In our quest for health we sometimes overlook how important it is to support our body’s own natural processes and innate wisdom.
What Is Autophagy?
Autophagy comes from the Greek for “self-eating”. It is the regulated digestion by a cell of its own damaged or unneeded components via the autophagosomal-lysosomal pathway. This self-digestion is a recycling process that allows cells to re-use materials. It is particularly useful in times when a cell is starved of nutrients.
Cells (like humans) do not remove every piece of garbage from their vicinity as it is created. Some of it may go into a container to be taken out in bulk. Cells mark damaged or worn out components for digestion but there are always a few bits and pieces that could be recycled. In times of starvation when the cell is not getting sufficient nutrients, these unmarked components will also be digested as the cell attempts to scavenge for needed proteins, carbohydrates and lipids in order to meet its energy needs.
As with most trash removal, autophagy occurs in a balance: not too often and not too infrequently. Interestingly, it is thought that aging and certain disorders and conditions may be caused in part by a failure of the body to maintain autophagy. Where autophagy is too prolific, a cell could actually end up self-destructing, emphasizing how important this balance is.
When cells are running optimally and inflammation is low, autophagy occurs at a low level, helping to recycle worn-out cellular components. This could be considered a ‘maintenance’ mode.
When stress levels within the cell go up (from lack of nutrients or energy, dysfunctional components, or invasion by microbes), autophagy is turned up in order to help protect the organism. This could be considered a ‘stress response’ mode.
Homeostasis (balanced cellular function) and vibrant health are a direct result of autophagy. Consequently, the damaged goods that build up in your body over time are turned over for new cell formation.
Autophagy is one of the most important breakthroughs in the science of aging. While scientists have known about this process since the 1950s, only in the past decade have we been able to see the effects of activating autophagy to improve cellular health.
What Are The True Benefits Of Autophagy?
Slows Down Aging
Activation of autophagy counteracts the age-associated accumulation of damaged cellular components and enhances the metabolic efficiency of cells.
Autophagy is a response to stress that helps cells to become more resilient and conservative with their energy.
The process of autophagy is also able remove certain dysfunctional mitochondria that degrade the cell.
Complexion and skin integrity are also improved through autophagy.
Protects Against Psychiatric and Neurodegenerative Disorders
Disruptions to autophagic processes have been associated with increased risk for some psychiatric conditions. Typical functioning of autophagy provides protection against the development of psychiatric disorders.
Many neurodegenerative disorders stem from the accumulation of deformed proteins in and around neurons, inducing gradual brain cell death and subsequent loss of mental faculties. Autophagy removes these proteins.
Helps Fight Against Infectious Diseases
Autophagy supports the immune system in fighting infectious diseases by
- Direct removal of microbes from inside of cells
- Removal of toxins created by infections
- Modulation of the immune response to infections
Helps Regulate Inflammation
Autophagy can both increase and decrease inflammation responses within the body.
It increases inflammation by presenting evidence of pathogen invasion and turning on the immune response.
Autophagy then decreases the inflammation brought about by an immune response by clearing the cell of antigens that are stimulating the response.
This has great implications for the mitigation of the inflammatory response resulting in many current chronic conditions including insulin resistance, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
Autophagy Improves Muscle Performance
Exercise is a stressor causing cellular energy usage to goes up resulting in components getting worn out faster.
Autophagy is increased in response to this in order to maintain energy balance and more efficiently recycle existing and degraded energy molecules.
Aids in the Prevention of Cancer Growth
Autophagy suppresses systems and processes that can be related to the development of cancer, such as chronic inflammation and damaged DNA.
However, cancer cells can hijack the process of autophagy and use it to their advantage to become resistant to treatment. In later stages of cancer, as tumors begin to take over cells, autophagy is induced due to the stress of nutrient deprivation and energy depletion. Further research is needed since currently there is no way to measure the level of autophagy in humans when it comes to this area.
There are several ways you can turn up your body’s autophagy process
High Intensity Exercise
Exercising for short periods at a high intensity has been shown to induce autophagy in muscle tissues and the brain.
Not only does exercising make you feel and look good, it activates autophagy to ensure your cells fully recover from the process.
Intermittent Fasting and Caloric Restriction
A lack of nutrients activates autophagy to increase the recycling of cellular components, ensuring cells continue to properly function with less requirement from external resources. This can be achieved either fasting reducing the amount of food you eat.
Short-term fasting induces profound neuronal autophagy and may be a good method for combating neurological conditions [R].
The reduction in carbohydrate intake and the shift away from glucose as the predominant fuel source mimics the process that occurs during fasting and can lead to the increase of autophagy.
Ketogenic diets are particularly effective at promoting autophagy in the brain [R].
Adequate restful sleep is important for stimulating autophagy. The circadian rhythm not only helps control your sleep cycle, but it is also linked to autophagy. Your biological clock affects the rhythm of autophagy.
Vitamin D is obtained through diet and supplements and is synthesized in the skin upon exposure to sunlight. It has been shown to induce autophagy and potentially play a role in protecting pancreatic cells, providing a possible avenue for diabetes therapeutics.
Autophagy is a process of cellular recycling that effectively removes the old, damaged, and faulty cellular components in your body, potentially reducing inflammation, insulin resistance, diabetes, infections, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, inflammation, and even aging. Combining fasting, intense exercise, and a low-carbohydrate lifestyle is likely a near-perfect combination of turning on autophagy while minimizing excessive damage. This should come as no surprise that these are all the same mechanisms that humans have naturally experienced in nature for millions of years.
The real endeavor here is to channel this innate process of detoxification and cleaning within your body for maximal health benefits, without overdoing it and experiencing unnecessary stress. A Paleo lifestyle would approach this through applying the stresses for which autophagy likely was created; the same stresses humans experienced during the millions of years of fasting, sprinting and lifting heavy objects. Furthermore, a Paleo adherent would avoid those causes of excess inflammation like chronic stress, sugar and excess carbohydrates, distance running and exercise that excessively stresses the body.
A Paleo diet and lifestyle naturally engages in all of these. Now we can add autophagy onto the long list of the health benefits of a Paleo plan.