Autophagy is the body’s way of cleaning out damaged cells, in order to regenerate newer, healthier cells, according to Priya Khorana, PhD, in nutrition education from Columbia University.
“Auto” means self and “phagy” means eat. So the literal meaning of autophagy is “self-eating.”
It’s also referred to as “self-devouring.” While that may sound like something you never want to happen to your body, it’s actually beneficial to your overall health.
This is because autophagy is an evolutionary self-preservation mechanism through which the body can remove the dysfunctional cells and recycle parts of them toward cellular repair and cleaning, according to board-certified cardiologist, Dr. Luiza Petre.
Petre explains that the purpose of autophagy is to remove debris and self-regulate back to optimal smooth function.
“It is recycling and cleaning at the same time, just like hitting a reset button to your body. Plus, it promotes survival and adaptation as a response to various stressors and toxins accumulated in our cells,” she adds.
The main benefits of autophagy seem to come in the form of anti-aging principles. In fact, Petre says it’s best known as the body’s way of turning the clock back and creating younger cells.
Khorana points out that when our cells are stressed, autophagy is increased in order to protect us, which helps enhance your lifespan.
Additionally, registered dietitian, Scott Keatley, RD, CDN, says that in times of starvation, autophagy keeps the body going by breaking down cellular material and reusing it for necessary processes.
“Of course this takes energy and cannot continue forever, but it gives us more time to find nourishment,” he adds.
At the cellular level, Petre says the benefits of autophagy include:
- removing toxic proteins from the cells that are attributed to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease
- recycling residual proteins
- providing energy and building blocks for cells that could still benefit from repair
- on a larger scale, it prompts regeneration and healthy cells
Autophagy is receiving a lot of attention for the role it may play in preventing or treating cancer, too.
“Autophagy declines as we age, so this means cells that no longer work or may do harm are allowed to multiply, which is the MO of cancer cells,” explains Keatley.
While all cancers start from some sort of defective cells, Petre says that the body should recognize and remove those cells, often using autophagic processes. That’s why some researchers are looking at the possibility that autophagy may lower the risk of cancer.
While there’s no scientific evidence to back this up, Petre says some studies suggest that many cancerous cells can be removed through autophagy.
“This is how the body polices the cancer villains,” she explains. “Recognizing and destroying what went wrong and triggering the repairing mechanism does contribute to lowering the risk of cancer.”
Researchers believe that new studies will lead to insight that will help them target autophagy as a therapy for cancer.
“Fasting is [the] most effective way to trigger autophagy,” explains Petre.
“Ketosis, a diet high in fat and low in carbs brings the same benefits of fasting without fasting, like a shortcut to induce the same beneficial metabolic changes,” she adds. “By not overwhelming the body with an external load, it gives the body a break to focus on its own health and repair.”
In the keto diet, you get about 75 percent of your daily calories from fat, and 5 to 10 percent of your calories from carbs.
This shift in calorie sources causes your body to shift its metabolic pathways. It will begin to use fat for fuel instead of the glucose that’s derived from carbohydrates.
In response to this restriction, your body will begin to start producing ketone bodies that have many protective effects. Khorana says studies suggest that ketosis can also cause starvation-induced autophagy, which has neuroprotective functions.
“Low glucose levels occur in both diets and are linked to low insulin and high glucagon levels,” explains Petre. And glucagon level is the one that initiates autophagy.
“When the body is low on sugar through fasting or ketosis, it brings the positive stress that wakes up the survival repairing mode,” she adds.
One non-diet area that may also play a role in inducing autophagy is exercise. According to one animal study, physical exercise may induce autophagy in organs that are part of metabolic regulation processes.
This can include the muscles, liver, pancreas, and adipose tissue.
Autophagy will continue to gain attention as researchers conduct more studies on the impact it has on our health.
For now, nutritional and health experts such as Khorana point to the fact that there’s still much we need to learn about autophagy and how to best encourage it.
But if you’re interested in trying to stimulate autophagy in your body, she recommends starting by adding fasting and regular exercise into your routine.
However, you need to consult your doctor if you’re taking any medications, are pregnant, breastfeeding, or wish to become pregnant, or have a chronic condition, such as heart disease or diabetes.
Khorana cautions that you’re not encouraged to fast if you fall into any of the above categories.