Autophagy: A Beginner’s Guide to the Weight Loss Method
Autophagy is a natural process that occurs in our bodies continuously from birth. Our bodies use this process to recycle cells and their components. But even though autophagy is a cleanup process that happens all the time, now we have the knowledge to harness its power and tap its benefits when we want to. In the following article, we explain what autophagy is, and how to induce it when you want to experience its benefits.
What is Autophagy
You might have heard of autophagy before. You might even know people who say that this process helped them lose weight. But how can autophagy help someone lose weight since it’s basically a natural cleaning process? Let’s find out.
The Autophagy Definition
If you pick up a biology manual or look up autophagy in search engines – do people still use manuals these days? -, you might get a response similar to the one below:
Autophagy is the natural process by which cellular material is degraded by lysosomes or vacuoles. This mechanism is induced by specific pathways such as chaperone-mediated autophagy, macroautophagy, and microautophagy. Now, this definition is very technical, but it’s also very difficult to understand. Sure, we might understand some of the words, but what do they actually mean? Let’s break it down.
Autophagy is a process in which cells eat themselves (in Greek, the term literally means self-eating). All cells degrade at certain rates. For example, a red blood cell lives on average 115 days. The cells on the top layer of our skin usually live 14 – 30 days, whereas neurons can live for years.
But the human body is extremely efficient, and it doesn’t want to lose all the components of the dead cells, or the damaged components of living cells only to create them again from scratch for new cells that serve the same purpose.
This is where the lysosomes come in. These organelles break down the cells and they recycle all the useful components like protein while eliminating intracellular pathogens such as bacteria or viruses. They dispose of the cells’ dysfunctional parts. We’ll talk more about why this important below.
The History of Autophagy
In 1963, Christian de Duve, a Belgian scientist was studying the effects of insulin on the liver when he stumbled upon a process nobody has documented before. He noticed that some cells cannibalized parts of their own structure in a presumed cleanup process. Thanks to de Duve’s findings, the connection autophagy – lysosome was made.
Even though the Belgian scientist’s discovery happened in the ‘60s and had lead to de Duve’s Nobel Prize in 1974, it wasn’t until the ‘80s that researchers really understood its importance.
The breakthrough came in 1983 when Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi discovered that specific genes regulate autophagy. He discovered that autophagy doesn’t happen without the help of these genes, which means that cells can’t repair themselves and the body doesn’t recycle as many components when the cell dies. This discovery led to Ohsumi’s Nobel Prize in 2016 and an important Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2017.
The Possible Benefits of Autophagy
You might be wondering what makes autophagy so important. Well, according to the latest studies – and there have been thousands of articles published on autophagy until now – stimulating this process might produce a lot of benefits. Here is a list of the most important ones.
It May Extend Aging
Autophagy is important because it allows the body to reuse some of the cell’s components, but it’s also one of the ways the cell can actually repair itself. As cells age, they lose some of their functions. This is a natural process, one that’s directly correlated to the cells’ functional components. In truth, aging could be defined as the accumulation of different forms of molecular damage.
A cell accumulates its damaged components until a lysosome disposes of them. At the same time, the likelihood of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes or even cancer increases concomitantly with the accumulated damage.
By triggering the autophagy, the lysosome is removing the dysfunctional components, reducing their harmful potential. Since the cleanup process removes the damaged parts of the cell, it actually manages to prevent the development of diseases. And it gets better. Since aging could be defined as the sum of the cells’ molecular damage, removing the damaged cells’ components might actually delay the aging process itself.
Protects Against Psychiatric Disorders
Neurodegeneration is the leading cause of mental illness. And unfortunately, brain diseases are often difficult to treat. Neurons might be considered the most important cells in the body, but they still suffer damage every day. Sometimes, neural degradation is caused by the accumulation of proteins, while other times the neurons might be affected by a virus or bacteria. When a sufficient number of neurons are damaged, they start behaving erratically, leading to clinical manifestations of various psychiatric disorders.
However, recent studies suggest that autophagy might be an efficient way of preventing the onset of psychiatric diseases. Autophagy preserves the balance between the degradation of existing neurons, the recycling of their useful components, and the creation of new ones.
