How the Body Recycles: Autophagy + 5 Health Habits That Affect It
Autophagy isn’t exactly a household word. In fact, you may have never heard of it. But if you value your health, it’s definitely something worth knowing about because understanding and optimizing autophagy is the key to everlasting wellness.
In short, autophagy is the process by which cells of the body are broken down, recycled, and repaired. That’s important because your body is composed entirely of living cells. Everything that happens inside your body — whether it’s your heart beating or brain impulses firing — is due to the actions of cells, and your cells depend on the process of autophagy to stay healthy.
The word autophagy literally means “self-eating.” It comes from the discovery that during periods when you’re not eating, cells of the body recycle their parts to generate energy and ensure survival. It’s like if you were on an ole-timey steam locomotive that ran out of coal, you could pull wood off the side of the train to fuel the engine until you got to your destination.
Using autophagy, your body’s cells continually prune damaged or misfolded proteins, burned out mitochondria, damaged DNA, and other worn-out parts, and break them down into the component organic molecules. These recovered components can be reused to make new proteins and other parts. By using autophagy for internal housekeeping, cells can stay lean and strong.
With autophagy being an integral mechanism to repair and rejuvenate cellular wellness, it’s no surprise that the process has been linked to a wide range of chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular diseases, inflammatory bowel disease, neurodegenerative diseases, type 2 diabetes, lupus and other autoimmune illnesses, chronic infections, and even cancer.
Thankfully, your health habits play a significant role in how effectively your cells perform autophagy. Below, we’ll take a look at the daily practices that can hinder it, plus examine some hacks you can implement right away to optimize this critical cellular process.
5 Health Habits That Affect Autophagy
Habit #1. Consuming a Carbohydrate-Heavy Diet
The biggest dietary offender of autophagy is a carbohydrate-laden diet of starches and sugar. Consuming carbohydrates stimulates the secretion of insulin and other growth factors, which are potent autophagy inhibitors. Overconsuming such carbs as bread, pasta, pastries, and sugary drinks will cause insulin and other growth factors to stay elevated continually, which suppresses autophagy even when you’re not eating.
If you were going to change one thing about your diet, it would probably be to reduce your carb consumption. But many people take this step by turning to the ketogenic diet and focusing on eating fat instead of carbs. By limiting carbohydrate consumption to Consumption of saturated fat increases blood viscosity (thickness), which is a primary promoter of arterial plaque formation.
Instead of an all-or-nothing diet, consider these hacks for a more moderate, sustainable approach to healthful eating.
- Narrow your eating window. When you’re not eating, the greater the incentive for cells to do autophagy; it’s a matter of following natural circadian rhythms. Try limiting your eating window to . If you can narrow it down to the fast takes place.
- Fill up on vegetables. If you want to properly nourish your cells and optimize autophagy, eat more vegetables than anything else. Vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and a range of other essential nutrients that our cells need to function, but they are low in digestible carbohydrates and fats. Most importantly, vegetables are also loaded with beneficial fiber that promotes normal intestinal motility and balances the gut microbiome. High intake of vegetables has been associated with reduced risk of virtually all diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, intestinal diseases, and cancer.
- Cut the carbs. To avoid raising your insulin levels, you have to decrease your intake of carbs. For most people, that’s . If you’re more physically active, you may need larger amounts of carbohydrates to sustain your energy levels throughout the day.
Habit #2. Frequent Exposure to Toxins
Toxic chemicals are harmful to living things because they interfere with or interrupt cellular processes in some way. The problem is that we (and all living creatures on earth) are exposed to thousands of unnatural chemicals generated from burning fossil fuels and by the chemical, agriculture, plastics, and pharmaceutical industries. They’re in our food and water, the air, and in skin products.
When cellular functions are handcuffed with low levels of toxic substances, it takes more effort and energy to get the same amount of work done. This increases wear and tear on cellular parts and taxes the ability of mitochondria to generate energy. In addition to creating greater cellular damage, toxins can inhibit the ability of cells to perform autophagy.
Taking steps to minimize exposure to unnatural, toxic substances isn’t as challenging as you might expect. Toxic substances can enter the body by only three routes: ingesting them, breathing them in, or through direct skin exposure.
- Filter your drinking water. Installing a water filter or buying bottled water (in glass or BPA-free containers) is a simple strategy to reduce chemicals in your water supply.
- Buy organic food whenever practical. A nonprofit organization called The Environmental Working Group (EWG) regularly posts information on which produce is most likely to contain pesticides (Dirty Dozen). Those are the ones that should be given preference for buying organic.
- Change indoor air filters regularly. Indoor air filters can get bogged down with dust, mold mycotoxins, and other allergens, and changing them is a simple step for improving the air quality inside homes and offices.
- Choose natural source skin care products. Most commercial personal care products contain chemicals derived from petroleum. Again, EWG is a good source of advice for which products to steer clear of and which are safe to buy.
- Take Chlorella. A freshwater green algae, chlorella has been used as a nutrient-dense food source for many years; it’s high in both protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, studies suggest the chlorophyll in chlorella may bind to toxins in the GI tract and hold them there, preventing them from being absorbed into your tissue so that they are excreted rather than stored.
