Health Benefits of Autophagy and How to Activate It

03/09/2023 | 6 min. read

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If you’ve ever owned a car, you know the importance of regular maintenance. Oil, filters, and brake, transmission, and power steering fluids need to be changed periodically. Tires have to be rotated and eventually replaced, and belts, batteries, and spark plugs wear out over time.

Your cells also perform regular maintenance. Old, dysfunctional proteins and organelles (structures such as mitochondria within cells) are broken down into smaller constituents that can be reused, while wastes and toxins are cleared out.

This process of degrading and recycling cellular components is called autophagy, and it is essential for cell survival and optimal function. In fact, impairments in autophagy have been linked with a wide range of degenerative diseases.

Let’s take a brief look at what happens during autophagy and what you can do to support it for better health.

What Happens During Autophagy

Autophagy is a basic process that occurs in most living cells, from plants and yeast to worms and humans.

When proteins or organelles within a cell are damaged or worn out, they are engulfed and delivered to the cell’s lysosomes. Lysosomes are organelles that contain enzymes which break down cellular debris into smaller constituents that can be reused as fuel for energy or as building blocks for new cellular components.

The primary functions of autophagy include:

  • Repair: By degrading old or damaged cell constituents and recycling them to build new cell structures, autophagy keeps cells in top form.
  • Energy: Activated during times of food scarcity, autophagy recycles proteins that can supply energy needed to keep cells alive.
  • Infection/inflammation: Autophagy helps fight infections by getting rid of bacteria and viruses that invade cells. It also inhibits excessive inflammation, which is an underlying factor in many chronic diseases.
  • Cell differentiation: Autophagy is intimately involved in early development and the differentiation of stem cells into specialized cell types.

How Autophagy Benefits Your Health

Autophagy was initially believed to just be a survival mechanism to protect cells against starvation. We now know its role in cell maintenance enhances overall health and protects against many health challenges.

Disorders that have been linked with defects in autophagy include neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as well as cardiovascular, liver, kidney, and autoimmune diseases.

Age-related decline in autophagy also contributes to the accumulation of damaged, dysfunctional cells, which is why therapies for activating autophagy are a hot topic in aging research.

What Activates Autophagy?

Much of this research focuses on two enzyme pathways known to trigger autophagy:

  • AMPK is a key player in the regulation of cellular energy. When energy or nutrients run low, AMPK initiates the movement of glucose into the cells, fat burning, and autophagy to provide a rapid source of energy.

  • mTOR is a metabolic pathway that promotes cell growth but shuts off autophagy.

Of course, cell growth is important, but reducing autophagy means less time for repair, renewal, and detoxification. Excessive mTOR signaling has been linked with cancer, insulin resistance, and other disorders while boosting AMPK is associated with better health and longevity.

4 Ways to Support Autophagy

As you can imagine, pharmaceutical companies are working on developing autophagy-boosting drugs. They’ve made some headway.

Metformin, a popular diabetes drug, activates AMPK and triggers autophagy while Sirolimus and Rapamune (derived from a natural compound called rapamycin) promotes autophagy by inhibiting mTOR. Both compounds have been shown to improve common degenerative diseases and increase longevity.

What is really exciting, however, is that there are natural ways to boost AMPK, slow mTOR—and activate autophagy.

1. Fasting

Calorie restriction has been shown in many studies to reduce age-related decline and increase longevity. That’s because serious calorie restriction triggers AMPK and all its downstream benefits, and one of them is autophagy.

We all know how difficult it is to stick with a very low-calorie diet. Fortunately, fasting provides similar benefits. Granted, the idea of fasting may be intimidating, but my patients find one popular version, intermittent fasting, quite doable. You don’t have to eat less, just less often.

When you eat three meals a day plus snacks, mTOR is constantly activated and autophagy is turned off. Giving your body a break from food simply allows autophagy to do the essential maintenance work that keeps your cells healthy.

2. Exercise

Exercise provides a world of health benefits. It improves blood flow and cardiorespiratory fitness, builds muscles, helps control weight, boosts mood, and, when done regularly, staves off degenerative diseases and may add years to your life.

One of the many reasons why physical exertion is beneficial is because it stresses your body and turns on survival mechanisms, including autophagy. Regular endurance and strengthening exercise is a proven way to improve cellular and overall health.

3. Diet

A good diet, with plenty of organic, fiber-rich plant foods, omega-3 fatty acids, olive oil, and adequate protein, is synonymous with good health. This type of diet provides not only the requisite protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, but also targeted nutrients that support autophagy.

Polyphenols are among the best-studied nutrients for boosting autophagy and promoting cellular repair. These phytonutrients are particularly abundant in olive oil, onions and garlic, tea and coffee, rosemary and other spices, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, and tomatoes, berries, citrus, and other fruits.

If you’re looking for a specific model to follow, a Mediterranean, Asian, and modified DASH (with fewer carbohydrates), and modified Paleo diet are good ones. Whatever plan you adopt, it’s important to cut out sugars and refined carbohydrates, as they indirectly activate mTOR and suppress autophagy.

4. Supplements

I have been asked if there are any supplements that increase autophagy, and I am happy to say there are. I’m not suggesting that any of them are a magic bullet, but they are an excellent complement to the above suggestions.

Nutritional supplements that inhibit mTOR and/or boost AMPK and activate autophagy include:

  • Resveratrol, the “red wine pill” and a proven AMPK trigger

  • Quercetin, a flavonoid in onions, apples, and tea with broad therapeutic effects

  • Astaxanthin, a carotenoid and powerful antioxidant

  • Spermidine, a natural compound with potential benefits for neurodegenerative diseases

Autophagy Recap

Autophagy is an important, yet complex topic. My goal in this brief overview is to familiarize you with the basics of autophagy, mTOR, and AMPK because I guarantee you will be hearing more and more about them as research progresses.

Although Big Pharma will no doubt come up with new drugs to target these processes, rest assured that you already have proven tools at your disposal to enhance autophagy.

Making intermittent fasting, exercise, a good diet, and targeted supplements that enhance autophagy a part of your daily routine will support cellular maintenance, repair, and renewal—and may even provide an “extended warranty” of health and longevity.

Dr. Drew Sinatra

Meet Dr. Drew Sinatra

Dr. Drew Sinatra is a board-certified naturopathic doctor and self-described “health detective” with a passion for promoting natural healing, wellness, and improving quality of life by addressing the root cause of illness in patients of all ages. His vibrant practice focuses on treating the whole person (mind, body, and spirit) and finding missed connections between symptoms and health issues that are often overlooked by conventional medicine.

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