Those who suffer from schizophrenia show a deficiency in their autophagy pathways. Simply put, for those who suffer from schizophrenia, the autophagy process is not triggered at the right time. This creates an imbalance between the death of existing neurons and the creation of new ones, which leads to the disease’s onset.
Prevents Neurodegenerative Disorders
You might have noticed that we talked about neural degradation caused by the accumulation of proteins. Well, this determines Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s diseases. The neurons of those who suffer from these diseases are assaulted by abnormal proteins called prions.
The accumulation of protein in the brain leads to profound changes in thinking and behavior and ultimately leads to the development of neurodegenerative diseases.
Autophagy increases the clearance of abnormal protein, as well as that of infectious and toxic agents. By triggering the autophagy process, researchers believe we might actually prevent the accumulation of both infectious and inflammatory agents that determine neurodegenerative diseases.
It Helps Fight Infectious Diseases
Autophagy can prevent the development of infectious diseases, and it can help fight the disease if you already contacted it. And the great thing is, this natural cleanup process is actually better at fighting infection than you would think.
You certainly heard of tuberculosis. Tuberculosis (or TB) is a disease that caused 1.3 million deaths worldwide in 2016 alone. You definitely know all about HIV, as well. These diseases are responsible for millions of deaths worldwide, and both of them can be prevented by autophagy.
When the lysosome triggers the autophagy mechanism, it targets the foreign and damaged components it finds in the cell for removal. The lysosome is so apt at removing the harmful components, it can degrade both the HIV virus and the TB bacteria so that they can’t multiply and spread inside the body.
Autophagy helps regulate the body’s inflammatory response. In fact, this is one of the mechanisms responsible for presenting the harmful particle to the immune cells which leads to the onset of the immune response.
And autophagy can also reduce the inflammatory response. All the foreign particles that enter the body are capable of launching an immune response. Even a damaged cell component can trigger an immune response if it’s not cleared in a timely manner. By constantly removing these particles, the cleaning process helps regulate the inflammatory response.
Improves Muscle Performance
If you didn’t spend the last two decades or so in a cave, you might have heard that exercise is good for your health. When we train our muscles, the exercises actually cause a trauma to the skeletal muscle fibers. The trauma determines an intervention of the immune system that triggers an inflammatory response. The inflammation contains and repairs the damage, and helps clean up the waste products in the area.
And as you probably guessed by now, the autophagy mechanism helps clean up the waste products as well. This mechanism is actually the one responsible for a low to moderate immune response. If the autophagy wouldn’t step in to clean up the waste products, the immune response would be greater and potentially dangerous.
But the autophagy process improves our muscle performance in more ways than one.
Even though they might not be useful, the damaged components of the cell still consume energy. By eliminating and recycling the damaged components, the autophagy helps the cell optimize its energy use and minimize its energy waste.
Can Help With Cancer Prevention
Chronic inflammation is one of the leading factors in cancer development. When a harmful particle abuses a cell, the body launches an inflammatory response. Sometimes, the inflammatory response cannot subdue the harmful agent in a timely manner. This leads to a chronic inflammation. Since the harmful agent is still present in the body, it can still produce toxins that can accumulate and lead to cancer.
Autophagy is helpful because it can help remove the harmful agent. Sometimes, even though it can’t remove the agent, the cleanup process will prevent the toxin accumulation, lowering the stress the body faces. This allows it to suppress the cancer initiation.
Enhances Metabolic Efficiency
Autophagy eliminates all the cells’ damaged components, preventing them from using energy needlessly. This will optimize the cells’ energy use, which will make them stronger and more resilient. And a good thing about this cleanup process is that it’s highly adaptable. If the body is facing a stressful situation, the autophagy mechanism will regulate the energy use by eliminating the cells’ components that are unnecessary.
How to Induce Autophagy
Now that we’ve listed the most important benefits of autophagy, let’s take a look at how to stimulate this process.
