It’s important to remove toxins from your life, whether this includes cleaning up your diet or the occasional alcohol detox. That said, there is a more internal form of detoxification that takes place in the body. Autophagy not only disposes of the body’s damaged cells, but the manner in which it does may be the mechanism needed for us to live a longer and healthier life.
What is autophagy?
With aging, comes an increased risk of proteins and other cells in the body becoming damaged or dying. If these compounds accumulate, they’ll make it harder for healthy cells to divide and function properly. This not only causes cell death but also significantly raises the risk for age-related diseases, and other chronic conditions.
This is where autophagy comes in. Autophagy is a form of cellular cleansing whereby the body removes the damaged and dead proteins and cells. It may also recycle them to create new and healthy cells.
How does autophagy help longevity?
1. Healthy cell aging
We all get older, but some of us are aging at an accelerated pace. This is due to what’s going on inside our cells.
Cellular aging occurs when dead cells (“zombie cells”) aren’t removed from the body, but begin to accumulate, increasing the risk for age-degenerative conditions. One way to address these cells, and promote healthy aging, is by stimulating autophagy in the body.
A study published in Aging acknowledged that unregulated autophagy can protect cell health by preventing them from becoming senescent (zombie cells). Additionally, if a cell does become senescent, then increasing autophagy can help to destroy it, or at least weaken it.
2. Anti-inflammatory benefits
Inflammation is often a good thing. It lets the body know when something is off so that it can trigger the healing process. Unfortunately, chronic inflammation can be extremely detrimental to the body, so it is important to find ways to manage it.
Autophagy has been found to help modulate inflammation, with one study showing that autophagy helped prevent an excessive inflammatory response during acute kidney injury.
Also, as mentioned, autophagy helps prevent the build-up of “zombie” cells. These cells have been found to trigger inflammation. Therefore, this is another way in which autophagy has anti-inflammatory benefits.
3. Better brain health
“It is notable that most neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, are associated with the accumulation of misfolded proteins or pathologic proteins, so impaired autophagy may contribute to these diseases, but the exact mechanism by which it does so is not completely understood.” – Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., board-certified integrative neurologist, MindBodyGreen.
The accumulation of abnormal and damaged proteins has been linked to the development of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s. However, as autophagy helps to clear out these proteins. Thus, it is assumed that it can be used to protect against neurodegenerative disorders.
A study published last year in Nature Communications found that autophagy helped protect cognitive function and neurological health.
4. May reduce the risk of heart disease
A study published in Circulation Research cited research that acknowledged the link between reduced autophagy and declining heart health, as well as an increased risk of heart disease as one ages.
Could it reduce cancer risk?
The accumulation of abnormal cells is often a precursor to a tumor, which can then turn into cancer. As it helps to rid the body of abnormal and dead cells, autophagy is getting a lot of attention for the role it may play in preventing, managing, or treating cancer.
However, researchers are still trying to understand whether autophagy harms or helps cancer cells. This is because the process has been found to prevent tumor growth, in the early stages at least. However, if the tumor is in its late stage, then autophagy may help the tumor grow.
How can I induce autophagy?
Fasting activates the Sirtuin 1 gene, which then promotes autophagy. According to animal studies, fasting for 24-48 hours is enough time to trigger autophagy. Unfortunately, there is limited research on humans. Therefore, it is unclear what duration is needed for autophagy to be triggered in humans.
However, fasting does have its benefits outside of autophagy, so if you are interested in doing it regularly, then enjoy our guide to fasting.
2. Calorie restriction
Calorie restriction involves cutting back on your calories without risking nutritional deficiencies. According to studies, calorie restriction helps regulate autophagy, with a 10-40% reduction helping to induce autophagy.
The following supplements may help to induce autophagy in the body;
- Resveratrol: One study suggested that this polyphenol found in red wine can induce autophagy in cancer cells, reversing multidrug resistance, thus proving that it can be part of an anticancer treatment strategy.
- Astaxanthin: A 2022 study found that astaxanthin helped to delay brain aging in mice subjects by inducing autophagy.
- Berberine: An animal study found that this plant compound helped to induce autophagy and promote cell death with regard to acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
- Turmeric: Curcumin is the primary active compound in turmeric, and it’s been linked to a number of health benefits, including its ability to help induce autophagy.
- Spermidine: A compound that decreases in the body as we age, spermidine is one of the most effective calorie-restricted mimics out there. As we know, calorie restriction helps induce autophagy and since spermidine mimics its behavior in the body, this means that it too can induce autophagy.
- Metformin: This anti-diabetic drug has also been found to help induce autophagy.
There are so many benefits associated with exercise, one of which includes inducing autophagy. As for what type of exercise? An animal study found that treadmill exercise in mice helped to induce autophagy.
5. Follow a polyphenol-based diet
Polyphenols are plant-based compounds that have been linked to a slew of health benefits. A study published in Cancer suggested that polyphenols can induce autophagic cell death in prostate cancer stem cells.
Examples of polyphenols include resveratrol, quercetin, catechins, and curcumin. The following foods contain polyphenols:
- Green tea
- Dark chocolate (75% cocoa and up)
- Grape skin (red wine)
- Nuts and seeds
Is autophagy the ultimate tool for longevity?
Autophagy is an important process, but researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how we can use it to better improve our health.
In the meantime, if you are keen on inducing autophagy in your body, then you are welcome to start fasting, exercising regularly, and consuming more foods that contain polyphenols.