Autophagy – what does that mean? How do you achieve it? In a nutshell, it’s the scientific term for the cellular clean-up crew that’s present in your body.
What is autophagy?
Autophagy is derived from the Greek words auto (self) and phagein (to eat). Essentially, it’s a regulated, orderly process that removes broken down, worn out, old cellular machinery (organelles, proteins, cell membranes) when they are no longer necessary. These components are degraded and recycled to produce new, high-functioning machinery.
Autophagy is great for several reasons:
- Anti-aging — helps to destroy and reuse damaged cellular components
- Up-regulates mitochondria — the powerhouses of our cells
- Protects the nervous system and encourages cell growth
- Enhances the immune system
- Prevents damage to healthy organs and tissues
How do you induce autophagy?
There are two main ways to do just that:
When it comes to fasting, we’ll admit that it can be a little intimidating. Often times we associate not eating with negative things like muscle loss or impaired mental states, but the practice of regular fasting can actually be extremely beneficial simply because it initiates autophagy within the body.
Research finds that restricting calories or completely abstaining from food, turns on genes that signal cells to preserve resources. The cells go into a preservation mode whereby they are much more resistant to disease or cellular stress.
Stimulation of autophagy occurs via two key pathways: mTOR and AMPK. Without getting too scientific, both of these pathways are attuned to the presence of nutrients in the body. Similarly, autophagy is also stimulated by the two hormones glucagon and insulin. When fasting, insulin levels drop significantly and glucagon levels rise, which signals the body to go into autophagy.
But as simple as that seems, in order to induce autophagy, low liver glycogen is necessary, which can generally only be achieved after about 14–16 hours of fasting. The likelihood of inducing autophagy increases substantially after 24 hours.
Some fasting allows non-caloric beverages like coffee and tea or lower caloric beverages like fresh-pressed juices, while others allow just water. Much like there are certain beverages that are paleo-compliant, certain beverages will be fasting-compliant as well. It’s important to remember that when we are fasting, certain fluids will essentially “break the fast.” This includes things like cream, nut milks, coconut or MCT oil, butter (in coffee), and even BCAAs. Coffee, tea, ACV, lemon water, and Yerba mate are all okay to consume when fasting.
Interested to know more about autophagy and the benefits of fasting? Check out this article to learn why fasting shouldn’t be feared.
The second way to induce autophagy is through exercise, specifically high intensity interval training (HIIT), because it induces a form of “good stress” on the body. Research shows that exercise can induce autophagy in multiple organs that are involved in metabolic regulation, including muscles, the liver, pancreas and adipose tissue.
Because inducing stress on the body is a way to stimulate autophagy, exercise stresses the body by causing breakdown and repair of tissues. While there is little human research indicating how much exercise is needed to initiate autophagy, rodent studies show that as little as 30 minutes of aerobic activity is enough to stimulate the process.
While it may seem like a little bit of a scary process to induce within the body, autophagy is completely normal and highly beneficial. For the ultimate cleanse, why not incorporate regular exercise and fasting into your weekly routine and reap all the benefits you can!