A Complete Guide to Autophagy: Your Body’s Most Powerful Anti-Aging Tool

Autophagy is the body’s housekeeping function, a cellular activity designed to expel toxins, repair damage, and preserve life. Your skin, weight, and longevity rely on the important process of autophagy, as do other vital organs and key factors of good health.[*

To improve our quality of health and possibly extend lifespan, scientific experts are increasingly pointing us toward specific activities that induce autophagy. 

In fact, it’s quite easy to do. There are multiple ways to activate autophagy every day, through widely available antioxidants, macronutrient ratios from a keto diet or low-carb lifestyle, and by shifting at what time you eat breakfast.   

What is Autophagy?

Pronounced aw-toff-uh-jee, it’s a cumbersome word derived from the Greek words for “self” (auto) and “to eat” (phagein).

The technical autophagy definition is the “the maintenance of the nutrition of the whole body by metabolic consumption of some of the body tissues” and “the segregation and disposal of damaged organelles within a cell”.[*]

Practically speaking, we may also define autophagy as the body’s biological cleanup crew that’s responsible for clearing out waste and toxic buildup, a natural byproduct of cellular renewal and repair.

There are two types of buildup:

Normal Byproducts

Living and breathing, it turns out, creates good stress within the body. The 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 the trash out’ to maintain a clean environment to continue the cycle.

Similar to how strength training stresses muscle fibers, which enables our protein to repair and rebuild itself into stronger muscle, cells become damaged as a result of our body’s metabolism — the chemical reactions involved in converting food into energy.

Dangerous Byproducts

There are also external factors that may damage cells too. Toxins and chemicals in the environment such as chronic stress, processed foods, lack of sleep, household chemicals and products, and in many of the things that make daily life more convenient, may contribute to the toxic buildup. Some of them are alleged to have the ability to change a cell’s structure and have been linked to many disease states.

Two commonly used industrial chemicals — phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) — have been shown to be endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIH).[*][*] Phthalates are used in food containers to make plastic more flexible. BPA is also found in plastic containers and used for personal care products.

How Autophagy Works

The process of autophagy is thought to have evolved as a stress response experienced as a result of famine. Cells, in essence, developed a way to stay alive during extreme conditions by digesting their own components.[*]

“Self-eating” is an accurate depiction of the symphony of activity that takes place within the body’s trillions of cells every day. As it suggests, there’s a cannibalistic nature to the process of autophagy, a vital and continual cycle of tissue breakdown, cell death, and recycling or eating of proteins and organelles.[*][*][*]

Cells seek to maintain homeostasis — that is, balance and order — and are self-sufficient in doing so, even if it means cannibalizing their own. That’s because autophagy cleans house in another way — by eliminating cells that are sick, weak, or otherwise don’t measure up.  

It’s believed that as part of an evolutionary survival instinct, cells have developed the capacity to survive harsh conditions either by regulating energy, by maintaining protein and organelle quality control, or both.[*

Autophagy comes equipped with a ‘healing setting’ that activates when the body’s network of cells must conserve energy to fight an infection or repair cellular damage that could otherwise threaten your good health, or worse, disrupt a cell’s DNA or lead to disease. To conserve energy, the body must tap on the brakes of other functions, such as digestion or cognition. 

Landmarks of Autophagy Research

Autophagy has been a focus of study for two Nobel Laureates. The first was Christian De Duve, who initially observed the process of autophagy and coined the word in 1963 after he and fellow researchers observed cellular material being eaten away.[*] The mechanism behind it was uncertain, however.

The second and most notable is Yoshinori Ohsumi (watch the interview here), who won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Dr. Ohsumi conducted a series of groundbreaking experiments and identified genes that are vital to the process, thus providing a modern, practical description of what is autophagy. 

Since then, the study of this precise discipline of cellular biology has blossomed. The medical sciences are studying the role of autophagy in the prevention of age-related illnesses and diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, and neurodegenerative diseases, and even to increase longevity.[*][*

When you consider that aging — at its simplest — is the degradation of cells, autophagy’s process of breaking down damaged tissue to create new cells could be a monumental tool to help decelerate aging inside and out.[*

From Nobel Prize-winning research to studies on autophagy’s positive effect on longevity, skin health, inflammation, and heart health, there’s an abundance of anti-aging research supporting its health benefits.[*]In fact, in 2018, a Cambridge, MA startup received a $58.2M investment to develop drugs that use autophagy to treat neurodegenerative disease, inflammation, and other diseases and disorders.[*]

Health Benefits of Autophagy

Enthusiasm for autophagy benefits has spilled into the mainstream population, largely due to the popularity of the keto diet and intermittent fasting. Autophagy is important to the keto diet because it’s often combined with practices that help induce autophagy, such as intermittent fasting. Both have grown in popularity and are practiced to activate autophagy. 

