What Is Autophagy and Is It Good For Me?

From extreme dieting to extreme exercise, people are always on the lookout for the next big trend in weight-loss and disease prevention. After all, who doesn’t want to live forever and look fabulous doing it? ;)

Next up in the trending spotlight: autophagy

Like any trend, it pays to do your homework before jumping in, so let’s get into the science behind this new health and wellness trend. First, let’s take a quick look at what this Latin word actually means, then we can explore the pros and cons of it, so you can make the right choice for you!

What is autophagy?

Autophagy comes from the Ancient Greek word meaning ‘self-devouring’. As unnerving as that sounds, it’s not as scary as the word makes it out to be!

Over time, our cells ‘clog-up’ with things like dead organelles, oxidized particles and damaged proteins that can accelerate ageing and increase the risk of certain diseases. When our body enters autophagy, its cells create membranes that seek out damaged or diseased cells, absorbing (or devouring) and recycling them in order to create new, healthy cells.

In a lot of ways, autophagy acts like a natural ‘spring-cleaning’ process for our bodies!

The benefits of autophagy

We’ll talk a little bit about the triggers for autophagy later, but typically our bodies enter autophagy after not eating for a long period of time. Because this sounds unhealthy, it makes some people wary about triggering it. 

But, for much of the history of the human race, we have not been able to eat three meals a day, with snacks in between. In fact, many of our ancestors would feast after a hunt, then eat very little until the next, successful hunt. Though fasting may sound extreme, it falls in line with the lifestyles of our ancestors, and the data shows our bodies react well to it!

From younger-looking skin and increased weight loss, to disease-prevention and a longer lifespan, autophagy is believed to help:

  • Calm inflammation and so protect against inflammatory diseases and other infections
  • Boost immune function and lower the risk of certain diseases
  • Promote anti-ageing effects, including increasing lifespan
  • Improve insulin sensitivity

How to trigger autophagy

1. Intermittent Fasting

This gives your body a chance to catch up on cleaning up, efficiently absorbing any lingering faulty cells.

1 – 3 times per week, fast for 16 – 20 hours at a time. A good way to do this is:

  • Stop eating at 7 pm
  • Drink only water (you can also drink black coffee or plain tea in moderation) 
  • Eat lunch the next day around 11 am – 3 pm

*Remember, you don’t need to jump right into fasting three times per week at 20-hour intervals. Take it slow, and only do what your body can handle. A good first step would be to talk to your doctor before you commit to intermittent fasting.

2. Exercise

While it’s debated whether longer or shorter or gentle to high-intensity periods of exercise are better, we think switching it up is always the best answer – or maybe it’s just because we like the variety ;)

Switch between high-intensity and low-intensity exercises throughout the week. Some good examples of low to high-intensity exercises are:

  • 45 minutes to one hour of a slow and steady-paced run
  • A 15 – 30-minute yoga sequence
  • A 30 minute to one hour walk alternating between a brisk and slow pace
  • HIIT workouts
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    3. Restrict carbs and eat more healthy fats

    Similar to the keto diet, focus on eating healthy fats to trigger autophagy. When you change your diet like this, your body will burn these fats for a healthier, more robust energy, versus those sugar-converting carbs that give us quick and crashing energy.

    –> Learn more about healthy fats and the plentiful options available!

    4. Get your beauty sleep

    You can even activate the power of autophagy while you sleep by getting at least 7 – 9 hours each night (also make sure you’re drinking enough water (8, 8 oz glasses per day).

    How often should I trigger autophagy?

    In Naomi Whittel’s book, Glow15, she recommends a 16 hour fast as many as three times per week as well as reducing protein intake on some days, limiting carbohydrates to later in the day and including periods of high-intensity exercise.

    While it’s great to aim for this, don’t jump in too fast. Take it slow, listen to your body as it’s completely normal to work up to something extreme like this.

    Keep an open mind and take it slow

    Remember, it’s all about keeping an open mind and taking things slow. You don’t have to jump right into anything, especially since it puts stress on your body. Try adjusting your routine to include more exercise, a healthy fats/limited carbs diet, and a short fast to get yourself used to it. A little bit is better than nothing!

    *Autophagy puts stress on the body and as such is not recommended for children, pregnant women, some people with diabetes or others with health issues related to blood sugar. If you’re unsure, consult with your General Practitioner.


    Feature photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash