Autophagy is like spring cleaning for your cells. It’s Greek for “self-eating,” which is accurate: during autophagy, your cells replace any old or damaged parts with shiny new versions.
Your cells end up biologically younger, making your body more efficient in everything that it does.
Autophagy can help you live longer, feel younger, and recover faster. And with a few habits, you can stimulate autophagy every day, scrubbing out your cells and leaving them renewed.
Here’s how autophagy works, the benefits of autophagy, and how you can activate it in your daily life.
Autophagy is a process by which your cells digest, replace, or recycle old or damaged parts.
As you go through life, your cells accumulate damage from oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a major driver of aging — it builds up as you get older, gradually wearing down cellular machinery and making your cells less efficient[*].
Autophagy can clean up those worn down cellular parts and replace them, turning back the clock on your body’s aging at the cellular level.
Autophagy is particularly good at strengthening your mitochondria — the part of your cells that creates energy.
The process of autophagy helps keep your mitochondria running smoothly, especially in your brain[*]. As a result, your cells can produce more energy to fuel your body, and you feel better for it.
During autophagy, your cells recycle damaged parts into usable building blocks for new construction projects[*].
Autophagic activity may also trigger cell death, getting rid of cells that have been damaged beyond repair by oxidative stress from reactive oxygen species. It’s out with the old and in with the new: when damaged cells die, they make room for fresh new cells to come in and take over[*].
There are a few different ways you can turn on autophagy and give your cells a good cleaning.
Fasting is perhaps the simplest way to trigger autophagy. Going for 14+ hours without food causes short-term, reversible nutrient deprivation, which puts mild stress on your body, and your cells respond by becoming more efficient — turning on autophagy pathways and clearing out waste[*].
Rodent studies suggest that fasting is especially good for brain cells. To quote the authors of one paper, “short-term fasting induces profound neuronal autophagy”[*]. Autophagy may partly explain why so many people report increased mental clarity when they fast.
If you want to incorporate fasting into your life, your best bet is intermittent fasting. With intermittent fasting, you eat all your meals in a shortened eating window — say, from 12-6 PM — and you consume no calories outside that time.
There are many ways to practice intermittent fasting. Give a couple different fasting lengths a try and see what works for you. Aim for at least a 14-hour fast to trigger autophagy-related health benefits.
A good workout will also activate your body’s autophagy pathways.
One study found that people who played lifelong casual sports had significantly higher rates of autophagy and were biologically younger than people who didn’t exercise regularly[*].
A study in mice found that running on a treadmill increased autophagy in the brain and other major organs[*].
Intense exercise may be the best way to turn on autophagy. In one study on well-trained athletes, intense exercise was the most potent trigger of autophagy in muscle[*].
Autophagy from intense exercise may also increase growth factors that speed up muscle repair. So do the occasional sprint or add a weekly session of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to your workout routine. Your cells will see a lot of benefit from it.
Good news: coffee also triggers autophagy — in mice, at least.
Coffee-fueled mice see increased autophagy in every major organ system[*]. Decaf works too, which means it’s probably the rich variety of antioxidants in coffee that drive its autophagy benefits.
#4: Autophagy-Inducing Supplements
Supplements may trigger autophagy as well. Three big ones are:
- Curcumin, which regulates mitochondrial autophagy[*]. You can find curcumin in turmeric, or you can take pure curcumin as a supplement. Either way, make sure you always pair curcumin with black pepper. Pepper contains a compound called piperine that increases curcumin absorption by 2000%[*]. If you’re going the supplement route, check the label; a good curcumin supplement will include black pepper extract.
- Resveratrol increases autophagy as well[*]. Red wine is famous for containing resveratrol, but you won’t find enough of it in wine to make a difference. You’re better off taking a resveratrol supplement.
- Berberine, a natural component of goldenseal, also turns on autophagy pathways[*]. Again, you’re best off taking a berberine supplement.
#5: The Keto Diet
In rats, a ketogenic diet induced autophagy and protected the rat’s brain from seizure-induced injury[*].
A lot of research on the benefits of autophagy is done in animals, mostly because it’s difficult to study autophagy in humans over an extended amount of time.
It may be better to frame the below sections as potential benefits to autophagy — although they’re still worth considering.
#1: Healthy aging
A robust body of evidence in mice, flies, and flatworms has found that autophagy can slow down the aging process and extend lifespan dramatically.
Scientists have used fasting, genetic engineering, resveratrol supplements, and more to induce autophagy in animals; they’ve consistently found that autophagy and lifespan both increase[*].
Furthermore, when scientists removed autophagy-stimulating genes in these animals, the lifespan boost from fasting and resveratrol disappeared[*]. That suggests that it really is autophagy that helps with healthy aging.
#2: Metabolic health
Impaired autophagy is one of the triggers for type II diabetes. When autophagy fails, beta cells in your pancreas accumulate oxidative damage and eventually stop being able to produce insulin[*].
Enhancing autophagy protect these crucial insulin-producing cells, which makes autophagy a promising preventative tactic for reversing pre-diabetes and getting blood sugar levels under control[*] (here are a few more ways to keep your blood sugar stable and low).
#3: Brain health
Autophagy can also help your brain cells clear out toxic proteins that contribute to dementia.
Accumulation of these proteins, called amyloid-beta and tau, have been linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s.
Autophagy may be part of the reason that the protein aggregates form — brain autophagy decreases dramatically in the early stages of dementia[*].
It seems that autophagy plays a central role in brain health and disease, although the role of autophagy isn’t entirely clear yet.
Fasting, on the other hand, appears to cause a robust increase in brain autophagy — which may help protect against neurodegenerative disease[*].
When it comes to cancer, autophagy is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, autophagy clears away damaged proteins that contribute to tumor formation. This is a called a tumor suppressor effect[*].
But once the tumor is established, autophagy may help cancer live longer That’s because autophagy can enhance cellular survival in all cells, cancer cells included.
#5: Heart health
A growing body of research suggests that autophagy removes damaged proteins and organelles in heart cells, which decreases your risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular disease[*].
Autophagy cleans out your cells and leaves them shiny and new.
Scientists have shown that fasting, exercise, coffee, certain supplements and a ketogenic diet can increase autophagy, which may help you age better, stay fitter, and build a stronger brain.
If you want to start turning on your autophagy pathways today, try the following:
- An intermittent fast
- An exercise routine with occasional high-intensity training (like sprints or HIIT)
- A morning cup of coffee
- A keto diet
Give these habits a try and see how you feel.