How to Supercharge Your Health and Refresh Your Body with Autophagy

Autophagy is our body’s “housekeeping” — how it gets rid of old and damaged cells and replaces them with new healthy ones. The word is made up of the Greek words “auto” and “phagy,” which literally translates to mean “self-devouring.” But, as scary as that sounds, autophagy an organized process that is highly beneficial to our health.

We have up to 40-trillion microscopic cells at work in our bodies at any one time. But age, disease, and damage eventually impact their efficiency. Organelles called lysosomes then break down other damaged organelles and recycle their material to make new cells or nourish existing ones.

Autophagy isn’t restricted to humans; it has been observed in plants and animals and might have been occurring before humankind. However, the process was only discovered relatively recently by the Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve in 1963. He won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1974 for his research, which encouraged other scientists to investigate further.

In 1983, Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi identified the genes responsible for catalyzing the autophagy process and discovered that without them, cells cannot repair themselves. He was also rewarded with a Nobel Prize for his efforts.

The Health Benefits of Autophagy

Scientists still have much to learn about autophagy, but studies show it may play a key role in preventing cancer, neurodegeneration, cardiomyopathy, diabetes, liver disease, autoimmune diseases, and infections. Autophagy benefits us in several ways:

· It appears to offset the damage caused by neurodegeneration. Autophagy protects the nervous system and facilitates brain and nerve cell regrowth, improving cognitive function, brain structure, and neuroplasticity. Therefore, it likely plays a role in preventing or slowing the onset of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and possibly some psychiatric diseases.

· Autophagy enhances the immune system by eliminating pathogens, damaged cell matter, and misfolded, toxic proteins. It thereby protects the body from infectious and amyloid diseases and possibly cancers.

· It plays a role in regulating mitochondrial functioning, which can be damaged by oxidative stress.

· It promotes longevity by recycling cell waste to produce fuel for regrowth and by preventing damage to healthy tissues and organs.

· At times of nutrient stress or starvation, autophagy helps to balance sources of energy.

Triggering Autophagy

When we are well-fed, our insulin levels spike and activate a protein called mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin), which triggers cell growth. When our food intake is restricted or when we use up energy by exercising, low carbohydrate levels cause a drop in insulin, and we produce an enzyme known as AMPK or AMP-activated protein kinase. AMPK helps the body regulate blood sugar levels, and when it’s activated, it promotes glucose uptake and utilization and decreases glycogen synthesis. That’s a complicated way of saying we enter autophagy and start breaking down old cells for fuel.

With all the benefits of autophagy, the obvious question is: what can we do to help trigger the process? The short answer is yes, if we deprive our cells of energy.

Intermittent Fasting

Exercising and restricting our calorie intake can trigger autophagy. However, the process is also very time-sensitive because it requires low levels of liver glycogen, which is only achieved after a 14 to 16-hour period of energy deprivation.

Thus, one of the most effective ways to promote autophagy is through intermittent fasting (IF), a lifestyle that’s become popular recently as a weight loss aid. While many of us could stand to lose a pound or two at least, the benefits of IF go way beyond trimming down. By introducing IF to your lifestyle you can help your body benefit from autophagy at regular intervals.

When intermittent fasting, you’ll go without food for extended periods and then eat as usual in non-fasting intervals. (Drinking water and other beverages without calories is fine — and necessary for proper hydration — during fasting periods.) There are several different approaches to IF, but if you’re new to fasting, a 16:8 fast is a realistic start. That’s 16 hours of fasting and an eight-hour period in which to consume your meals. This translates to skipping breakfast for most people, but you can experiment to find a schedule that fits your lifestyle. Once you’re more experienced with fasting, you may be able to withstand longer periods without food and may benefit from a 24-hour fasting period.

Research on fasting shows promising potential benefits. The Taylor and Francis Group found short-term fasting periods of 24 hours resulted in a marked increase in the number of cells undergoing autophagy.

You Can Enjoy Your Coffee

Many people report finding IF a more sustainable approach to healthy or calorie-restricted eating than a restrictive diet. This might be because IF doesn’t deny you the good things in life — it just restricts when you can eat them. In addition, on common “vice,” coffee, actually encourages autophagy. Coffee is a source of dietary polyphenols, which stimulate autophagy and suppress mTOR signaling. If you need a little help to get you through your fasting period, a lovely cup of coffee could be just the distraction you need.