What if there was a magic bullet that could help you be healthier and live longer? It turns out your body already has a mechanism that can do all of this and more! Autophagy (pronounced aw-taw-fuh-gee) is the body’s way of breaking down old or damaged cells and recycling their components into new, healthy cells. Think of it as your body’s own KonMari decluttering system—an internal housekeeping process designed to remove cellular debris (including damaged proteins and organelles), eliminate pathogens that can make you sick, and prevent the buildup of toxic cellular waste.
The word “autophagy” comes from the Greek meaning self-eating. The process was first discovered in the 1960s, but its real importance to human health wasn’t recognized until 2016 when scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize for his discoveries into how autophagy protects against diseases like Parkinson’s and some types of dementia while also having the potential to extend the lifespan of people.
The problem is, the body’s natural ability to “switch on” this process naturally declines with age. But a growing body of research suggests that making simple changes to your diet and lifestyle can kickstart autophagy and provide all the benefits it has to offer. Here are some of the most effective ways to enhance your body’s internal housekeeping system:
One of the best ways to induce autophagy isn’t by what you eat but by when you eat. Intermittent fasting simply means that you go a period of time every day or every week without eating. One of the most popular ways to fast is the 16/8 program, where you refrain from eating for 16 consecutive hours and then enjoy an 8-hour eating window. Another common fast is called 5/2 where you eat normally five days per week and then fast for two non-consecutive days per week.
Here’s why fasting works: When you fast, you limit the number of times your pancreas secretes insulin throughout the day. This prevents blood sugar spikes and allows the body to burn through the glucose stores in the liver. Once this occurs, your body is forced to burn fat for energy. This, in turn, stimulates autophagy.
Intermittent fasting has many immediate benefits, including weight loss and increased energy. But adopting a fasting protocol can also bring about some profound long-term benefits. One study conducted by the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, found that short-term fasting induced autophagy in the brain. This may reduce the risk for neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Adopt a Ketogenic Diet
“Keto” has become all the rage in weight-loss circles due to its ability to help people drop weight fast, but it’s also a good way to trigger autophagy. A ketogenic diet is a high-fat, moderate-protein, and very low-carbohydrate way of eating that causes the body to go into a metabolic state known as ketosis. When this happens, your body becomes incredibly efficient at burning fat (instead of glucose) for energy. Ketosis turns fat into ketones in the liver, which can supply energy for the brain as well as the body. This shift mimics fasting and can increase autophagy.
A ketogenic diet can take some getting used to as it’s considerably different than the standard Western diet. It typically contains 75 percent fat, 20 percent protein and only 5 percent carbs. But once you achieve ketosis, studies show that it can help to reduce body fat while still helping you retain muscle. There’s also evidence that being in ketosis can help lower the risk of some cancers, reduce the risk of diabetes, and protect against the damage from some neurological disorders, especially epilepsy. This was shown in one animal study during which rats who were fed a keto diet had less seizure-induced brain damage.
Exercise provides beneficial stress to the body and helps induce autophagy—and that could be, at least in part, the reason why exercise is linked to healthier aging. Preliminary research conducted at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center suggests that running for 30 minutes on a treadmill triggers an uptick in autophagosomes—structures that form around pieces of cells slated to be recycled. And more exercise equals more recycled cellular material.
Not a runner? No worries! New research in the journal Aging Cell shows that both aerobic and resistance exercise can jumpstart autophagy. In fact, some studies show that high-intensity interval training (HIIT)—which elevates your heart rate and works your muscles by combining both types of exercise—can effectively induce autophagy.
Get High-Quality Sleep
Sleep also matters. Too little shut-eye or interrupted sleep can turn down autophagy. Strive to get seven to nine hours of good-quality, uninterrupted sleep per night to give this repair and recycling process ample time to work its magic.
Pharmaceutical companies are in a race to come up with a drug that can enhance autophagy. But Mother Natural has already provided us with several nutrients that can do just that. Here are three of the best:
Curcumin, the most active compound in the spice turmeric, has been shown to activate autophagy and help fortify healthy cells. New findings in the Journal of Cellular Physiology suggest that curcumin has anti-tumor properties and may play a preventive role in the development of cancer. In another preliminary study that appeared in the journal Bioscience Reports, researchers reported that curcumin improves joint health on a structural level by promoting autophagy. This is in addition to the compound’s ability to ease the pain of osteoarthritis.
But not all curcumin supplements are capable of inducing autophagy for one simple reason: Many of them can’t be absorbed by the body. What’s more, standard curcumin is rapidly metabolized in the gastrointestinal tract and quickly shuttled out of the body. Fortunately, a proprietary form of curcumin has been developed that is blended with turmeric essential oil containing ar-turmerone complex to effectively enhance absorption. Check supplement labels for either BCM-95 or Curcugreen to ensure you’re getting an absorbable curcumin that can trigger autophagy.
French Grape Seed Extract is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound that supports healthy aging and provides a number of health benefits, including cancer prevention and improved cardiovascular health. What’s grape seed’s secret? Research recently published in the journal Oncology Letters points to a type of tannin in grape seeds known as oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs) and their ability to trigger autophagy. This helps eliminate damaged cells that play a role in many types of disease.
But, like curcumin, absorption of OPCs can be limited. Most tannins in grape seeds have a high molecular weight, which means that the molecules are too large to be absorbed by the body. Opt instead for a French grape seed extract that provides OPCs with a low molecular weight. This means the molecules are small enough to guarantee absorption.
Korean Red Ginseng appears to regulate autophagy so that it enhances the beneficial recycling process when needed, and turns it off when other processes like apoptosis (programmed cell death) are needed instead. Research in Oncology Reports found that red ginseng regulates adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK), a key enzyme involved in autophagy that impacts aging, inflammation, metabolic function, and mitochondrial health. In this particular study, the researchers found that the ginsenosides in Korean red ginseng influenced AMPK to induce autophagy in experimental lung cancer cells. While human studies are needed to further explore Korean red ginseng’s role in autophagy, this study provides a promising glimpse into the herb’s potential anti-cancer properties.
Just be aware that many Korean red ginseng supplements may contain pesticide residue and can be lower in potency due to substandard growing and processing methods. However, a unique form of ginseng known as HRG80 is composed of 100 percent whole Panax ginseng roots cultivated under the strictest environmental and social European standards. This specially developed form of ginseng is grown hydroponically using high-tech vertical farming to reduce the crop’s environmental footprint. Another difference? Traditional ginseng takes up to six years to mature; HRG80 takes a mere six months. Once harvested, the ginseng is steam-cooked using traditional Korean methods. The resulting ginseng root powder provides rare noble ginsenosides that are seven times more concentrated than the ginsenosides found in typical Korean red ginseng supplements. Check the Supplement Facts panel to ensure the ginseng in your product is the HRG80 form.
While there’s still a lot scientists need to learn about the benefits of autophagy, the future looks bright—especially since there are so many ways to enhance this natural process. But there’s no need to wait until all the evidence is in to reap its benefits. Who knows—it might even be the fountain of youth you’ve been waiting for!
9 Benefits of Autophagy
- Healthy aging
- Helps regulate inflammation
- Fights infectious diseases
- Better metabolic health
- Improved brain function
- Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease
- Enhances exercise performance
- Supports skin health
- Promotes a healthier, longer life