You know all those headlines about how certain diets or exercises can help you live longer? Or maybe you’ve heard about foods that claim to have “anti-aging” properties. If you’re anything like us, you’ve probably wondered about the basis for these claims.
It’s all about your cells! The longer you can keep your cells free of damage and turning over at a healthy rate, the younger you’ll feel and look — and the longer your life expectancy will be. The mechanism that keeps your cells healthy is an obscure scientific process called “autophagy.”
Autophagy is how your body detoxifies and repairs itself. And considering it plays a major role in anti-aging, we wanted to share a little more about this fascinating cellular process, including what health benefits you can expect and also how to turn it on!
What is Autophagy?
You might never have heard of it, but autophagy is a cellular process that is quite vital to staying alive. It comes from the Greek word for “self-eating.” Sounds a bit creepy, but it’s actually pretty cool!
You can think of autophagy as cell recycling. It refers to the process where a cell actually starts to destroy itself in order to reuse certain chemical compounds for other purposes.(1)
Why on earth would our cells sacrifice themselves this way? This “self-eating” is critical to removing toxic waste from our cells as well as regulating their protein composition and removing pathogens. You know, all the things that keep us healthy!(2)
This awesome cell survival process is regulated by our genes. And scientists have recently discovered that our genes are programmed to turn autophagy on and off depending on changes within the cell. For example, your genes can detect the levels of oxygen, nutrients and energy within your cells, and they will either switch autophagy on or shut it off as needed.(3)(4)
So when things are going pretty well for your cells, like when you’re eating well and not expending too much energy, then autophagy typically runs at a pretty low level, just to keep things maintained. It’s when your cells get stressed, like during starvation, illness or strenuous exercise, that autophagy gets turned up to full blast.
So why should you care whether and how much autophagy your cells are engaged in? Great question. Let’s take a look at the potential benefits of increased autophagy.
Benefits of Autophagy
So we just learned that autophagy is sort of like cell recycling. We all know that recycling is good for the planet, but what can this cellular recycling do for our bodies? For starters:
- Might help you live longer
- Protects your brain
- Reduces inflammation
- Helps fight disease
Full disclosure, the function of autophagy was only discovered in the past few decades, so we’re still learning about all of its implications. Many more long-term studies on humans are required before we know more, but for now, scientists who have been studying autophagy are referring to it as having a “key role in preventing diseases such as cancer, neurodegeneration, cardiomyopathy, diabetes, liver disease, autoimmune diseases and infections.”(5) Here’s more about what we know:
1. Might help you live longer
It’s virtually impossible to prove that any one thing can help every person live a longer life. All we can do is look at the science and decide what might work for us. So consider these facts: One of the primary reasons our bodies age is because of the accumulation of damaged parts of our cells. The more damaged cells we have, the faster we age.
Now, autophagy clears out these damaged cellular components, which means that increasing autophagy can help slow down the aging process.(6) And this is more than just a theory — scientific studies show that increasing autophagy can extend the lifespan of several species of animals.(7)
Is this a fountain of youth for humans? The evidence isn’t quite so black and white, but we do know that increased autophagy can reduce your risk of contracting disease, and that’s definitely a great way to live longer!
2. Protects your brain
The health of your brain cells can be very dependent on autophagy. Scientists have learned that many neurodegenerative disorders are caused by deformed proteins accumulating around the neurons of the brain.(8) This causes death of brain cells which leads to a gradual loss of mental functioning. Yikes!
But if autophagy is running at a normal or increased rate, these problematic proteins are more likely to get cleared out so that they can’t accumulate and wreak havoc on your neurons.(9)
3. Reduces inflammation
We typically associate inflammation with something unhealthy, right? Like putting too much strain on our muscles can make them inflamed, or eating a poor diet can cause our digestive tract to flare up. The truth is that even a superhumanly healthy person will eventually experience inflammation as part of aging.
Here’s the unfair reality: no matter how healthy your lifestyle, the world exposes you to toxins that eventually cause a buildup of free radicals in your body. These free radicals cause cell damage, and this happens at an increased rate as we get older. The cell damage is what causes inflammation in our bodies, and that inflammation can put you at greater risk for contracting disease.
The scary part is you might not even realize you’re suffering from inflammation! It’s not always as obvious as being sick. Do you battle regular headaches or just feel tired all the time? Maybe it’s remarkably difficult for you to lose weight? Inflammation could be the culprit.
Since cell damage is what leads to inflammation, getting rid of damaged cells is the key. And that is precisely what autophagy does. Autophagy is essentially the general housekeeping of your cells, sweeping away any of their damaged organelles.(10)
4. Helps Fight Disease
Autophagy helps keep you illness-free on two fronts: 1) by battling pathogens in your body and 2) by boosting your immune system so you don’t catch as many illnesses to begin with.
