3 Ways to Activate Autophagy – the Natural Process by Which the Body Rejuvenates Itself

Autophagy is, quite literally, the body’s ability to eat itself – and that's a good thing.

woman doing yoga in the forest to activate autophagy
Credit: Photo by Yayan Sopian on Unsplash

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Biohacking nerds are all about autophagy optimization, seeking out ways to improve the body’s ability to, essentially, self-cannibalize. But don’t worry! This craze isn’t as crazy as it sounds. 

Autophagy is a natural process that takes place within the body on a cellular level. Via autophagy, the body destroys and reuses dead or unnecessary components, essentially rejuvenating itself. Optimizing this process can help you purge toxins, lose weight, and look and feel younger – all with just a few simple changes to your daily routine.

What is Autophagy?

In spite of its odd name, the roots of which literally translate to “self-consume” or “self-eat,” autophagy is a totally normal, natural process – one that, according to Jason Way, N.D., our cells carry out “every single day.” 

“When your cells get old or die, other cells clean them up and recycle the materials to build new, younger and healthier cells,” Way explains, noting that without autophagy, “Our body would become a landfill, crammed with broken pieces or worse it would just shut down because nothing would be replaced.”

“Think of it as an automatic self-cleaning oven at a cellular level,” explains Drew Manning, creator of the 60-Day Keto Jumpstart and Fit2Fat2Fit.

This cleanup can include anything from older and possibly cancerous cells to old skin cells, paving the way for the production of new ones.

Autophagy can also target excess fat. Specifically, according to information published in Scientific Report1, autophagy may facilitate the conversion of the harmful white fat many of us are constantly trying to reduce into more metabolically sound brown fat, which contains countless energy-producing mitochondria and has been linked to lowering the risk of metabolic disease and diabetes. Some studies2 even show that autophagy can help renew the neurons in the brain, improving energy and mood and even countering symptoms of depression.

“Consider a brain as a wind-up watch where all the gears are covered in gunk, and it works but it’s kind of jammed up,” says Way. “Now consider replacing all the gears with clean, fresh new ones that fit and turn smoothly – it’s a whole different experience, and we want that for ourselves.”

How Can I Activate Autophagy?

The good news is that your body has already quietly been carrying out autophagy – even as you read this! But certain techniques can help to optimize autophagy, and they’re easy to integrate into your daily routine.

1. Fasting

Fasting is the “safest and best-proven strategy” for triggering autophagy, according to Way, who notes that fasting is our “evolutionary trigger” for stimulating this natural process.

“Eating inhibits autophagy by switching on the enzyme called mTOR, which is a powerful inhibitor of autophagy,” explains Dr. Robert Zembroski, specialist in Functional Medicine, Clinical Nutritionist & Author of REBUILD. Fasting, on the contrary, allows this enzyme to switch off, thus stimulating autophagy.

“When you are intermittent fasting,” explains Naomi Whittel, author of Glow15: A Science-Based Plan to Lose Weight, Revitalize Your Skin, and Invigorate Your Life, “you are literally telling every cell in your body to activate autophagy and to clean out the cells.”

There are a number of different ways to integrate the benefits of fasting into your daily life, starting with a simple slight lowering of caloric intake and ranging to full, multi-day fasts. While studies3 suggest that a 24- to 48-hour fast is ideal for the stimulation of autophagy, Zembroski notes that even a 12-hour fast is a good start. And guess what? A 12-hour fast is easy to accomplish just by cutting out evening snacking.

Different intermittent fasting protocols, like the popular 16/8 protocol (where one eats for only eight hours out of the day, fasting for the remaining 16) or alternate day protocols increase the potential for autophagy even more, so consider integrating some of these techniques into your daily life for maximum benefits.

2. Eating Keto

The high-fat ketogenic diet has become popular in many health circles for its anti-inflammatory benefits, and it’s also incredibly useful for triggering autophagy, according to Way.

“Ketones are high in energy, potent antioxidants (so they drop inflammation dramatically), and extremely restorative to nerve cells – improving the health and function of the brain and entire nervous system,” he says. 

The key, however, is to opt for a healthful ketogenic diet – which means abstaining from some of the heavier, cheese-and-bacon-based keto recipes you’ll find online. Way notes that opting for a plant-heavy ketogenic diet is the healthiest approach, and Whittel warns that keeping protein on the lower end is also important.

According to Whittel, many “misunderstand” keto, turning it into “this high-protein, high-animal-fat experience.”

“But the reality is that it’s truly about the good fats and getting the fats into the body at the right time as well.”

She notes that consuming fat first thing in the morning, reserving any carbohydrate consumption for the end of the day, is the best way to prevent an insulin spike and support the activation of autophagy.

3. Exercise

Exercise, notes Zembroski, “can induce tissue recycling and regeneration in muscles, the liver, pancreas and fat tissue.” He points to a study from Nature4 showing that just 30 minutes of exercise can activate autophagy processes, so getting moving, especially in tandem with other techniques, can be a great way to activate autophagy.

To learn more about this fascinating natural process – and ways that you can reap its benefits – check out some of the following books:

Glow15: A Science-Based Plan to Lose Weight, Revitalize Your Skin, and Invigorate Your Life, by Naomi Whittel, which explores some of the unique concerns of autophagy for women

genius foods

Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life, by Max Lugavere, which looks into the effects of autophagy – and other body processes – on brain health

The Complete Guide to Fasting: Heal Your Body Through Intermittent, Alternate-Day, and Extended Fasting, by Dr. Jason Fung, which explores the health benefits of intermittent fasting and links between this practice and autophagy

Related on Organic Authority
5 Ways You’re Already Biohacking Your Body Even if You Don’t Know What It Is
3 Reasons the Ketogenic Diet Might Be the Ultimate Anti-Inflammatory, Cancer-Fighting Protocol
Is Fasting a Fad or Tradition? Why the Detox Diet Has Long-Lasting Merit

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1. https://www.embopress.org/doi/full/10.1038/embor.2013.111
2. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00337/full
3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3106288/
4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22258505/

Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco