Ask The Dr: All About Autophagy

9 ways to harness the body’s disease-busting, antiaging superpower. By Dr. Frank Lipman
Painting by Adrien Converse

Wellness—we all want it, and if you’re reading this, chances are, you’ve got some kind of handle on the essentials like clean diet, good sleep, movement and regular relaxation. This holistic approach is the path to feeling good and living well, for as long as possible. But there is another piece of the puzzle that’s starting to get some well-deserved attention. That’s autophagy. Auto-what? Scientists have known about it since the ’60s, but now it’s beginning to blossom in the public consciousness, in part due to the recent discoveries on the mechanisms of autophagy by Nobel Prize-winning scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi. But outside the lab, what does autophagy mean for you? For starters, better health, for longer, with a side of slowed-down aging. Sound good? Then here’s an introduction to this wellness wonder:

Autophagy—it’s your body’s cellular recycling program.

Possibly, you remember the term from high school biology? OK, probably not. Well, autophagy is your body’s cellular house-cleaning system. It’s a process that breaks down sub-par cells, the banged-up ones that aren’t functioning very well, then salvages the remaining good bits, recycling the components to help build fresh, new, healthy cells. This stripping of parts and regenerating them goes on constantly inside your cells at varying rates. When your cells are getting what they need in terms of the nutrients that fuel energy production, autophagy hums along at low, maintenance-level speed. However, when things aren’t going so well and your cells are stressed by nutrient deficiencies, viral invaders, failing subcellular components, etc., autophagy rises to the occasion and kicks into high gear. The uptick helps clear out the garbage—the underperformers, the infected cells, the cellular toxins, etc.—to help protect the rest of your healthy cells from damage, which in turn can help lengthen life span, slow the aging process and cut disease risk.

Autophagy—what’s in it for you? A lot!

Autophagy’s got its fingers in everything, cellularly speaking, delivering an impressive array of protective and preventive benefits from head to toe. Among the big bonuses, autophagy helps:

• Regulate inflammation, boosting it as needed to fight off pathogens, and decreasing it as needed, so cells don’t remain in an inflamed state indefinitely, thereby suppressing chronic inflammation

• Promote brain health and protect against Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and dementia, by removing the misshapen proteins whose accumulation is associated with the development of neurological disorders

• Fight infectious diseases, by removing illness-inducing microbes from inside the cells, clearing toxins, regulating inflammation and helping to keep immunity strong

• Prevent metabolic dysfunction, like diabetes and obesity, by promoting cellular health and turnover.

• Boost muscle performance, by replacing the cells that have been worn out or ‘stressed’ by exercise, with fresh, healthy cells.

When you put all these benefits together, you’re looking at potentially one of the most powerful antiaging packages anyone could ask for: a healthier brain, balanced metabolism, less chronic inflammation, stronger immunity and more resilient muscles.

Autophagy—give yours a kick-start.

Granted, autophagy is going on all the time in your cells, but there are a number of natural, healthy ways you can help ramp up the ‘taking out the trash’ process.

Here are a few ways you can help fire up the autophagy incinerator:

• Eat more autophagy-friendly spices—such as curcumin, ginger and ginseng

• Drink autophagy-boosting teas—like green tea and ginseng tea.

• Dig in to autophagy-stimulating foods—such as coconut oil, mushrooms, lentils, green peas, pomegranates

• Get into regular, time-restricted eating—that is, eating all your food in an 8- to 10-hour period daily. This fasting for 14 to 16 hours stresses the body (due to the lack of incoming nutrients) and stimulates autophagy, despite the temporary nutritional dip.

• Try a ketogenic, or very-low-carb diet—by slashing carb intake, cells are forced to use fat as their fuel, sending the body into ketosis, a switch that helps boost autophagy, in addition to helping with body-fat loss and reducing diabetes risk.

• Add some aerobic exercise—power-walking, running and swimming laps all stress the body in a good way, and in so doing, turns up the autophagic heat.

• Don’t forget to load up on good, quality sleep—just in case you needed one more reason to get your fill: Autophagy also occurs during sleep, so get your rest and let your cells clear out the cobwebs while you snooze.

• Add autophagy-supportive supplements—including omega-3 fish oils, vitamin D and MCT oil.

• Run hot and cold—as in alternating sauna or steam room time with cold showers; both hot and cold stress the cells, promoting autophagy.

While our scientific understanding of autophagy continues to evolve, the bottom line is that autophagy-supporting behaviors—like having a great diet, getting quality sleep, moving our selves, and instituting a good supplement program—are antiaging health habits that we all should put to work in service of our bodies every day, right now!