Ultimate guide to autophagy

Ultimate Guide to Autophagy 

Your body is composed of trillions of tiny building blocks called cells. These cells are in a constant cycle of growing, living, and dying. Older cells become less efficient and dysfunctional. To remove these problematic cells, your body goes through something called autophagy. This natural process helps your systems continue to cycle out the bad and poorly performing cells. 

Nature’s version of cell recycling is a process you can actually trigger. There are a few different methods to induce autophagy, all things that are recommended you do for your health anyway. Below is the ultimate guide to activating autophagy and how it benefits your body. 

Fasting and Other Ways to Trigger It

Autophagy starts when the body is deprived of calories. Learning how to trigger autophagy means understanding how to do that properly. Before you jump into anything, it is important to understand how to follow these methods safely. Check with your doctor to ensure any conditions you have will not be negatively affected. 

What is Autophagy Fasting

Fasting is by far the most popular way to activate the autophagy cycle. Fasting is going without food for a specific period of time. It can be done intermittently or for a prolonged period. Studies show that short-term fasting can induce autophagy. 

This happens through the depletion of cellular nutrients. Autophagy induces the production of amino acids, which are used as an energy source to maintain cellular function. The process is referred to as “going into famine mode.” Basically, it means your body can’t tell the difference between fasting and starving to death and it rushes to protect itself. 

Most fasting studies have been done on animals, so there is still some debate over how frequently and how long humans should fast. Some studies do suggest that fasting as a complement to chemotherapy protects normal cells and makes the chemo more effective. Short-term fasting has proven to be safe but challenging for humans during chemotherapy. 

When you decide to fast, unless you are experienced with fasting, it is better to start small. You can increase your fasting time as you feel comfortable with the method. For intermittent fasters, there are three common methods:

  • 16/8
    • In this method, you skip breakfast and restrict your daily eating to eight hours only, fasting for 16 hours in between. 
  • Eat-Stop-Eat
    • In this method, you fast for 24 hours once or twice a week. 
  • 5:2
    • In this method, for two nonconsecutive days of the week, you only eat 500-600 calories. The rest of the week you eat the normal amount of calories. 

Diet Change: When Does Autophagy Start?

An alternative to fasting is a low-carb diet to deprive the body of easy-to-access sugars. Autophagy is activated to provide amino acids for energy through gluconeogenesis, which is a way to produce glucose instead of ingesting it. The most common diet for this is a ketogenic diet. 

Ketosis is a high fat, low carb diet that produces the same effects as fasting. With this diet, you end up getting most of your daily calories from fat with only a small amount derived from carbs. The alternate calorie source forces a metabolic shift in your systems, using the fat as fuel instead of the carb-produced glucose. 

Not only does your body begin producing protective ketone bodies, but it also triggers the neuroprotective functions of autophagy. Who you aren’t starving yourself, your body thinks you are. It rushes to protect vital cells and eats away at inefficient and malfunctioning cells. It creates a survival-induced repair mode. 


While it is still a largely unexplored field, research show that exercise induces autophagy in the brain and other important organs. Tissue affected included muscle, adipose, pancreas, and liver– all of which are important parts of metabolic regulation. 

Adding exercise to your routine causes your body to burn more fuel. Burning up its supply of calories triggers the autophagy process in an effort to protect itself. Cardiovascular exercise burns up more energy, more strongly activating autophagy. 


A chemical that occurs naturally within the turmeric root, called curcumin, has been found to trigger autophagy. One study with mice found that curcumin induced autophagy, protecting against diabetic cardiomyopathy. It was also found to help reduce cognitive impairment from chemotherapy. Autophagy was triggered in the brain, breaking down damaged cells to generate new ones. 

If you want to stimulate autophagy, the best place to start is by adding regular exercise and light fasting to your routine. Start small and build up as you become more accustomed to the new practices. If you have any serious conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, be sure to consult your doctor before you begin fasting. 

What is Autophagy and What are Its Benefits?

What is autophagy? When push comes to shove, autophagy is your cells eating each other. Auto means self and phagy means eat. The word literally means self-eating or self-devouring. While it sounds like you have a mini horror story going on inside your body, it’s actually a good thing. 

It is a self-preservation function that removes poorly performing and malfunctioning cells. It recycles parts of the cell into cellular repair and cleaning. Consider it an automatic reset back to factory settings for your cells. There are three different types of autophagy:

  • Chaperone-Mediated Autophagy
    • This type of autophagy utilizes a membrane-bound organelle called a lysosome. Soluble cytosolic proteins are bonded to a lysosome which then absorbs the protein through its membrane. The proteins break down within the lysosome, causing autophagy. 
  • Microautophagy
    • Microautophagy relies on cytoplasmic material for its process. The cytoplasm is a cell’s inner material surrounding the nucleus, sealed inside by the cell’s membrane. The cytoplasmic material is caught within a lysosome, creating a way for cells to survive being starved or low on nitrogen. 
  • Macroautophagy
    • This method is related to microautophagy. All the same players, like lysosomes and cytoplsmic materials, are involved. With macroautophagy, instead of creating a way to survive, the lysosomes break down the cytoplasmic materials and reuse them. 

What is the Autophagy Cycle?

All three methods go through a four-step process of sequestration, transport, degradation, and utilization. Every step in the autophagy cycle is essential to your body. 

Sequestration. Two membranes called phagophores enclose the cytoplasm and other organelles of a cell. The double membrane is called an autophagosome. While usually the autophagosome only collects what is near it, sometimes it chooses to enclose only certain proteins. 