Our bodies perceive fasting as stress. And that makes sense when you think about it. When you’re fasting, you’re hungry, moody, and your body will make efforts to optimize your energy distribution. And that’s precisely what makes fasting a perfect trigger for autophagy. Now, before we proceed and explain how to use fasting to trigger autophagy, let’s take a look at the different types of fasts you can choose from.
- Long Fasts – These types of fasts require you to abstain from food for at least 24 hours.
- Dry Fast – Despite its harshness, this is still a popular type of fast. The dry fast is extremely dangerous because you don’t get to eat OR drink anything. Abstaining from drinking water is not advisable by any means. We do not recommend this fast. In fact, we recommend you avoid it, for your own sake.
- Water Fast – Another popular type of fast, the water fast has been researched for its value in weight loss. This fast requires you to abstain from eating anything, but it allows and even recommends drinking water. Some people have adapted this fast, and they consume juices or protein shakes instead of water. While these methods might be effective for weight loss – even though multiple studies indicated that juicing is actually harmful to the body and is NOT indicated for weight loss – they are not true facts because you consume calories.
Long fasts promote weight loss and autophagy. A single 24-hour fast can reverse the loss of stem cell function, which will dramatically improve their regeneration capacities.
You might be wondering how long you have to fast to stimulate autophagy – well, most studies agree that a period of 24-hours would suffice. Some studies indicate that a fasting period of 16 hours would also stimulate the autophagy process, which suggests that time-restricted and intermittent fasting are viable options.
Even though some studies found that time-restricted and intermittent fasting are viable options to trigger autophagy, they are not as reliable as the long fasts. If you want to make sure you stimulate the process, abstain from eating for a period of 24 – 36 hours. Keep in mind that fasting is about avoiding calories. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drink water, tea, or coffee, as long as you don’t add any sugar or other sweeteners to them.
One of the benefits of the ketogenic diet is that it limits your calorie consumption without limiting your food intake. This diet requires you to consume at least 75 percent of your calories from fat and refrain from consuming more than ten percent from carbohydrates. Your body prefers to use the glucose extracted from carbohydrates as fuel, but if it doesn’t find any carbs easily available, it changes its metabolic pathways and uses ketones extracted from fat as fuel instead.
Now, this shift might seem important to those who want to lose weight, but where does autophagy fit into this scenario?
Well, this shift actually happens naturally when we fast. The human body is highly adaptable. When we fast, our bodies look for other energy sources besides glucose, and they start breaking down fat to overcome starvation. This process is called ketogenesis. When the body is in a ketogenic state, the autophagy process is stimulated to optimize the cells’ energy consumption and improve the body’s energy output.
The ketogenic diet triggers the same process to help us lose weight. But the great thing about this diet is that you don’t have to starve yourself to trigger ketogenesis. This makes the ketogenic diet a viable option for those who are unable to fast.
Physical exercise stimulates the autophagy process. Exercise stimulated autophagy in multiple tissues and organs, such as the liver, pancreas, muscle, and adipose tissue. Surprisingly, exercise-induced autophagy in the cerebral cortex.
Even though this aspect is not fully understood at the moment, it strengthens researchers’ belief that regular exercise could prevent the onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. In addition, it seems like the exercise-induced autophagy helped with the development of new neurons and it helped improve the cognitive function. The process also optimized the energy consumption of the liver and pancreatic cells.
Even though most of us give up sleep to watch their favorite series, work more, or spend time with friends, our bodies function best when we respect their natural clocks or circadian rhythms. Our biological clock controls our sleep cycles, but it seems it controls the autophagy process as well.
Respecting our circadian rhythm is very important because it actually controls our metabolism. Our bodies order the production and release of hormones while we sleep. The lack of sleep is considered a stressful activity, and it has adverse effects on our health and wellbeing.
And sleep is also necessary to induce autophagy. The lack of sleep disturbs the autophagy process, and it slows it down considerably.
Autophagy Boosting Foods
Eating certain foods can stimulate the autophagy process. Here is a list of the most efficient foods you can eat to induce this cleaning process.
Several studies suggested that coffee consumption could inhibit several metabolic diseases. Now, it seems that coffee is so effective at reducing the incidence of metabolic diseases because it increases the autophagy process throughout the body.