When you have an infection, there is a certain amount of toxins that build up within your cells. Autophagy is responsible for clearing these out.(11) This is why it’s so important that autophagy is working properly — the faster these toxins get out, the faster your recovery!
Autophagy is also particularly important to battling infectious disease. There are nasty little microbes that find their way into your cells when you contract an infectious disease. Studies have shown that autophagy can clear these microbes right out, including those associated with tuberculosis, streptococcus and HIV. (12)(13)(14)
How to Boost Autophagy
If you’d like to avail yourself of any of those benefits above, you might be wondering just how you can increase your body’s own rate of autophagy. That’s what we wanted to know, and we’ve learned that there are two main ways to boost autophagy: 1) put stress on your body or 2) eat or drink something to trigger autophagy.
Here are more details on the specific ways you can stress your body into firing up autophagy (fasting, exercising and sleeping) and also the specific foods and drinks that can help.
1. Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting has quickly become an insanely popular diet among people looking for more than just weight loss, and that’s because it has been linked to anti-aging benefits. And, you guessed it, the reason intermittent fasting diets can claim to slow aging is because of autophagy.
Studies have demonstrated that the restricted eating schedules of intermittent fasting do indeed activate autophagy in your body.(16) That’s because it creates a condition of stress on your cells.
Here’s how it works: while you’re in the fasting period of your eating schedule, your cells no longer have a ready supply of nutrients coming to them. In order to make sure your cells can keep functioning without this nutrient supply, your body turns to autophagy to increase the recycling of the useful parts of your cells. (17)
Another very productive way to harness the benefits of autophagy is through exercise. You see, when you stress your lungs, muscles and cells through exercise, your body automatically fires up the autophagy process to help your cells recover from that stress.(18)
Do you remember learning that strength training actually creates little tears in your muscles, and that’s how you get stronger? Well, in order to heal those little tears in your muscle fibers, your body relies on autophagy. So essentially, exercise helps your cells detox.
Okay, so technically sleeping is not putting stress on the body. However, studies have shown that getting proper sleep is absolutely critical to autophagy. You know how the circadian rhythm affects your sleep cycle? Well it also affects your autophagy cycle. If you’re skimping on sleep, your body will not cycle through autophagy as fully as it is meant to do.(19)
Foods That Increase Autophagy
So is there anything you can eat that will trigger your body to go into autophagy more often? Indeed there is.
1. Keto diet
The ketogenic (or “keto) diet has been hard to miss lately. If you’re not familiar, it’s essentially a high-fat, moderate-protein and low-carb diet. The goal of the diet is to shift your body’s energy source from glucose to ketones.
Because this energy shift causes a glucose deficiency in your cells that is similar to fasting, your body will activate autophagy in response to this kind of diet.(20) One study even showed that following a ketogenic diet can be particularly effective at turning on autophagy in brain cells.(21)
2. Reishi Mushrooms
Mushrooms are starting to get their day in the sun for all the amazing health benefits they offer. Specifically, reishi mushroom extract has been scientifically proven to induce autophagy.(22)
Ginger, the humble spice, is a recognized superfood for its many healing properties. Scientists have learned that it contains a compound (6-shagol) which is capable of turning on autophagy.(23) So don’t shy away from adding more ginger to your recipes or enjoying a nice soothing cup of ginger tea!
You’ve likely heard that turmeric is another “superfood” spice with healing properties. It’s actually the curcumin in turmeric which is responsible for all kinds of health benefits, including an ability to activate autophagy.(24) You can take curcumin as a supplement, or if you choose to cook with turmeric, make sure you also add some black pepper in order to activate the curcumin in the turmeric.
Coffee is one of those topics that leaves people (the scientific community included) rather divided. While there are studies demonstrating that coffee does indeed have health benefits, there are others showing that long-term consumption can lead to a host of issues, ranging from acid reflux to cancer. Regardless of your stance on coffee, know that it has been proven to induce autophagy. (25)
2. Green Tea
Green tea has proven itself to be quite potent in activating autophagy in the body. Studies have determined that the polyphenols EGCG have strong pro-autophagic effects, and green tea is one of the richest sources of EGCG. (26)
3. Earl Grey Tea
Citrus bergamot is another ingredient that happens to stimulate the autophagy process. It contains healing polyphenols with a whole host of health benefits. Citrus bergamot is most commonly found in high-quality Earl Grey tea. You can add some cinnamon and coconut oil for a delicious autophagy-boosting treat.
There is increasing evidence that revving up autophagy in your body can lead to numerous health benefits. Laboratory studies on animals also indicate that autophagy has some serious anti-aging implications.
Whether or not it’s actually the fountain of youth for humans, we do know that it’s an effective natural process for cleansing your body and clearing out damaged cells that might otherwise lead to inflammation and disease.
It certainly can’t hurt to try intermittent fasting, exercising, or consuming things that increase autophagy (assuming your doctor has given you the go-ahead, of course!). The worst that could happen is that you feel stronger and healthier!