A gentle detox bath is a great way to relax and remove some toxins in the body. But if you want to get serious about detoxing, autophagy is the way to go. This natural cleansing process is an amazing way to improve health and support cellular homeostasis.
What Is Autophagy?
Autophagy is a body process that translates as “self-eating.” The word is derived from the Greek words auto (self) and phagy (eating).
This detox process involves the body using old parts as building blocks to create new cell formation. Because it recycles “junk” cells first, autophagy is a process that helps improve overall health.
In 2016, Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize for his discoveries into the mechanisms of autophagy. This research has paved the way for a better understanding of diseases and the role of autophagy in fighting them.
Unsurprisingly, researchers have found that disruption of autophagy can lead to disease including neurodegeneration, cancer, diabetes, liver disease, autoimmune diseases, and infections, according to this 2010 study and others.
How Does Autophagy Work?
The detox process of autophagy is triggered by stressors on the body, but researchers wanted to know how these stressors triggered this self cleansing process.
In a study published in Nature Communications, researchers found that a protein (p62) is responsible for inducing autophagy. Reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are a metabolic by-product, trigger p62 to start cleaning out old junky parts. This is a survival mechanism that helps optimize cells in the body for longevity. Autophagy is a process that helps reduce the damage of stress on the body.
In the study, researchers created genetically modified fruit flies with the part of p62 responsible for autophagy. Fruit flies don’t normally have the ability to cleanse themselves through autophagy. These genetically modified flies lived longer under stressful conditions than those without the p62 protein. Researchers concluded that autophagy may be a key to reducing age-related illness and other issues surrounding the aging process.
Benefits of Autophagy
Autophagy is an incredibly smart process that the body relies on for cellular health. Because it recycles old or dysfunctional material, autophagy helps the body to function during nutrient deprivation (starvation, fasting, ketosis, etc). In essence, the body can use old proteins for fuel during a time that no new protein is coming into the body.
Autophagy also prevents the toxic accumulation of damaged cellular components in the body, especially mitochondria, and induces cell death.
Autophagy has many other benefits:
Promising Against Cancer
A 2012 study found that autophagy is an adaptable process that can select what materials to recycle depending on the kind of stress the body is under. The study goes on to explain that this adaptability makes autophagy an important part of fending off cancer and interference of autophagy can cause malignant disease. However, another study published in Clinical Cancer Research found some cancers depend on autophagy for survival and that suppressing autophagy is a better therapy for those cancers. This information shows that this is a complicated topic that needs more research.
According to a study published in Circulation Research heart disease caused by age is usually characterized by “hypertrophy, fibrosis, and accumulation of misfolded proteins and dysfunctional mitochondria.” Autophagy is an integral part of removing these dysfunctional materials but autophagy often diminishes with age. So, it makes sense that increasing autophagy could help improve age-related heart issues. The study explains that this is true. In mouse studies, removing dysfunctional materials improves the cellular environment and thus heart health.
Autophagy is a critical process for protein homeostasis and cell health. Researchers and experts are beginning to agree that the deficit of autophagy in the body is a likely contributor to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Improving autophagy in the body could then potentially reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or may be key in reversing it.
Autophagy is a survival process that makes it possible for humans to survive and even thrive in stressful conditions. Because of this, autophagy can help increase longevity. But researchers aren’t completely clear on how autophagy affects longevity and conclude that more research is needed to find out.
How to Induce Autophagy
Autophagy is induced when the body is under just enough stress to cause a biomechanical response. There are three main ways to do this:
Restricting eating for a certain amount of time is one way to induce autophagy. According to Dr. Daniel Pompa in this podcast episode, day 3 and 4 of a water fast is where autophagy starts to kick in. When I did a 7-day water fast (nothing but clean water), I noticed that days 3-4 I felt the worst but then bounced back with lots of energy soon after.
If you’re not ready for a 3-7 day fast there are some ways you can get some of the same benefits:
- Intermittent fasting – Intermittent fasting is where you eat less often (but not less food). The nighttime when we are asleep is already a fasting time. Intermittent fasting stretches that time out a bit more. For example, you might have dinner at 8 pm and not eat again until breakfast at noon the next day. Many experts believe the shorter the window of eating the better. They suggest a goal of a 4-8 hour eating window.
- Time-restricted eating (TRE) – This is very similar to intermittent fasting but also has a circadian rhythm element to it. TRE advocates eating when the body is more able to handle food (earlier in the day) and stopping eating by dark when the body and metabolism are winding down. With TRE an eating schedule might be eating dinner at 5 pm and not eating again until 8 am the next morning.
- Working up to a fast – If you’re concerned about jumping into a fast, you can slowly work your way up. The first step would be eating 3 full meals a day and eliminating snacks. Next, you could work to make your fasting time longer (12 hours to start) and potentially cut down to two meals in a 4-8 hour eating window.
There are many ways to fast including juice fasting and broth fasting, but Dr. Pompa recommends a water fast for the best results.
While fasting has many benefits beyond activating autophagy, it’s not always possible. But ketosis can give you many of the same benefits.
Ketosis is a state in which your body is using fat as fuel instead of glucose (like during fasting). But ketosis can be achieved without eliminating all food. Instead, you eat a high fat, moderate protein, low carb diet, like a ketogenic diet.
This kind of diet reduces carbs so the body is again forced to start using fat for fuel. Because fat burns cleaner that carbs and autophagy will start to work to recycle old material, entering ketosis can have a huge impact on cellular health.
Dr. Pompa recommends finding something that works for you. For some people, a keto diet every day may not be attainable. He mentions that some women find they function better if they eat more carbs during the week of their period and then go back to a low carb diet after. Others find that a keto diet 6 days a week and a carb day once a week helps relieve symptoms but gives them the same benefits of a keto diet.
How to Test
I’ve used a meter like Keto Mojo to know for sure if I’m in ketosis or not. It measures a small drop of blood and tests blood ketone levels. Levels of 0.5-1.5 mmol/L are considered nutritional ketosis, and 1.5-3 mmol/L is considered optimal for fat burning and potentially autophagy.
As my body has adapted, I’ve been able to shift in and out of ketosis quickly, even after a longer overnight fast.
There are many benefits to exercise so it’s not a surprise that it can also help activate autophagy. In fact, researchers of a 2012 study agree that autophagy is responsible for the metabolic benefits of exercise. Exercise induces autophagy in body organs including muscle, liver, pancreas and adipose tissue.
It’s unclear exactly what kind of exercise and how much is most beneficial. However, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) has been shown to improve mitochondrial function. Additionally, a study published in Aging found that resistance training helped.
But any exercise should provide some benefit, so just get moving!
I’ve talked about the health benefits of sauna use before, and it looks like one reason it’s so beneficial is that it can stimulate autophagy. Research published in Science Daily confirms that sauna can improve cellular health by activating autophagy. The reason is that the heat from a sauna causes some stress on the body which then stimulates this detox process. (I recommend this podcast if you want to know more.)
Bottom Line: Autophagy for Detox
The body is complicated, but amazing and smart. Autophagy is a brilliant way that the body has adapted to dealing with stressors and improving cellular health. What’s even more exciting about using autophagy to improve health is that it’s available to everyone. There’s no need to buy high-priced equipment or supplements! Inducing autophagy is as simple as creating small stressors that ultimately help improve health.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you ever tried these ideas? What was your experience?