And the best part is, you don’t have to abuse caffeine to benefit from these effects. Scientists have noticed an increased autophagy in the heart, liver, and muscle cells after the consumption of a single coffee cup.
Ginger consumption can induce autophagy. The active component of ginger, called 6-shogaol, can induce an autophagy process that’s so powerful it can actually help destroy a type of lung cancer cells.
Some of the active ingredients found in green tea can stimulate the autophagy process in the liver cells. EGCG, a polyphenol commonly found in green and white tea can induce the autophagy in the liver. This process is helpful against inflammation, cancer, and liver damage.
Coconut oil contains a lot of ketones, the same components the body produces naturally when we’re starving. By consuming these components through coconut oil, we trick the body into inducing autophagy without starving ourselves.
The Reishi mushroom has been used in Asian traditional medicine for centuries, which determined scientists to study its therapeutic effects. Recent studies suggest that the Reishi mushroom induces autophagy, which can produce anticancer effects in those who suffer from breast cancer.
Natural Supplements That Boost Autophagy
The following natural supplements can also be used to induce autophagy
Resveratrol is a compound commonly found in grapes, wine, and soy. This compound induces autophagy that can help inhibit breast cancer cells and can reduce the toxicity within the body.
Nicotinamide is a component of the vitamin B complex. Consuming this natural supplement can stimulate the autophagy process, which will reduce the pathologic accumulations that lead to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Vitamin D is synthesized naturally by our skin when it’s exposed to sunlight. However, not many of us can expose our skin to the sun to produce vitamin D, especially in the cold season. This is why doctors recommend vitamin D supplementation.
Vitamin D can induce a powerful autophagy in the pancreatic cells, which can stimulate the insulin production and help prevent the onset of diabetes.
Melatonin is a hormone that plays an important role in the regulation of our circadian rhythm. Recent studies show that melatonin supplementation can induce autophagy in the brain, protecting it against cell injury. This could prevent several neuropsychiatric conditions.
Ginseng is one of the most popular natural supplements in the world. The ginseng root’s active components induce autophagy and they have a protective role against breast cancer cells and melanoma.
The Genetics of Autophagy
Just like every other process in our body, autophagy is controlled directly and indirectly by genes. The genes that control this process determine how efficient it will be in collaborating with the immune system, and how well it will function as we grow older.
The Autophagy On/Off Switch
If autophagy is so efficient in protecting our bodies against harmful agents like bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells, why doesn’t it make us immune to them?
Well, unfortunately, the natural autophagy process cannot keep up with the aging process. As our bodies grow older, our cells accumulate more and more debris inside them. The autophagy mechanism is triggered, and the lysosomes start cleaning up the cells. But they simply can’t keep up with the workload.
Cells die continuously inside the body. The autophagy process cannot take place continuously in every part of the body. The active process always targets the cells that face the highest stress and works in a maintenance mode everywhere else.
For example, your skin cells face a high stress when you get a sunburn. Some of the cells die and trigger apoptosis, while others are damaged and trigger the autophagy. Sure, your damaged liver cells will still get fixed, but the body’s focus is not on them at that moment. It needs to handle the skin burn first. That’s the priority.
However, we can activate the autophagy mechanism at will. This can be accomplished in two ways. We can either consume foods or dietary supplements that induce the process, or we can produce some form of stress on the body and trigger it. Fasting and dieting are the easiest and healthiest ways to induce stress as a trigger for autophagy.
The Negative Effects of Autophagy
Unfortunately, autophagy can have some negative effects as well. While this process can prevent cancer, but once cancer sets in, it can actually work against us.
Just like normal cells, cancer cells need the energy to function. But unlike the normal cells, the cancer cells have very high energy demands because they multiply quickly. Cancer cells use the autophagy process to optimize their energy consumption. Autophagy helps these cells to get rid of their damaged components, and it helps them use their energy to multiply.
The Benefits Of Using Autophagy
As you could see, inducing autophagy presents multiple possible benefits. While this topic is still under scientific scrutiny, most researchers agree that the autophagy process can help us lead better and healthier lives.