Transport. Lysosomes, containing enzymes and proteins are part of the breakdown process, but cannot attach to an autophagosome on their own. A bridge called an endosome joins with the autophagosome creating an amphisome. The amphisome can join to a lysosome with no trouble.

Degradation. After the amphisome and lysosome fuse, degradation can begin. The fusion releases hydrolases, an enzyme that degrades the original autophagosome materials. It brakes them down into the cellular material called amino acids. The structure is now called an autolysosome. 

Utilization. The amino acids are removed from the autolysosome and reused in the tricarboxylic acid cycle to build other cells or as cellular nutrients. Other amino acids can also use the broken-down material for forming glucose from non-carb sources. As previously mentioned this is called gluconeogenesis. 

What are the Benefits of Autophagy?

It is important to note that research in this field is still ongoing. It is also difficult to study in humans for various reasons, so most of our knowledge comes from animal studies. What scientists have discovered so far is very promising. There are many potential benefits derived from the process of autophagy. 

  • Reduced Cell Death
    • Cellular death is messy and it takes time and energy for your body to clear up the aftermath. Autophagy reabsorbs the cell and recycles the usable parts before it dies. This conserves energy for more important things like creating new cells.
  • Liver Health
    • Research shows that autophagy might prevent or lessen the progression of liver conditions like Wilson's disease, fatty liver disease, and acute liver injury. 
  • Boosted Immune System
    • Autophagy plays an important part in cleaning out toxins and infectious agents for the immune system. It also helps to protect cells against invading microbes. 
  • Healthier Skin
    • The build-up of damage and toxins in our cells makes the skin look older. Cells that rejuvenate regularly create, fresher, younger-looking skin. 
  • Heart Health
    • Cleaning out old and damaged proteins and organelles lessens the chances of developing cardiovascular and heart diseases. 
  • Boosted Metabolism
    • To lose weight, your metabolism needs to be working correctly. Mitochondria is essential for fat burning. Autophagy absorbs toxic mitochondria, protecting your cells and keeping your metabolism working smoothly. 
  • Potentially Reduces the Risk of Cancer
    • Damaged DNA leads to a higher risk of developing cancer. Autophagy keeps your cells healthy and stable helping to avoid cancer. 
    • If you already have cancer, triggering autophagy might work in cancer’s favor. Be sure to speak with your doctor before taking any steps to induce autophagy. 
  • Healthier Brain
    • Just like with your heart, autophagy is essential to keeping a healthy brain. Toxic proteins called amyloid-tau and amyloid-bet overrun the cells and are responsible for the development of Alzheimer's disease. You are also at a higher risk of developing dementia, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s. Autophagy cleans out the toxins and generates new cells, lessening the risk of developing these diseases. 
  • Improved Digestive Health
    • The cells in your gastrointestinal tract need to stay fresh to promote digestion. Chronic issues and inflammation can develop unless autophagy is triggered to refresh the cells.  

Recommendations for Success with Autophagy

Your body is constantly performing autophagy but it is possible to kick start it into higher gear to help your cells be healthier. It can take anywhere between 24 and 48 hours to reach peak autophagy during a fast. For others, it can take even longer. 

Everybody’s body is different. There are other factors that affect autophagy,  like what you ate before starting your fast, your sleep patterns, and how active you are. Things you can do to speed up autophagy are:

  • Go on a keto diet before fasting
  • Avoid alcohol, snack foods, trans fats, sweeteners, and soda
  • Get good sleep
  • Exercise
  • Do a protein fast

Six Steps to Autophagy Fasting

It’s important to know what kind of fast, whether it’s one of the three mentioned earlier or a different method. There are many other kinds of fasting methods, such as water fasts. Thoroughly research the type of fast you want to attempt. 

Talk to your doctor

Schedule an appointment for a routine exam to ensure you are in good health for a fast. Your doctor will check to make sure you have no underlying conditions that can be complicated by fasting.

Pregame your diet

What you eat in the days leading up to the fast will decide how fast your autophagy will peak. Healthy, balanced choices help prep your body for the fast. 

Exercise during the fast

Exercise keeps your body from breaking down your muscle mass. It also puts a little more pressure on the cells, pushing them into autophagy faster. If you don’t have that much energy, less strenuous exercises like yoga and walking are just fine. 


It may be difficult at first to sleep when your stomach won’t start nagging. After a while though, your circadian rhythm will align with your intermittent fasting, improving your sleep. 

Reintroducing food

Do not overload your system after a fast by going straight back to normal eating. Start by eating small quantities every few hours and increasing from there. It is perfectly normal to eat only liquids the first day after a fast if that is what you need. 

Signs that Autophagy has Started

While you can’t physically feel autophagy, there are a few symptoms associated with it that might be an indication.  

  • Increased ketones in the blood, breath, and urine
    • Fatty acids produce a molecule called ketones when they don’t have enough calories to burn. Ketones have been thought to stimulate autophagy. You can test for a heightened level in your blood, breath, and urine with special strips and meters. 
  • Reduced appetite
    • Autophagy causes a change of hormones that affect your blood sugar levels, suppressing your appetite. 
  • Fatigue 
    • The methods to induce autophagy are often linked with fatigue. Some people report over time that the fatigue lessens as they get used to the fasting habits. 
  • Bad breath
    • Bad Breath can be a sign that your body has entered ketosis, which increases ketone levels. Chewing gum and brushing your teeth more often can help counteract this issue. 
  • Improved brain function
A study of older adults found intermittent fasting to be beneficial for cognitive function due to several different factors, including autophagy.