Doctors Explain What Autophagy Is—And, How to Enhance it

Doctors Explain What Autophagy Is—And, How to Enhance it

AUTOPHAGY IS A hot topic on TikTok, with videos tagged #autophagy racking up nearly 35 million views.

People are likely talking so much about autophagy because the subject is closely linked to the popular diet trends, intermittent fasting and keto. But, some of the social media claims about autophagy might not be exactly spot on.

For instance, some TikTokkers claim fasting triggers the body to eat itself, which helps you lose weight, and others say autophagy can help tighten loose skin after weight loss.

Autophagy does technically mean “self-eating,” but that’s a literal interpretation of the term, says Dung Trinh, M.D., chief medical officer at the Healthy Brain Clinic in Long Beach, California.

“In the world of science and medicine, what it really means is that the cells in your body eat up parts of cells that are old or broken or defective,” he explains. “So, it’s a process where the cells clean themselves to regenerate.”

Autophagy is a natural process that happens constantly. It’s the body’s “cellular recycling system” and “quality control for your cells,” according to the Cleveland Clinic. When cells have too much junk, it takes up space and prevents cells from functioning as they should. Autophagy repurposes pieces of cells, which optimizes their performance.

Certain lifestyle habits, like overeating, not exercising, and eating too frequently, can interfere with autophagy, Dr. Trinh says. Problems with autophagy have been linked to chronic conditions, like heart, kidney, and liver disease.

But, there are things you can do to enhance autophagy, which can be good for your health.

What Is Autophagy?

Cells make up every tissue and organ in your body, and each one contains different parts that keep it working properly. Dr. Trinh says each cell has a timeline for how long it should survive, and over time, parts of cells can become defective and stop working.

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When that happens, the parts become junk or litter inside a healthy cell. Autophagy cleans out the junk so new healthy cells can be created.

“We constantly have autophagy going on,” explains Dominic D’Agostino, Ph.D., research scientist and professor in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology at the University of South Florida. “It’s a balance.”

It’s a process of cell recycling that happens when cells are deprived of nutrients or oxygen, he says. The cells basically eat themselves to survive, and being in survival mode helps make the cell work more efficiently.

“If we do not undergo autophagy, we build up and accumulate damaged cells in our body,” D’Agostino says. “That can cause a wide variety of processes that can impact our general health, our immune system, our psychological well-being, and the state of inflammation in our body.”

How Can You Enhance Autophagy?

Autophagy is a natural process, but there are certain lifestyle changes you can make to induce the process, Dr. Trinh says. Here are three ways to enhance autophagy:

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Intermittent Fasting

Cells are usually in one of two states: growth and division to make more cells, or maintenance and repair, which is where autophagy happens, Dr. Trinh says.

When cells have energy from food, they grow and divide, he explains. But, when they don’t, cells go into maintenance and repair mode.

Eating meal after meal with snacks in between often keeps cells in a state of growth and division, and never deprives cells of nutrients and offers an opportunity for autophagy, Dr. Trinh says.

Intermittent fasting—when you don’t eat for a period of time each day—deprives cells of nutrients for a time and automatically triggers the maintenance and repair stage, and autophagy.

How long to fast for autophagy to begin is up for debate. Some research suggests 24 to 48 hours is necessary, but Dr. Trinh says 12 hours can start the process.

The research on the relationship between intermittent fasting and autophagy is still ongoing, and most of it so far has been conducted on animals. So, there’s no strong conclusive evidence that specific eating patterns can optimize autophagy.

Keto Diets

A keto diet, which is high in fat and low in carbs, triggers autophagy in a similar way to intermittent fasting.

On keto, your body learns to change its energy source from carbs to fat, a process known as ketosis. And, this can lead to autophagy, D’Agostino says.

“Being in a state of nutritional ketosis mimics many aspects of fasting because it suppresses the hormone insulin, and if insulin is low, the body is basically in a state of accelerated fat burning,” he says. “The lower the level of insulin, the higher the rate of autophagy.”

Research on a keto diet’s ability to enhance autophagy is still new, and most studies have been conducted on animals. So it’s tough to draw a conclusive connection just yet.

Exercise

Regular exercise has been shown to stress your skeletal muscles, which can induce autophagy.

“Exercise burns up any extra sugar that you have in your bloodstream to allow your body to be like, ‘Hey, there’s no sugar. Let’s switch over to maintenance and repair,’” Dr. Trinh says.

One study showed that a mouse running on a treadmill for 30 minutes drastically increased the level of autophagy happening in muscle cells.

The Benefits of Enhancing Autophagy

Autophagy is crucial for recycling cell parts, getting rid of nonfunctioning cell parts, and destroying pathogens in cells, like viruses and bacteria. Most research on autophagy and its relationship to diseases hasn’t been conducted on humans, but scientists believe the process can play a role in disease prevention.

For instance, D’Agostino says autophagy can stimulate the production of stem cells, which helps restore and promote a stronger immune system, D’Agostino says.

Autophagy also has been linked to anti-aging benefits, Dr. Trinh says. As people age, autophagy can decrease, which causes a build-up of junk from cells, keeping them from functioning at their best.

Problems with autophagy have been linked to a number of chronic health conditions, like diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, Crohn’s disease, liver disease, Parkinson’s disease, and cancer, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Autophagy and Weight Loss

Autophagy itself likely won’t make you lose weight. But, intermittent fasting, keto diets, and exercise, which enhance autophagy, often lead to weight loss.

Since the process affects your levels of hormones like insulin and glucagon, it might decrease hunger levels, which could reduce your calorie intake, helping you lose weight.

Are There Any Risks With Enhancing Autophagy?

Taking steps to enhance autophagy is safe for most people. D’Agostino says if you’re underweight, it’s not a good idea, though.

It also might not be safe for people with diabetes or pregnant women to restrict calories or start a keto diet.

Anytime you want to change your diet, such as to start intermittent fasting or keto, or rev up your exercise routine, Dr. Trinh says it’s best to talk to your doctor first.

Does Enhancing Autophagy Really Work?

Research on autophagy is ongoing. There is some early promising research showing that diet and exercise can help you enhance the process. But, it’s important to note that most studies have been conducted on animals, not humans. So, a lot more research needs to be done before strong conclusions can be drawn.

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Erica Sweeney

Erica Sweeney is a writer who mostly covers health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.

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