Habit #3. Being Chronically Stressed Out
Sympathetic nervous system overactivity (fight or flight) associated with chronic mental stress is a big autophagy suppressor. When stress hormones maintain cells of the body on high alert, cellular energy is allocated to deal with whatever stress might be imminent (real or perceived). Less energy is left over for autophagy. Overactive stress hormones also disrupt adequate sleep, the most important time for cellular housekeeping.
Not all mental stress is bad — some mental stress is the motivator that keeps us moving during the day and helps us confront and solve problems. It’s only when stress becomes unrelenting that it cuts into precious resources necessary for autophagy.
- Find balance in life. Much of modern stress is mental. To keep stress from eroding your cellular health, you need intermittent breaks throughout the day. Examples include a relaxing meal (instead of fast food in front of the computer), a 20-minute yoga break, or a walk around the block. Any non-mental activity that brings down stress hormones is valuable.
- Make good sleep a non-negotiable. A less stressful day generally promotes restful sleep at night. Adequate sleep (7-8 hours) is essential for cells to recover from working all day. A recipe for a good night’s sleep starts with a physically active day. Moderate physical activity causes the buildup of a substance called adenosine in the brain, which promotes restful sleep. The recipe also includes calming activities in the evening, low light, avoidance of lighted screens, cool temperatures, and a quiet, dark room with a comfortable bed.
Habit #4. A Sedentary Lifestyle
Regular physical activity enhances blood flow, increasing nutrient delivery to cells and removing metabolic waste and toxic substances. Physical activity also normalizes stress hormones and promotes restful sleep at night — all of which goes toward optimizing the cellular housekeeping provided by autophagy.
Physical activity is a strong autophagy inducer. It is especially beneficial for selectively pruning burned-out mitochondria and generating new ones, which increases your total energy capacity.
- Take a walk. One of the most natural ways of engaging in physical activity is by walking. Walking provides all the benefits without causing significant stress on joints and ligaments. It doesn’t require training or a gym membership. It can be done almost anywhere and in nearly any season. Start with a mile a day and work up to three miles a day. It doesn’t have to be done all at once — you can do a mile in the morning, another mile midday, and then a mile in the evening.
- Increase the intensity. Exercise stimulates autophagy, so consider upping the intensity a few times a week. You don’t have to spend a significant amount of time — even 10-20 minutes of alternating bursts of intense efforts followed by brief periods of recovery (known as high-intensity interval training or “HIIT”) may be enough to simulate this vital cellular process.
- Allow adequate warmup, rest, and recovery. Allow about 20 minutes for your body to warm up before increasing the intensity of physical activity. Additionally, take one to two recovery days off from exercise each week. I can’t underscore the importance of adequate warmup, rest, and recovery to optimize autophagy.
Habit #5. Tipping the Balance of Microbes
When various factors stress the body’s cells, they must work harder and use more energy to carry out their functions, which overtaxes the mitochondria and accelerates cellular wear and tear. If the capacity for autophagy and internal cleanup is exceeded, worn-out parts and damaged proteins accumulate inside the cell, compromising its functions. It also impairs the cell’s ability to efficiently expel or repel bacteria and other microbes.
Multiple stress factors coming together can create a perfect storm. For instance, chronic cellular stress overwhelms the mechanics of autophagy and compromises cellular functions, making cells vulnerable to invasion by intracellular bacteria. Microbes also emerge and infect vulnerable cells, creating a vicious cycle of widespread cellular distress. Because cells are affected throughout the body, a wide range of uncomfortable and unpleasant symptoms can develop.
And this is where herbal therapy can give you the extra edge you need in your wellness plan.
Augment your good health practices with herbal therapy to normalize autophagy and create an environment where harmful microbes remain dormant and helpful ones can flourish. Herbs not only suppress microbes but also reduce cellular stress at every level.
- Add daily herbs into your routine. Many herbal phytochemicals — beneficial plant compounds — positively affect autophagy in a variety of ways, according to research. My favorite herbs include rhodiola, turmeric, reishi, gotu kola, milk thistle, and shilajit.
- Use herbal blends. I prefer to take the above herbs in a blended formula to experience their most potent synergistic effects and maximize their benefits.
- Take them consistently. Herbs address the root cause of cellular stress. They work slowly and steadily, and they really shine with the cumulative benefits of everyday use because they are gentle and well-tolerated with minimal to no side effects.
Between lifestyle modifications and herbal therapy, there’s a lot you can do to keep the process of autophagy humming along and optimize the health of your cells. The hacks outlined in this article can be used to bolster or improve your current health regimen — no matter where you’re at on the path to wellness.
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1. Rahman MA, Hannan MA, Dash R, et al. Phytochemicals as a Complement to Cancer Chemotherapy: Pharmacological Modulation of the Autophagy-Apoptosis Pathway. Front Pharmacol. 2021 May 7;12:639628. doi: 10.3389/fphar.2021
2. Takekoshi H, Suzuki G, Chubachi H, Nakano M. Effect of Chlorella pyrenoidosa on fecal excretion and liver accumulation of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxin in mice. Chemosphere. 2005 Apr;59(2):297-304. doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2004.11.026