Health & Wellness - A Primer on Autophagy


By Izzy Leizerowitz

Anyone on a Ketogenic program is aware of or has understood that the benefits of Keto are maximized through the addition and adaptation of using Intermittent Fasting into your program. We know that prolonged hours between meals, preferably at least 12 hours, but ideally 16-18 hours, maximizes the natural production of human growth hormone; encourages the body to burn fat in a keto meal based program environment; and also causes the body to accelerate a biological process called Autophagy. So what is Autophagy and if I am over 50, is it good for me as an anti-aging process?

What is Autophagy?

Autophagy. Simply put, it is the method by which your body cleans out damaged cells and toxins, and helps you regenerate newer, healthier cells. Let me explain.  Over time, our cells accumulate a variety of dead organelles, damaged proteins, and oxidized particles that clog the body’s inner workings. These damages cells parts, roaming your body, actually accelerates aging, can induce dementia, and increases the risk of cancer, as well as other age-related diseases. Because many of our cells, like those in the brain, need to last a lifetime, the body developed a unique way of ridding itself of those faulty parts and defending itself naturally against disease.

In a recent Bulletproof Radio (iTunes) podcast with Naomi Whittel, author of the autophagy-centric book “Glow15: A Science-Based Plan to Lose Weight, Revitalize Your Skin, and Invigorate Your Life, she uses the following analogy to explain how autophagy works.

Think of your body as a kitchen. After making a meal, you clean up the counter, throw away the leftovers, and recycle some of the food. The next day, you have a clean kitchen. This is autophagy doing its thing in your body, and doing it well.

Now think of the same scenario, but you’re older and not as efficient. After making your meal, you leave remnants on the counter. Some of it gets into the garbage, some of it doesn’t. They linger on the counter, garbage, and recycling bin. They never make it out the door to the dumpster, and toxic waste starts to build up in your kitchen. There’s food fermentation on the floor and all kinds of nasty smells wafting out the door. Due to the onslaught of pollutants and toxins, you’re having a hard time keeping up with the daily grime. This scenario resembles autophagy that isn’t working as well as it should.

Autophagy, when activated will go into maximum process mode during times of stress, as a way to protect the body (such as in times of famine). When you activate autophagy, you slow down the aging process, reduce inflammation, and boost your body’s natural ability to function. To help your body resist disease and boost longevity, you can increase your autophagy response naturally (more on that later).

Benefits of autophagy

Autophagy  detoxes your body. When you activate autophagy, you slow down the aging process, prevent or delay neurodegenerative diseases,  as well as reduce inflammation, and boost your body’s natural ability to function. Autophagy is also helps with your skin complexion.

So How Do We Induce Autophagy?

Ketogenic Diet

Eat a high-fat, low-carb diet.  In her podcast, Whittel stresses the importance of eating fat to activate autophagy. “Fat needs to be the dominant macronutrient in our diets because it’s different from protein. Whereas protein can turn into a carb and become a sugar, [fat cannot].” Specifically, a keto diet (a high-fat, low-carb meal plan) gives you an edge you when it comes to autophagy. The shift from burning glucose (carbs) to ketones (fats) that occurs on a keto diet mimics what occurs naturally in a fasted state — and this increases autophagy in its own right.

Practice intermittent fasting

By eating all of your meals within an eight-hour window, you will increase your body’s inherent autophagy process. Like a protein-specific fast, intermittent fasting gives your body a chance to “catch up” on all those lingering toxins — by cleaning up in real-time. Remove toxin build-up with a 16-28 hour fast.

If done incorrectly, intermittent fasting can cause hormone imbalances in women. That’s because women are highly sensitive to signs of starvation or calorie restriction. To sidestep these issues, for women, you could consume a fat-only meal.  By keeping carbs and protein out of your meal, you remain in a fasting state, while the fat tells your body that you’re not starving. To know more, I urge you to read up more about how women can practice intermittent fasting safely.

Exercise using high-intensity interval training

HIIT (high-intensity interval training) exercise is another advantageous way to stimulate autophagy. Remember, autophagy is a bodily response to stress, and high-intensity exercise puts you in the good-stress sweet spot because it stresses you just enough to provoke biochemical change. You’ll get just enough impact load to make your muscles stronger (and induce autophagy) without harm. Aim for approximately 20-30 minutes a day to give your longevity an optimal boost.

Whittel emphasizes a “less is more” approach to exercise for inducing autophagy. “Weightlifting and resistance training exercises for 30 minutes every other day is the best way to activate autophagy. It’s about getting in that short-term, acute stress, because autophagy loves the stress of interval training.” Whittel applies interval training to her walks by alternating between a brisk and slow pace.

Get lots of Sleep

You can reap the benefits of autophagy while you’re asleep too, says Whittel. Together with sleep expert and The Power of When author Dr. Michael Breus, they developed a quiz to help people identify their sleep personality (aka sleep chronotype). Whittel and Brues note that you possess one of four sleep personalities, which informs the way you function throughout the day (and night). When you know which sleep personality you are, you can set yourself up to activate autophagy through your circadian rhythms, or sleep-wake cycles.

Aging and Autophagy

The Aging process results from the gradual decline in cellular repair and housekeeping mechanisms, which leads to an accumulation of damaged cellular constituents and ultimately to the degeneration of tissues and organs. Decades of research on the subject have revealed that the aging process is influenced by genetics and that many metabolic signaling genes can affect aging by mechanisms still to be fully understood. However, evidence that autophagy influences the aging process has been observed in multiple organisms, from yeast to multicellular organisms such as worms and flies, and a more recent and exciting scientific finding is that autophagy is positively implicated in neurodegenerative diseases that affect humans.

Stay tuned, but all indications point to the fact that Intermittent Fasting and it’s byproduct; Autophagy, go a long way to keeping your body in optimum condition.