Lysosomes devour dead tissue cells.

Autophagy: “Self-Eating” Your Way to Health

Lysosomes devour dead tissue cells.

Cellular destruction, reparation, and regeneration is the process of life. Your body is in a constant state of reconstruction as a response to everything we do. In our innate recycling program, our body uses lysosomes (organelles that contain enzymes that break down biomolecules) to tear apart and reuse parts of our cellular makeup in a process known as autophagy. As we are beginning to discover, this process may be closely associated with many of the benefits of regular exercise and intermittent fasting.

Derived from the Greek word autophagos, literally translated to “self-devouring,” autophagy is a process wherein lysosomes seek out dead or diseased cells, convert the garbage into amino acids, and help transport them throughout the body where they can be used. This helps rid cells of clutter and reduces cellular biological aging, assists immune system regulation, can suppress the proliferation of cancerous cells, and (in my opinion) most interestingly: decreases unnecessary processes and supplies us with energy during periods of fasting. You read that right: not only does this amazing process help our body fight infections and reduce the risk of chronic disease, but also, in a trick of evolutionary magic, it helps us survive in the absence of nutritional nourishment. In fact, the research suggests that due to autophagy, periods of fasting and caloric restriction may actually be one of the best things you can do for your health.

There appears to be three ways to promote and increase the effect of autophagy: exercise, fasting, and ketosis. The stress induced by these activities inhibits various cellular pathways that impede autophagy and upregulates activated protein kinase (AMPK), which in turn promotes and intensifies the process.

Exercise fundamentally breaks down your body, creating microscopic tears in your skeletal and cardiac muscle, which your body must repair and subsequently make stronger and more resilient. Unintentionally, this ruinous state is one of the best ways to cleanse the body of dead and possibly harmful cells. Animal studies have shown that the cellular destruction caused by exercise turns on autophagy in muscle, as well as in the pancreas and liver. In one study, researchers found that the conversion rate of autophagosomes, the cell components that are recycled during autophagy, was drastically increased after 30 minutes of running, and the effect lasted for 80 minutes, when it began to taper off. Of note, like many other processes initiated by exercise (such as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption), it appears that autophagy is directly associated with intensity and not duration, and that long steady-state exercise (longer than 80 minutes) may actually mute the effects. More reason to limit those long, slow runs and integrate more short, but high-intensity, bursts of activity into your exercise program.

One of the hottest areas of nutrition research is how fasting and caloric restriction influences lifespan and other, more direct biomarkers of health. Recent research suggests that intermittent fasting, for periods up to 72 hours, may downregulate the pathways that inhibit autophagy, causing an increase in our cellular recycling, increasing longevity, and decreasing chronic disease. Autophagy may be the reason studies have shown that intermittent fasting may have cardioprotective benefits, improve blood glucose regulation, and decrease risk for several forms of cancer. Other studies have shown that fasting may induce autophagy in the brain, resulting in improved brain structure and function, and possibly decreased risk for neurodegenerative diseases. While many of us get tired and feel foggy at the very thought of going without food for extended periods of time, due to autophagy, it may actually be one of the best things we can do for proper metabolic and brain function.

When we consume very low levels of carbohydrates (under 50 g per day), our bodies are forced to go into a state ketosis, where fat instead of glucose is used as the primary source of fuel. During this process, the liver converts fat into ketones, fuel molecules that can be utilized by the body and the brain. So-called ketogenic diets have been popular in bodybuilding for decades and have become an increasingly popular way for normal people to quickly decrease body fat while maintaining lean muscle mass. While there are undeniable negative side effects to ketosis, such as short-term decreases in performance, headache, and nausea, it does appear that ketosis triggers autophagy. This may be why ketosis has been shown to inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells and even reduce symptoms in patients with neurodegenerative diseases. So, if you aren’t up for intermittent fasting, experimenting with a ketogenic diet may be a way to experience many of the same metabolic and health-benefitting properties without starving yourself.

Ironically, “self-eating” by fasting combined with intense exercise may be one of the most effective methods of improving biomarkers of health, decreasing your risk for chronic disease, and increasing your lifespan. While there is a lot we don’t know about autophagy, the evidence is mounting that actually increasing the stress we regularly apply to our bodies has a number of positive effects. Exercise hard and take a pass on that post-exercise protein shake.

Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC.He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.