A Beginner’s Guide to Autophagy, the Real Way to Detox Your Body

By: Julie Hand
March 13, 2020

A Beginner’s Guide to Autophagy, the Real Way to Detox Your Body

  • Autophagy means “self-eating.” It’s a detox process your body undergoes to clean out damaged cells and regenerate new ones.
  • The cool thing is, your body already performs autophagy — and you may be able to increase autophagy with your diet and exercise.
  • Early research indicates autophagy may reduce inflammation, prevent or delay the development of neurodegenerative disease — and even increase longevity.

Juice cleanses and detox teas don’t hold a candle to your body’s ability to detox. It does this through a natural process called autophagy, which is how your body cleans up cellular junk and keeps your systems humming. Early research suggests you can actually increase autophagy, which may reduce inflammation, protect against disease and even support anti-aging. Here’s what we know so far.

What is autophagy?

Closeup of mitochondria

Autophagy means “self-eating” — but rest assured, this is a good thing. Autophagy is the method by which your body cleans out damaged cells and toxins, helping you regenerate newer, healthier cells.[1]

Over time, our cells accumulate a variety of dead organelles, damaged proteins and oxidized particles that clog the body’s inner workings. This accelerates the effects of aging and age-related diseases because cells aren’t able to divide and function normally.[2]

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. Enter: autophagy.

How autophagy works

Outline of brain on blue background

In an episode of the Bulletproof Radio 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,” Whittel 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. The scraps 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 plays a role in the way your body responds to periods of stress, maintains balance and regulates cellular function.[3]

There’s evidence that when you trigger autophagy, you slow down the aging process, reduce inflammation and boost your overall performance. To help your body resist disease and support longevity, you can increase your autophagy response naturally (more on that later).

Autophagy and longevity

Woman looking at watch on back

Humans evolved to live longer because of our ability to respond to biological stressors, from physical activity to famine. A study from Newcastle University study[4] 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. 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 build up in your body over time are turned over for new cell formation — and this is what keeps you 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.

The process sounds good, but how do you really benefit from autophagy?

Benefits of autophagy

Woman smiling in mirror

We’re just beginning to understand how autophagy works in the body, and what we know so far is primarily based on rodent studies. Mice aren’t humans, but the evidence is compelling:

  • May control inflammation, slow down the aging process and protect against neurodegenerative disease[5][6]
  • May help fight infection and support immunity[7][8]
  • Triggering autophagy might help you live longer[9]

How to increase 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:

1. Eat a high-fat, low-carb diet

Woman holding avocado halves

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],” she says.

Specifically, a keto diet gives you an edge when it comes to autophagy. The shift from burning glucose (carbs) to ketones (fats) mimics what occurs naturally in a fasted state — and this may increase autophagy in its own right.[10]

2. Go on a protein fast

A bunch of carrots

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 about protein fasting.

3. Practice intermittent fasting

Clock on white plate

Research suggests that fasting increases autophagy.[11] [12] How long to fast for autophagy? In a 2010 study, mice fasted for 24 or 48 hours to promote autophagy.[13] It’s not clear how that translates to humans (yet), but we do know that intermittent fasting is associated with weight loss, insulin sensitivity and lower disease risk.[14] Learn more about the benefits of intermittent fasting.

4. Exercise

Group of people doing plank pose

Another reason to hit the gym: in human and rodent studies, exercise has been shown to stimulate autophagy.[15][16] In a 2018 study, 12 men completed an eight-week exercise program consisting of continuous state cycling or high-intensity interval cycling for three days per week.[17] The researchers concluded that both styles of training supported autophagy, which supports the idea that all movement is good movement.

Whittel emphasizes a “less is more” approach to exercise for inducing autophagy and favors high-intensity interval training (HIIT). “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.

5. Get restorative sleep

Woman sleeping

You can reap the benefits of autophagy while you’re asleep too, says Whittel. A 2016 rodent study suggests that autophagy follows circadian rhythms, and sleep fragmentation — or short interruptions of sleep — seems to disrupt autophagy.[18] Want to feel your best and maybe live longer? Learn how to sleep better.

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This is an update of an article originally published January 2018.