While “self-eating” sounds like a horribly bad state of affairs, it can actually be a fountain of youth…for your cells. The term “autophagy,” or “self-eating,” is a mode our cells can go into to repair damage and heal themselves. This healing mode is activated when we need to save energy, fight an infection, and repair damage. Read on for 12 benefits of activating your cellular cleanup crew regularly!
Dramatic? Yes. But, scientifically accurate. Autophagy is an ancient mechanism whose main function is to preserve your life. During times of extreme stress, infection, or starvation, this process kicks in to maximize repair while minimizing damage. The combination of intermittent fasting (with some fat as fuel) while activating autophagy at the same time can both starve an infectious intruder of glucose, reduce inflammation so the immune system has an easier time taking action, and repair damage caused by both infection and inflammation. In short, animals evolved using autophagy to conserve energy and repair damage when energy became scarce, but it is also a critical part of the human immune system’s ability to battle illness and reduce risk of cancer.
Anti-aging benefits may sound too good to be true, but beauty really does run far deeper than the skin. Since the 1950s, scientists have known about the process of autophagy, but recent studies have revealed more about how it improves your cellular health. Instead of taking in new nutrients, cells undergoing autophagy recycle the damaged parts they have, remove toxic material and fix themselves up. When your cells repair themselves, they work better, and they can behave like younger cells. You may have heard or noticed that some people have a very different chronological (time) and biological (life) age. How much toxic damage a body has taken and how it has been able to repair plays a large role in these differences.
Autophagy is a process of taking out trash and replacing cell parts, like mitochondria. Mitochondria are your cellular engines. They burn fat and make ATP, your body’s energetic currency. There is a lot of harsh toxic build up in mitochondria that can damage cells, and breaking them down proactively saves future wear and tear on your cells. Autophagy of other cell parts helps the entire cell work more efficiently not just to burn fuel but also to make proteins. Healthier cells work more efficiently.
Many diseases of aging brains take so long to develop because they are the result of proteins in and around your brain cells that are misfolded and don’t work right. Autophagy helps cells clean up the proteins that aren’t doing their jobs and they are less likely to accumulate. For instance, in Alzheimer’s disease autophagy removes amyloid, and in Parkinson’s autophagy removes ⍺-synuclein. There is a reason dementia is thought of hand-in-hand with diabetes: constant high blood sugar keeps autophagy from activating, making it difficult to keep these cells clear of clutter!
Autophagy promotes a “goldilocks” amount of inflammation by helping to boost or quell the immune response you need. Autophagy can increase inflammation when an invader is present by triggering your immune system to attack. Most of the time, autophagy decreases inflammation from your immune response by removing the signals (proteins called antigens) that are triggering it.
As mentioned above, autophagy can help recruit an immune response when needed. Secondly, the process of autophagy can remove certain microbes directly from the inside of cells, such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis, or viruses, such as HIV. Autophagy can also remove the toxins created by infections, which is especially important for food-borne illness.
As you create microtears and inflame muscles during exercise, the muscles require repair. Energy demand increases. Your muscle cells will respond to this by undergoing autophagy to reduce the energy required to use the muscle, degrade damaged components, and improve the balance of energy to reduce the risk of future damage.
Autophagy can suppress processes that are pro-cancer like chronic inflammation, genome instability, and the DNA damage response. Mice that researchers have genetically engineered to have impaired autophagy have increased rates of cancer. As cancer progresses, it may activate autophagy to get alternative fuel or to hide from the immune system, though more research is needed. It is also unclear how much chemotherapy-induced damage to non-cancerous cells activates autophagy. In the future we may question how much damage chemotherapy does to cancer cells (killing them outright) versus to our own cells (activating autophagy to trigger an immune response that affects these cells). Again, more research is needed.
The cells that line your gastrointestinal tract are constantly asked to do work. In fact, a large part of your feces are your own cells! As a result of turning on autophagy, your digestive cells can repair and restore, clear themselves of junk, and reduce or activate the immune system as needed. Because a chronic immune response in the gut can overwhelm and inflame your bowels, a chance to rest, repair, and restore is critical to your gut health. Activate autophagy with a schedule that allows for an extended overnight fast and you can give your gut the space it needs to heal.
The cells that you present to the world take a lot of damage from chemicals, air pollution, light, heat, cold, humidity changes, and physical damage. It’s a wonder they don’t look worse for wear! When your skin cells accumulate damage and toxins, they age in place. Even though you make new cells often, autophagy can help repair the existing ones so that you really glow! Skin cells, in particular, engulf bacteria that may damage the body, so it is very important to support them as they clear out the clutter. Learn more about at-home skin treatments and recipes to support your largest organ in my New York Times bestselling book Glow15 and on my website!
Here are some benefits of autophagy that also support a healthy weight:
Apoptosis is programmed cell death. Compared to autophagy, the death of a cell is messy and creates garbage to clean up. Your body triggers some inflammation to do the clean-up. The more cells that repair themselves before they become damaged beyond repair, the less effort your body puts into cleaning up old cells and making new ones. Less inflammation is involved in renewing tissues. You can use that energy to replace cells that need more constant renewal, like skin or digestive cells. While there are some cells that must be turned over a lot, not all cells require this. More repair with less cleanup is a great combination for success.
While autophagy has many health benefits, it is a repair response to stress and should not be on all the time. In my Glow15 Program, I share with you how to turn autophagy on and off inside your cells to get the best of both worlds!