Research supports that autophagy offers a multitude of health benefits:

  • Supports youth
  • Fights age-related diseases
  • Promotes heart health
  • Promotes smoother, healthier skin 
  • Boosts metabolism
  • Offers protection against neurodegenerative diseases
  • Improves muscle performance 
  • Fights inflammation
  • Promotes brain health
  • Supports weight-loss
  • Helps defend against cancer 
  • Helps increase energy
  • Protects against mental disease
  • Offers anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties
  • Supports healthy aging

While the prospect of avoiding disease in the future is a motivating reason to want to support your autophagy, it’s more important to see this life-saving function as a tool to feel energetic every day and enhance your health right now. 

Four Ways to Induce Autophagy

If you want to enjoy the health benefits of cellular “self-eating”, you’re in luck — there are a few ways to help activate autophagy and supports its natural process.  

1. Ketogenic

The keto diet uses an extremely low-carbohydrate/high-fat diet to restrict glucose. Instead of relying on sugar for energy, it uses fat as its primary source of fuel. 

When the body is deprived of glucose from food, it tries to create its own through glucogenesis before turning to stored fat to keep vital metabolic functions going. And when it burns through stored fat, it creates its own: ketones. 

Ketones have been shown to have neuroprotective properties that are activated under a state of ketosis.[*] As the body shifts from being glucose-dependent to becoming fat adapted and using ketones, it induces autophagy as a way to maintain energy homeostasis.[*]

If you’re a keto beginner, start by replacing carbohydrates with keto-friendly foods that promote autophagy. This mostly consists of good fats like avocados, nuts, fatty fish, coconut oil,  butter, MCT oil, and grass-fed beef.    

2. Intermittent Fasting

Fasting is the practice of abstaining from consuming food and/or drink for an extended time period. It can be short-term, such as an overnight fast of 12-13 hours, or a long-term fast that lasts for 36 hours or longer. There are different health benefits for both.

Fasting helps to induce autophagy by providing an extended period of time for cells to do their important work of repairing and renewing themselves without interruption. 

You may wonder how long to fast for autophagy to occur. It takes about 12-16 hours for the body to burn through glucose stored in the liver and muscles, called glycogen, and induce autophagy. In an attempt to meet the body’s energy demands, it manufactures its own. And when that emergency source of fuel is depleted, the body enters starvation mode, where metabolism slows down to conserve energy. 

Intermittent fasting offers the health benefits of autophagy in the same way as a longer fast, making it easier for you to incorporate into a health routine. One approach to intermittent fasting is 16/8, where you fast for 16 hours and eat within an 8-hour window, all within a 24-hour cycle. 

3. Moderate Exercise

Exercise creates a healthy form of stress on the body, like fasting. It has been shown to induce autophagy as it works to repair micro-tears and inflamed muscle tissue. The effects of exercise are not limited to the repair of muscle tissue, however. Studies show that the autophagy triggered by exercise occurs in the brain and in multiple organs involved in metabolic regulation, such as muscle, liver, pancreas, and adipose tissue.[*][*]

While moderate to vigorous activity is beneficial for autophagy activation, as well as for a healthy heart, mood regulation, and longevity support, excessive exercise could, in fact, have a detrimental effect. According to one study, acute or prolonged exercise was found to have no impact on autophagy. In fact, it was shown to cause an accumulation of dysfunctional mitochondrial tissue and other signs of cell damage, which led to a degeneration of muscle fibers.[*]

4. Autophagy Foods

Science has identified a number of foods that promote autophagy. Here’s a look at the key nutrients within them that help induce autophagy:

FAT– Eating high-quality natural fats instead of carbohydrates paves a smooth road for the body to enter autophagy faster, because you can burn through glucose stores quicker. 

GREEN TEA – It contains EGCG, a powerful polyphenol antioxidant that directly supports autophagy’s process of cellular cleansing and renewal.[*] EGCG is also found in black tea. 

BERBERINE– A powerful anti-inflammatory found in the bark of certain plant species, it helps to balance blood sugar levels and can help regulate AMPK, an enzyme that affects metabolism and may help improve insulin sensitivity.[*] Berberine is available mostly in supplement form

BERGAMOT– A type of citrus fruit from Italy, it’s the recognizable scent behind Earl Grey tea. Potent polyphenols in the rind have been studied for their effect on cellular health.[*]

You can make your own “autopha-tea” by following this recipe

Autophagy Summary:

  • Autophagy is a cell’s way of maintaining health and balance by recycling or “self-eating” dysfunctional tissue. When dead cells and damaged tissue accumulate, they create a toxic environment within cells. 
  • Research on the process of autophagy dates back to the early 1960s, but it’s Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi’s groundbreaking, Nobel Prize-winning science that has brought its health benefits to the foreground.
  • As a cell’s internal housekeeping function, an active autophagy process produces whole health and whole body benefits that include healthy cardiovascular function, skin health, the ability to better fight infection and inflammation, and promote longevity.   
  • Activities that support the natural process of autophagy include following a keto diet, regular moderate exercise, drinking green tea, and supplementing with berberine and bergamot.