What Is autophagy?
Autophagy, from the ancient Greek word meaning ‘self-devouring’, is the natural, orderly, regulated mechanism of the cell that disassembles unnecessary or dysfunctional components (4) like broken down, old cell machinery (organelles, proteins and cell membranes) when there’s no longer enough energy to sustain them (5).
This happens as part of a healthy cell’s life cycle of breaking down, repair, and regeneration (6). What is important to point out is that autophagy is essential for maintaining good health. Even though it may sound negative, autophagy is a highly regulated and controlled process, if it was not so it would be detrimental for our health (5). Age, stress, and free radical stress however, cause our cells to become damaged at an increased rate (7).
Autophagy was first described in 1962 when researchers noted an increase in the number of lysosomes (the part of the cell containing the enzymes that break down molecules ) (8) in rat liver cells after infusing glucagon. The Nobel prize winning scientist Christian de Duve coined the term ‘autophagy’.
How does autophagy work?
The process happens at the sub-cellular level and it is quite different from apoptosis (cell death), where the whole cell is disposed of. Autophagy allows the body to remove parts of the cell that are no longer working, like old sub-cellular organelles and replace them for new ones, leaving the working parts intact (5). It would be similar to replacing your car’s battery rather than buying an entire new car. In this manner, old cell membranes, organelles, unused proteins and other cellular debris are marked for destruction and can be removed, by sending them to the lysosome.
This old cellular debris is then converted to amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, which can then be transported throughout the body for use (6). These amino acids can be used in three different ways:
- They are used in cases of starvation, like is the case of fasting.
- They are delivered to the liver for gluconeogenesis, the manufacture of glucose for energy.
- They are incorporated into new proteins (5).
This form of cellular cleansing, where the body identifies old and substandard cellular equipment and marks it for destruction is what allows the body to get rid of intracellular pathogenic microbes like: yeast, mold, fungus, viruses, bacteria (9), candida (10), etc.
Without this process of self cleansing, these dysfunctional parts of the cell would still linger inside tissues and organs, leading to inflammation, pain and contribute to various diseases as well as accelerated aging (7). This would be the case of two main conditions: Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and cancer. Alzheimer’s Disease involves the accumulation of abnormal proteins, either amyloid beta or Tau protein which gums up the brain. It would make sense that a process like autophagy, which has the ability to clear out old protein, could prevent the development of AD (5).
These protein structures that get stuck in the brain, are also found in Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and strokes. They are considered a type 3 diabetes because they are caused by excess insulin. This is another reason why changing to a low insulin diet is crucial. Interestingly, high cholesterol is also a sticky protein, as the name ‘high density lipo-protein’ implies, which can also be removed by lowering insulin. By healing insulin, health conditions like brain fog and memory problems can be addressed because the brain can get the fuel it needs (11).
What activates autophagy?
Of all the different things that activate autophagy, fasting and intermittent fasting provide the greatest known boost to autophagy (12). Fasting can be considered a healthy form of stress. However, in our modern world of massive food production, fasting is probably not even thought of, but there was a time when food was more scarce and the human body was faced with extended periods of time without food. Also, it was faced with more physical requirements in order to stay alive. In those times of stress, the body became more efficient at protecting us against many types of chronic diseases. This is because acute stress provides us with a stimulus to create more beneficial cellular components (like in our immune system). It also is a stimulus to remove more harmful ones (like faulty cells and cancer).
Plenty of research shows that calorie restriction increases longevity and decreases many chronic diseases. Intermittent fasting (IF), involves periodic fasts of anywhere from 12-18 hours, to as long as 72 hours.
Fasting activates a hormone that is opposite of insulin called ‘glucagon’. When we eat, insulin goes up and glucagon goes down. When we don’t eat insulin goes down and glucagon goes up. Fasting is actually far more beneficial than just stimulating autophagy. It does two good things:
- It clears old proteins and cellular parts.
- It also stimulates human growth hormone (HGH): HGH is a hormone that preserves protein in the body, this means: hair, nails, skin, collagen, muscle, tendons, ligaments and bone. HGH is good for the heart because the arteries are mainly made of protein. Low HGH would make arteries more rigid which would increase blood pressure. HGH also influences cell growth, cell reproduction, cell regeneration, helps the body retain calcium, etc. This hormone starts to decline at the age of 40 approximately, but fasting helps to stimulate it. Other factors that increase this hormone are removing sugar from the diet, vitamin B3, exercise and the amino acid arginine (13).
How long do you have to fast for autophagy?
Studies suggest that fasts between 24–48 hours probably have the strongest effects, but this isn’t always doable for many people. Anything between 12 and 36 hours at a time is enough to activate autophagy.
Benefits of fasting for heart health
One of the most impressive intermittent fasting benefits is its favorable effect on heart health. Studies show that intermittent fasting improves heart health by lowering certain heart disease risk factors. In one study, fasting was shown to increase good HDL cholesterol and decrease triglyceride levels.
