I am telling you, this post about what is autophagy helped me just as much as it will (hopefully) help you. I had a general understanding of autophagy. I knew autophagy involved your body eating its own damaged cells and replacing them with new ones. I knew it was triggered by fasting and calorie restriction. That’s pretty much it! I wanted to dig deeper in the topic of autophagy to have a better understanding of the whole process.
What Is Autophagy
Well, I did know a little bit more about what is autophagy. I wrote a post entitled 5 Steps to Fasting for Health and Longevity. In it, I explain that the word autophagy comes from the Greek words “auto”, which means “self” and “phagein”, which means “eat.” It’s your body eating itself in the absence of food.
Autophagy is your body’s way to respond to stress and maintain balance.
From what I understood (hey, I am telling you, this topic goes over my head in many ways, I am doing my best to summarize my takeaways), there are two main pathways in your body that are responsible for activating autophagy. One is called mTOR and the other AMPK.
MTOR (Mechanistic Target of Rapamycin) Pathway
Your mTOR pathway senses the presence of nutrients. It loves carbs and protein and the more active it is, the slower the autophagy. We will talk about that more when we talk about how calorie restriction and fasting induce autophagy.
The AMPK pathway is another major autophagy regulator. It activated mainly through glucose starvation.
Autophagy Health Benefits
As we grasp to understand what is autophagy, it comes naturally, that its health benefits would be of interest.
Autophagy and Cancer
The process of autophagy is complex, and it’s hard to draw conclusions. However, it seem likely that it helps slow down cancerous cell growth but in some cases, depending on the cancer stage, it may do the opposite.
Autophagy and Your Immune System
The process of autophagy supports your immune system by cleaning out toxins, bacteria, and viruses. Furthermore, it reduces inflammation.
Autophagy and Neurodegenerative Diseases
Not only does autophagy seem to help reduce your risk of infectious disease, but also neurodegenerative diseases. The two are very interconnected, and the reduction in neurogenerative diseases most likely comes from the decrease in inflammation.
However, it’s more than the absence of food that can trigger autophagy. Environmental stresses, including exercise, can turn autophagy on. Eating, glucose, insulin, and protein turn autophagy off. Let’s talk more in detail about what can induce autophagy so you can take action and reap its benefits.
Your body is always repairing itself. It’s a matter of degree and there are things that can induce more autophagy. The absence of food is the most well-known one, but there is also the absence of carbs and protein, exercise, coffee, and curcumin.
Absence of Food
When people think about what is autophagy, they usually think about fasting. It is certainly one of the main ways to induce autophagy. Throughout most of history, humans have had to work for their food. They have had to go through cycles of feast and famine.
When you always have food available, your cells are growing, dividing, and synthesizing protein. This is called “growth mode.” The process is controlled by the mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR), which senses nutrients. Your mTOR pathways are fully active because they love lots of carbohydrates and protein. Energy deficit resulting from fasting or calorie restriction induce autophagy because it inhibits your mTOR pathways. As you get older, this is particularly beneficial to slow down aging and combat neurological diseases.
I wonder if that is in part why our metabolism slows down as we age. We are no longer have to support reproduction and we benefit from eating less.
Absence of Carbs and Protein
Your mTOR pathways love carbs and protein. Combining fasting with low protein and low carb days could greatly improve autophagy.
Dr. Valter Longo has demonstrated the healing power of low protein periods with his research. That’s one component of the fasting mimicking diet. Obviously, doing a modified fast (or the Fasting Mimicking Diet) two or three times a year is a way to cycle protein consumption. You can also choose to consume no more than 25 grams of protein three nonconsecutive days a week.
Switching from glucose metabolism to ketone metabolism is another way to induce autophagy. The keto diet stimulates fasting in many ways. For example, it stimulates your AMPK pathway. It likely inhibits your mTOR pathway signaling as well. If you would like to cycle in and out of the keto diet, you will love my 7-day keto intermittent fasting meal plan.
When you exercise, your cells become damaged and inflamed. Your body reacts by replacing them with new ones. Making sure you exercise intensely a few times a week will aid in this process, particularly in your skeletal muscles.
Both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee induce autophagy in mice. This effect persist even if you eat as much as you want. Coffee when fasting is great because it helps reduce hunger too.
Curcumin, a chemical found in turmeric root may also induce autophagy. At least, that’s what studies done on mice suggest. It’s hard to know how these results translate for humans.
A Word of Caution
More autophagy doesn’t always mean more healing. Excessive autophagy may kill cells in the heart.
I may have taken on more than I could chew when I decided to study what is autophagy and how you could trigger it. The topic is very complex! I gave you the best summary I could and I will keep revising this post as my understanding improves. I welcome any correction!