Ancient Greek and social media aren’t things we ever thought we’d be writing about together, but hey, these are strange times. TikTok videos on autophagy—a Greek term that translates to “self-eating” or “self-devouring”—have racked up over 28.8 million views. Nearly 3,000 people follow the r/Autophagy subreddit. These social conversations aren’t about cannibalism—they’re largely about fasting and longevity.
In a nutshell, autophagy is your cells’ housekeeping, decluttering, and quality control method all in one. It’s a way of getting rid of worn-out cellular parts that prevent cells from functioning at their best. The process is linked to disease prevention and better glucose and insulin control, and research suggests that it may play a role in weight loss, and enhanced longevity, to name a few potential benefits.
Autophagy tends to decline or become dysregulated as you age (1) but there are ways to promote it. One of the best methods may be intermittent fasting (2): When you don’t consume food for long periods of time, your cells cells begin to eat their clutter for energy, effectively taking out the cellular trash and recycling damaged or degraded parts.
What is Autophagy?
Your tissues, organs, and therefore your entire body is made up of cells. You can think of each cell as a mini machine. Just as the parts of a frequently used machine tend to wear out or break and cause problems, so do the parts of your cells.
When cellular parts—usually proteins and organelles—degrade and junk up a cell, they impact the cell’s ability to perform its crucial functions (1).
Autophagy is like a built-in cellular mechanic. Within cells, autophagosomes do the work of shuttling problematic parts to lysosomes, which then break-down and digest the bad parts and recycle elements that can be repurposed. Essentially, your cells eat their parts to promote their survival and so that they can enhance their performance. This, in turn, helps keep you healthy (2).
Autophagy is occurring all the time. But aging and certain diseases can cause a decline in this crucial cellular maintenance tactic. Researchers are still trying to fully understand autophagy. But they say it is an important factor in cellular health and longevity and that reduced or dysfunctional autophagy is associated with age-related diseases, such as dementia, heart disease, and more (1).
Benefits of Autophagy
Autophagy, although a weird term, is becoming a bit of a buzzword lately. That’s because we can turbocharge autophagy through certain lifestyle changes. Boosted autophagy may have several benefits, including enhanced longevity, disease prevention, and weight management.
You can’t halt or reverse chronological aging, which is the actual time you’ve been alive. But an ever-growing body of research is demonstrating that you can manipulate your biological age—how well your body is holding up to others with a similar birth date— via lifestyle changes such as exercise and stress reduction. And doing so has become a hot topic surrounding longevity (3).
In some animal studies, researchers found that boosted autophagy was associated with an increased lifespan and healthspan, the years spent in relatively good health. Those studies found that enhanced autophagy staved off tissue damage associated with aging, helped prevent inflammaging, and benefited the immune system. All of these factors can help prevent age-related diseases, many of which ultimately cause physical and mental decline as well as death (1).
An increased lifespan, however, doesn’t sound all that great unless those extra years are lived in decent health, right? Well, the good news is that efficient autophagy also appears to reduce some risk of certain diseases.
Autophagy helps maintain cell and tissue balance. When autophagy is compromised or declines, diseases may take hold. Diseases with connections to reduced autophagy include kidney disease, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, cancers, inflammatory bowel disease, some neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and conditions like obesity, insulin resistance, prediabetes, Type 2 diabetes, and more (4).
A caveat: Although boosted autophagy may help protect against these diseases, too much autophagy may promote them. Take cancer, for example. Research suggests that autophagy is linked to both tumor suppression and growth (1). So a just-right Goldilocks approach to autophagy may be required to help prevent disease.
Autophagy may also help control weight. Some animal studies suggest that autophagy may help reduce obesity and insulin resistance, two related conditions. Ultimately, autophagy may help you use glucose and insulin more efficiently—two factors linked to improved weight management (5).
Research also suggests that diets high in sugar, processed carbs, and ultra-processed foods may result in the accumulation of cell junk, which can lead to metabolic issues like insulin resistance, prediabetes, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity. In studies, boosted autophagy helped to clear out this rubbish and, therefore, may reduce the risk for these conditions (6).
Autophagy also appears to play an important role in helping “brown” your “white” fat (7). Having too much white adipose tissue is linked to obesity, whereas brown adipose tissue is more metabolically active and stores energy in a smaller space. Brown fat breaks down fat and blood sugar to create heat and help maintain body temperature. In studies, exposure to cold increased this activity and led to greater energy expenditure, and decreased blood glucose—all things that can help with weight management (7).
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Although autophagy is occurring all the time in our bodies to a certain extent, some lifestyle factors suppress autophagy, while others amp it up. Here are a few practices that help induce autophagy.
Intermittent Fasting , Calorie Restriction, and Autophagy
When you restrict the number of hours in a day in which you eat, you temporarily deprive your cells of nutrients. Fasting protocols can range from 18:6 to fasting every other day or for several days of the week.
When your cells are deprived of external food sources during fasting or even just from calorie restriction, they’re forced to—you guessed it—eat their junk parts for energy. More studies are needed to determine the best strategies, such as length of fasting time for using IF to induce autophagy or what level of calorie restriction helps or hinders in the quest for health benefits (6).
Keto and Autophagy
The keto diet, which is a high-fat, low-carb eating strategy, can also ramp up autophagy, according to animal research. Without carbohydrates dumping glucose into the bloodstream, the body resorts to using ketones for fuel, which are produced as your body breaks down fat.
Research suggests that ketosis, the state of burning fat for energy, mimics some aspects of fasting and calorie restriction (8).
Exercise and Autophagy
Mitophagy is a type of autophagy. Mitophagy degrades and recycles old mitochondria, which are the powerhouses of our cells.
Exercise appears to induce mitophagy. Some studies have found that endurance activity in mice boosted mitophagy, especially in muscle cells. In addition to promoting the removal of faulty mitochondria in the mice, endurance exercise also increased the number of healthy mitochondria (9). So, maybe you should think of your long Saturday run or bike ride as some quality control for your muscle cells.
The Bottom Line
Autophagy is a cellular cleanup process that may have potential health benefits, such as enhanced longevity, reduced disease risk, and improved weight management. Lifestyle strategies like intermittent fasting or calorie restriction, the ketogenic diet, and endurance exercise can all stress cells to essentially eat their faulty parts to survive—hence autophagy. More research is needed to understand how to best boost autophagy and whether doing this is a smart choice for you. Since most data comes from animal studies, before inducing autophagy as a wellness strategy, talk to your doctor. Any time you make extreme changes to your diet or exercise program, you should consult your healthcare provider, especially if you have underlying conditions or take medications.