- Autophagy (“self-eating”) is a detox process your body undergoes to clean out damaged cells and regenerate new ones. A protein called p62 activates to induce autophagy and is the key to an improved human lifespan over time.
- The benefits of autophagy include: reduced inflammation and improvement in daily bodily function; prevention or delay of neurodegenerative diseases; and increased longevity.
- There are five crucial ways to activate your autophagy: eat a high-fat diet, low-carb diet; limit protein intake to 15 grams/day once a week; practice intermittent fasting; exercise; and get restorative sleep.
What is autophagy?
Did you know your body actually eats itself in a process known as autophagy? Rest assured, this is a good thing. Autophagy, the method by which your body cleans out damaged cells and toxins, helps you regenerate newer, healthier cells.
Over time, our cells accumulate a variety of dead organelles, damaged proteins, and oxidized particles that clog the body’s inner workings. This accelerates aging, induces dementia, and increases the risk of cancer, as well as other age-related diseases. Because many of our cells, like those in the brain, need to last a lifetime, the body developed a unique way of ridding itself of those faulty parts and defending itself naturally against disease.
How autophagy works
In a recent Bulletproof Radio (iTunes) podcast with Naomi Whittel, author of the autophagy-centric book “Glow15: A Science-Based Plan to Lose Weight, Revitalize Your Skin, and Invigorate Your Life, she uses the following analogy to explain how autophagy works.
Think of your body as a kitchen. After making a meal, you clean up the counter, throw away the leftovers, and recycle some of the food. The next day, you have a clean kitchen. This is autophagy doing its thing in your body, and doing it well.
Now think of the same scenario, but you’re older and not as efficient. After making your meal, you leave remnants on the counter. Some of it gets into the garbage, some of it doesn’t. They linger on the counter, garbage, and recycling bin. They never make it out the door to the dumpster, and toxic waste starts to build up in your kitchen. There’s food fermentation on the floor and all kinds of nasty smells wafting out the door. Due to the onslaught of pollutants and toxins, you’re having a hard time keeping up with the daily grime. This scenario resembles autophagy that isn’t working as well as it should.
Autophagy usually hums along quietly behind the scenes in maintenance mode. It kicks into high gear during times of stress, as a way to protect the body (such as in times of famine). When you activate autophagy, you slow down the aging process, reduce inflammation, and boost your body’s natural ability to function. To help your body resist disease and boost longevity, you can increase your autophagy response naturally (more on that later).
The science behind autophagy
Over time, humans evolved to live longer because of our ability to respond better to biological stressors. A recent Newcastle University study found that this ability is due to small adaptations in a protein known as p62 that induces autophagy.
By sensing the metabolic byproducts that cause cell damage (called reactive oxygen species ROS), protein p62 activates to induce autophagy, or start cleaning. Specifically, p62 proteins remove all the damaged goods that have accumulated in your body, so that you’re better equipped to handle biological stress – and this is what keeps you young and healthy.
While humans possess this capacity, lower organisms like fruit flies do not. So the research team set about identifying the part of human protein p62 that allows for the sensing of ROS. They then created genetically modified fruit flies with ‘humanized’ p62. The result? The ‘humanized’ flies survived longer in stressful conditions. “This tells us that abilities, like sensing stress and activating protective processes like autophagy, may have evolved to allow better stress resistance and a longer lifespan,” says the study’s lead author Dr. Viktor Korolchuk.
Autophagy works to help you maintain homeostasis
Homeostasis (balanced cellular function) and vibrant health are a direct result of p62 protein doing its thing during autophagy. As a result, the damaged goods that built up in your body over time are turned over for new cell formation. The process sounds good, right? But how do you really benefit from autophagy?
Benefits of autophagy
When you activate autophagy, you slow down the aging process, prevent or delay neurodegenerative diseases as well as reduce inflammation, and boost your body’s natural ability to function. Autophagy is also exceptionally beneficial for your skin complexion.
How soon will you see autophagy results?
According to Whittel’s research with Jacksonville University, you should see benefits from autophagy in two weeks, especially on her book’s program. Whittel and team conducted an 8-week lifestyle study that analyzed health biomarkers (including skin complexion and body fat) as women ate certain foods and exercised. The study’s key autophagy-activators are incorporated below.
5 ways to conquer autophagy
There are several ways you can turn up your body’s autophagy process (that have nothing to do with juice cleanses). To cleanse your cells and reduce inflammation, and generally keep your body running in tip-top shape,take these five simple steps to increase the autophagy process. Keep in mind that because autophagy is a response to stress, you need to trick your body into thinking it’s a little bit under siege. Here’s how:
- Eat a high-fat, low-carb diet
Whittel stresses the importance of eating fat to activate autophagy. “Fat needs to be the dominant macronutrient in our diets because it’s different from protein. Whereas protein can turn into a carb and become a sugar, [fat cannot].” Specifically, a keto diet (a high-fat, low-carb meal plan) gives you an edge you when it comes to autophagy. The shift from burning glucose (carbs) to ketones (fats) that occurs on a keto diet mimics what occurs naturally in a fasted state — and this increases autophagy in its own right.
Whittel shares more of her personal story about eating fats to activate autophagy in the Bulletproof Radio (iTunes) podcast: “I was a sugar addict for years, and it wasn’t until I replaced the glucose (sugar) with fat, that my life totally transformed by activating autophagy. Fat satiates you, helps you lose weight, and feel better.”
- Go on a protein fast
Once or twice a week, limit your protein consumption to 15-25 grams a day. This gives your body a full day to recycle proteins, which will help reduce inflammation and cleanse your cells without any muscle loss. During this time, while autophagy gets triggered, your body is forced to consume its own proteins and toxins. Read more on the best ways to go on a protein fast.
- Practice intermittent fasting
By skipping breakfast and eating all of your meals within an eight-hour window, you will increase your body’s inherent autophagy process. Like a protein-specific fast,intermittent fasting gives your body a chance to “catch up” on all those lingering toxins — by cleaning up in real-time. Remove toxin build-up with a 16-28 hour fast.
If done incorrectly, intermittent fasting can cause hormone imbalances in women. That’s because women are highly sensitive to signs of starvation or calorie restriction. To sidestep issues, consume a fat-only breakfast, like Bulletproof Coffee. By keeping carbs and protein out of your meal, you remain in a fasting state, while the fat tells your body that you’re not starving. Read more about how women can practice intermittent fasting safely.
- Exercise using high-intensity interval training
HIIT (high-intensity interval training) exercise is another advantageous way to stimulate autophagy. Remember, autophagy is a bodily response to stress, and high-intensity exercise puts you in the good-stress sweet spot because it stresses you just enough to provoke biochemical change. You’ll get just enough impact load to make your muscles stronger (and induce autophagy) without harm. Aim for approximately 20-30 minutes a day to give your longevity an optimal boost.
Whittel emphasizes a “less is more” approach to exercise for inducing autophagy. “Weightlifting and resistance training exercises for 30 minutes every other day is the best way to activate autophagy. It’s about getting in that short-term, acute stress, because autophagy loves the stress of interval training.” Whittel applies interval training to her walks by alternating between a brisk and slow pace.
- Get restorative sleep
You can reap the benefits of autophagy while you’re asleep too, says Whittel. Together with sleep expert and The Power of When author Dr. Michael Breus, they developed a quiz to help people identify their sleep personality (aka sleep chronotype). Whittel and Brues note that you possess one of four sleep personalities, which informs the way you function throughout the day (and night). When you know which sleep personality you are, you can set yourself up to activate autophagy through your circadian rhythms, or sleep-wake cycles.