In other studies, like the animal study done by the ‘Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry’ it was shown that intermittent fasting caused an increase in levels of adiponectin, a protein involved in the metabolism of fat and sugar that may be protective against heart disease and heart attacks. Rats who fasted every other day were nearly 66 % more likely to survive a heart attack than those on a normal diet (7).
Exercise: healthy stress
Another way to increase autophagy, apart from fasting, is exercise. Animal studies have shown that acute exercise turns on autophagy in skeletal and cardiac muscle cells. Autophagy also is turned on in the pancreas and the liver during exercise. Studies conducted on mice running on treadmills, found that autophagy was turned on after 30 minutes of exercise, but plateaued after 80 minutes, suggesting that long, chronic cardio, is not necessarily better than acute, high-impact exercise but shorter busts of exercise.
Something important to remember about exercise is that it allows the lymph system to drain toxins from the body. According to research, around 3 pounds of plaque and other toxins from the brain each year. This same effect happens all through the body, as recent research reveals. In a new study published in ‘Scientific Reports’, doctors identified what they think may be the body’s 80th organ: the interstitium. The interstitium is a widespread network of connective tissue that surrounds nearly every organ system in the body. It is mostly found surrounding the digestive and respiratory systems and under the skin (these are all concentrations of lymphatic tissue).
Previously thought as simply dense connective tissue, researchers discovered that the interstitium is actually a series of interconnected fluid-filled sacs. According to the study, the interstitial space is the primary source of lymph and a major fluid compartment for the body (17).
Exercise and autophagy
When it comes to exercising, recent research has shown that exercise induces autophagy in multiple organs involved in metabolic regulation, such as muscle, liver, pancreas and adipose tissue. While exercise has many benefits, it’s actually a form of stress because it breaks down tissues, causing them to be repaired and grow back stronger. It’s not exactly clear yet how much exercise is needed to boost autophagy, but research does suggest that intense exercise is probably most beneficial.
In skeletal and cardiac muscle tissue, as little as 30 minutes of exercise can be sufficient to induce autophagy. Most people find that they can exercise while fasting without running into energy deficits. This is only because when fasting is done correctly we are increasing the nutrient reserves in the body.
The ketogenic diet
The ketogenic diet has also been proven to be a way to produce autophagy in the body. As we saw,this way of eating makes short-term fasts quite easy by removing the rebound hunger pangs of insulin fluctuation. In this manner, it is not hard to skip a breakfast here or there, resulting in a 15-hour fast.
When we eat a low-carbohydrate diet, our liver starts producing ketones, which are a source of fuel for our bodies and brains when carbohydrates are not around. Ketones also appear to have properties that protect our brain from damage and aging. In fact, there are even trials showing that they improve cognitive performance in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
Other things that activate autophagy , although to a lesser degree are: olive oil, the cruciferous vegetables, vitamin D3, vitamin B3, tea, coffee (but not in great amounts) and coconut oil (14).
What turns off autophagy?
Autophagy is active in all cells but is increased in response to stress or nutrient deprivation. It is unique to fasting, caloric restriction or dieting will not cause autophagy. Eating, glucose, insulin (or decreased glucagon) and proteins all turn off this self-cleaning process. Even a small amount of amino acid (leucine) could stop autophagy.
Benefits of autophagy
Autophagy is beneficial in preventing diseases such as cancer, neurodegeneration, cardiomyopathy, diabetes, liver disease, autoimmune diseases and infections.
Autophagy has many anti-aging benefits because it helps destroy and reuse damaged components occurring in vacuoles (spaces within cells). It works by using waste produced inside cells to create new ‘building materials’ that aid in repair and regeneration. Autopaghy also is known for regrowing new heart cells and protecting against heart disease (15).
Other benefits are:
- Enhanment of the immune system by eliminating intracellular pathogens
- Defending against misfolded, toxic proteins that contribute to a number of amyloid diseases.
- Protecting our DNA
- Preventing damage to healthy tissues and organs (known as necrosis)
- Protection against neurodegenerative disease and other illnesses
- Suppresses cancer and tumor formation by blocking over-proliferation of cells: when errors happen within the DNA of cells or they start reproducing more than they should, autophagy destroys these mutated cells that would otherwise lead to cancer.
- Regulation of our immune system to fight future infections
- Supplies us with energy during times of fasting
As a result, autophagy Reduces:
- Insulin resistance
- Heart Disease
- Neurodegenerative diseases (Parkinson, Alzheimer’s, etc.)
Autophagy is a process of cellular recycling that effectively removes old, damaged cell parts. This built-in process in our body is enhanced when we follow a diet low in processed carbohydrates and high in nutrient dense foods. Only when the body has built the reserves of nutrients it needs can fasting be done safely, and years of damage caused by high carbohydrate intake can be reversed. Fasting instigates changes in our body that allow the healing process to start. Supplements like the ‘Heart and Body Extract’ can help in this sense by providing a concentrated amount of nutrients the body needs in order to heal.
Thank you for reading.