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June 22, 2021 6 min read

In this article:

  • What is autophagy anyway?
  • Health benefits of autophagy
  • How to trigger autophagy
  • Autophagy FAQs

What is Autophagy anyway?

Autophagy is our body's form of spring cleaning, only instead of getting rid of those ripped jeans you'll never get to mending, it's on a cellular level and it happens every day! Autophagy literally means "self-eating", it's a natural and necessary method of reducing, reusing, and recycling cellular waste as we age.

Autophagic activity includes mitophagy, the removal of dysfunctional mitochondria and mitochondrial components, as well as the removal of cellular proteins, organelles, and debris. During autophagy, cellular waste "vessels" called “autophagosomes” form and the spring cleaning begins! Once they're full, they then fuse with lysosomes that contain digestive enzymes which break down the contents of the autophagosome. At first this "self-devouring" process might sound unhealthy and to be avoided. In reality, autophagy is more like self-regulation. Cell death and dysfunction are natural and unavoidable, but the buildup of these expired or broken cells can lead to bigger problems down the line. Autophagy is our body's way of returning our cells to optimal health.

Health Benefits of Autophagy

Autophagy declines as we age. Meanwhile, the frequency of cellular dysfunction and damage increases. Without autophagy, these faulty cells are allowed to multiply, which can contribute to an accumulation of cancer cells as well as other diseases and impairments. Autophagy may benefit the brain, skin and body in many ways such as:

  • Removing toxins that lead to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Autophagy may also remove viruses and bacteria to support the immune system.
  • Autophagy can improve your quality of life into old age and even contributes to a longer lifespan by reducing your likelihood of common age-related diseases.
  • An animal study conducted on mice found that autophagy decreases obesity and insulin resistance by removing oxidative stress. The same study also found that it can support the growth of heart cells to protect against heart disease.
  • Oxidative stress causes our skin to produce less collagen and slow our rates of autophagy. By removing cell debris from our skin cells and promoting the production of youthful healthy cells, this may help to fight off the common signs of aging such as sagging skin and wrinkles.

How to Trigger Autophagy

Autophagy is activated during times of healthy and controlled stress. Your dietary choices, including WHAT you eat and WHEN you eat, can make a huge impact on the activation of autophagy and the way your body perceives and reacts to stressors. Here are 8 things you can do to kick autophagy into gear:

  • Intermittent Fasting: Fasting is the primary inducer of autophagy. In fact, one study conducted in 2010 was even titled "Short-term fasting induces profound neuronal autophagy." There are many different forms and durations of fasting and each stage/timestamp has its own unique benefits. Most fasts last between 16-24 hours. However, if you want to optimize your fast to induce autophagy, it usually takes about 19-24 hours of caloric restriction. Some studieseven think it may take as long as 24-48 hours in an unfed person to trigger autophagy, but this can be extremely difficult for most people. If you're new to fasting or want to learn some tips and tricks on autophagy fasting, try reading this blog!
  • The Ketogenic Diet: Glucose, a form of energy derived from carbohydrates, is seen as an inhibitor of autophagy. This led researchers to conduct studies on the keto diet, a high-fat and low-carb diet centered around ketosis, and the activation of autophagy. One preliminary animal study found that ketosis can cause starvation-induced autophagy, activate autophagy pathways, and reduce brain injury during seizures.
  • Antioxidant-Rich Foods: Foods rich in antioxidants can help fend off free radicals and allow your cells to function properly and increase autophagy. Whether you eat them raw or turn them into a delicious smoothie or juice, try to eat antioxidant-rich foods like ginger, turmeric, green tea, berries, dark chocolate, beets, spinach, and kale daily. You may also benefit from taking an antioxidant supplement such as Glutathioneand making a superfood smoothie.
  • Avoid inflammatory foods: Oils, saturated fat, dairy, sugar, and processed foods are all pro-inflammatory and may inhibit healthy mitochondria.
  • Exercise:The mood and cognitive boosting abilities are largely traced back to exercise’s ability to induce neuronal autophagy and help prevent neurodegenerative disease! No matter how you perceive it, the act of exercising is in fact a stressor on the body. After exercise, and specifically aerobic exercise, autophagy is triggered to help your cells recover from the stress. According to this study, 30-80 minutes of aerobic exercise is the sweet spot for optimal autophagy activation.
  • Deep Sleep:No surprises here, but poor sleeping schedules, as well as poor quality of sleep, can decrease autophagy and contribute to cognitive decline. Additionally, maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm (our sleep-wake cycle) is also critical for controlling autophagy and preventing cognitive decline. No wonder you feel groggy for the next day or two following an all-nighter! Getting at least 7 hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep could have a profound impact on your body's ability to rid itself of disease-causing cellular waste. Here are some tips to help you get better sleep!
  • Hot and Cold Exposure:Interestingly, exposure to hot and cold stressors such as a sauna or ice bath, has been shown to upregulate AMPK, an enzyme that is critical for cellular bioenergetics. In practice, this can be achieved by visiting a sauna, ending your hot shower with an ice-cold rinse, using cold packs, or taking a cold bath.
  • Foods That May Contribute to Autophagy:There is no single food or supplement that can trigger autophagy alone. With that said, the following foods have been linked to improved cognitive function and may help to induce autophagy: MCT oil, extra virgin olive oil, ginger, turmeric, omega-3s, ginseng, ginkgo biloba, vitamin D, and niacinamide. These are all generally thought to be safe, but consult your doctor before you add them to your diet to ensure that you aren't interfering with medications or dietary restrictions.

Autophagy FAQs

Here are some quick FAQs regarding autophagic function:

  • How long does autophagy last? The duration of autophagy differs from person to person, as does the fasting duration required to begin autophagy. Ultimately, your fasting duration and your body's natural ability to begin autophagy determine how long the autophagic process will last. In short, when you begin eating again, autophagy will end. However, it's important to note that this does NOT mean that the longer you go without food and/or water, the longer autophagy will occur. Short-term fasting (such as the 16:8 method) is a great place to start. If you feel ill, do not "push through" the remainder of your fast or extend it.
  • Can I drink water during autophagy? Yes! Water is always recommended during a fast and won't interfere with your body's ability to induce autophagy. In fact, some animal studies have found that drinking water while fasting promotesautophagy.
  • How do I know if autophagy is occurring?Unfortunately, the quick answer for this is you probably won't, at least not right away. There is no sensation or recordable event that will indicate you've started or ended autophagy. However, many of the benefits of fasting can likely be traced back to autophagy. Mental clarity, higher energy levels, boosted cognitive function, and a general feeling of wellness may be experienced during and after autophagy.

Want to learn more about what you can eat during non-fasting times to prime yourself for autophagy later? Check out this meal plan that's packed with healthy recipes and even more information on autophagy fasting.

Summary Points

  • Autophagic activity includes mitophagy, the removal of dysfunctional mitochondria and mitochondrial components, as well as the removal of cellular proteins, organelles, and debris
  • Autophagy can improve your quality of life into old age and even contributes to a longer lifespan by reducing your likelihood of common age-related diseases
  • Your dietary choices, including WHAT you eat and WHEN you eat, can make a huge impact on the activation of autophagy and the way your body perceives and reacts to stressors
  • If you want to optimize your fast to induce autophagy, it usually takes about 19-24 hours of caloric restriction
  • Foods rich in antioxidants can help fend off free radicals and allow your cells to function properly and increase autophagy



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