to a minute and then reduce intensity for the same (or a little longer) period of less intensity. You can do high intensity training with walking, jogging, running, whatever type of movement or exercise works best for you. It’s best to do it for 30 minutes at a time, and this is something you may have to build up to, but when you get to 30 minutes you’re really activating the autophagy in your body.

Resistance Training: You can lift weights, use bands, or use your own body weight (like squats and lunges) to create some tension on your muscles. Yoga can achieve this as well. When you do it for 30 minutes according to research done by Dr. Beth Levine that is when our bodies can really stimulate and activate autophagy at the highest level. 

So here’s the great news: These are a few simple changes you can make in your daily routine to turn on the power of autophagy and its many health benefits. Paying attention to your sleep cycle boosts autophagy and also offers a lot of other restorative effects. Good fats are an easy addition to a healthy diet. Intermittent fasting is a supercharge for autophagy, and exercise can boost it even more. As you add these into your daily routine, you’ll begin to feel the amazing benefits of the incredible autophagy process.

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