Is Autophagy the Secret to Health & Longevity?
Autophagy sounds like a strange organism or disease, but it is actually a very important bodily process in which the cells literally feed on themselves. In fact, the word autophagy stems from two Greek prefixes: auto (self) and phagy (feed on).
While this may sound gross or unusual, autophagy is a form of “housekeeping” that allows the body to get rid of damaged cellular material.
The process begins with the bonding of two different organelles—an autophagosome and a lysosome, the latter of which contains enzymes that degrade molecules. Once fused together, this new organelle is called an autolysosome. It is responsible for “gobbling up” damaged cells parts. Some are destroyed, while others are recycled and reused for repairing other cells.
Think of autophagy like property maintenance. You mow your lawn, rake leaves, pull weeds, and pick up trash in an effort to keep everything alive and looking good. Some of the waste (like trash) needs to go away permanently because it serves no purpose and can actually be detrimental over the long run. But some of the waste—lawn clippings, for instance—can be reused/recycled as mulch, compost, or fertilizer to further benefit the overall health and appearance of the yard.
Likewise, clearing away parts of cells in your body that are damaged is essential for all other cells to stay healthy and working properly. If these debris stick around for too long, they can permanently alter cellular functioning and even DNA, putting you at higher risk for disease in the future.
This is especially important for two types of cells: neurons (which make up the brain and nervous system) and cardiomyocytes (which make up the heart). Unlike other cells in the body that only live a few days before being replaced, neurons and cardiomyocytes turn over far less frequently, lasting decades at a time.
Research has actually found that cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and other neurodegenerative conditions are greatly influenced by autophagy. And like a lot of processes in the body, autophagy slows down with age. This explains why these diseases are more likely to develop the older we get.
But that doesn’t mean autophagy stops…or that it can’t be induced by certain lifestyle habits.
Fasting Stimulates Autophagy
Autophagy usually happens naturally at night while we are sleeping. Autophagy can also be stimulated by certain “stressful” conditions. One of the top ways that has been studied in recent years is through fasting/calorie restriction. Since autophagy typically occurs during sleep, it is believed that being in a fasted state initiates this process.
Why does fasting work? Because when your body doesn’t have to use all its resources to digest food, it can focus on other things—like repairing and regenerating cells.
According to one study, “Under stress conditions, including nutrient deficiency, autophagy is substantially activated to maintain proper cell function and promote cell survival. Altered autophagy processes have been reported in various aging studies, and a dysregulated autophagy is associated with various age-associated diseases. Calorie restriction is regarded as the gold standard for many aging intervention methods.”1
In another study, rats that were limited to eating only in an eight-hour window every day didn’t develop the same diseases as rats that could eat any time they wanted to.2
So, if you want to reap the benefits of autophagy, you may want to try fasting. There are many different ways to fast. One of the most popular is the 16:8—where you limit the time that you eat to an 8-hour window every day, and fast the other 16. This type of fasting is popular because it’s relatively achievable for most people.
A more drastic type of fast is a calorie restriction fast. With this type of fast, you go without food for a longer stretch of time…usually 24–48 hours. It’s not as easy as a 16:8 fast, but those who can do a longer fast like this report clearer thinking and overall feeling great!
Of course, it’s a good idea to discuss the idea of fasting with your doctor beforehand. But for the vast majority of people, it is a safe and effective way to stimulate autophagy.
Nutrients that Boost Autophagy
Research shows that polyphenols—beneficial antioxidant compounds found in plants—may also stimulate autophagy.
Some of the foods known to be rich in polyphenols include green tea, apples, red grapes (and wine), onions, berries, various mushrooms (shiitake, reishi, chaga), and the spice turmeric.
In fact, curcumin—the medicinal compound in turmeric—has been studied as an autophagy inducer. In this regard, it has been particularly promising in the prevention of cancer.4
The easy way to boost levels of curcumin is to use lots of turmeric in your cooking. Unfortunately, though, it’s hard to get truly therapeutic levels without supplementation. If you choose to take curcumin in supplement form, we recommend Newport Natural Health’s Curcumin EX Plus.
Another nutrient shown to induce autophagy is berberine. Best known for its ability to naturally regulate blood sugar, berberine has antimicrobial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties. It also diminishes drug resistance in cancer therapy and enhances tumor suppression in part through autophagy…”5
You can find berberine as a standalone product, but it’s often included in blood sugar support products like Newport Natural Health’s Complete Glucose Support.
Of course, the concept of autophagy has researchers and pharmaceutical companies intrigued. Many are working on drugs that can induce autophagy. But why take a drug when you can do it safely and naturally by fasting or using supplements? Give these techniques a try and see how you feel and how your health improves!
- Chung KW and Chung HY. The Effects of Calorie Restriction on Autophagy: Role on Aging Intervention. Nutrients. 2019 Dec 2;11(12):2923.
- Longo V and Panda S. Fasting, Circadian Rhythms, and Time Restricted Feeding in Healthy Lifespan. Cell Metab. 2016 Jun 14;23(6):1048-59.
- Pallauf K and Rimbach G. Autophagy, Polyphenols and Healthy Ageing. Ageing Res Rev. 2013 Jan;12(1):237-52.
- Shakeri A, et al. Curcumin: A Naturally Occurring Autophagy Modulator. Cell Physiol. 2019 May;234(5):5643-54.
- Mohammadinejad R, et al. Berberine as a Potential Autophagy Modulator. J Cell Physiol. 2019 Feb 15. Online ahead of print.
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