Autophagy: What is it and why should I care?

Updated: Jul 12

Most people have heard about DNA the blueprint for protein synthesis. Autophagy is the opposite of protein synthesis; it is the orderly dismantling and recycling of proteins and is equally essential for life. Knowledge of the simple lifestyle choices that hinder or enhance autophagy can greatly improve our healthspan. The process of life generates large amounts of redundant and damaged protoplasm that must be recycled and repaired daily for example mitochondria, the structures which generate energy in cells have a life cycle of just 20-30 days. Dysfunctional components of mitochondria are removed by “autophagy” and their amino-acids recycled. Inefficient maintenance of mitochondria can precipitate cell death in various age related diseases such as neurodegeneration, osteoporosis, sarcopenia, arthritis, atherosclerosis and so on.
The immune system is not just about preventing infections. The “day job” of the immune system is preservation of normal function in all systems and organs of the body. A staggering 330 billion cells every day need to be recycled and inefficient clearing of dying cells is a major factor in the cause and exacerbation of most diseases. Immune cells mainly macrophages swallow up dying cells. Once a macrophage has ingested another cell it must quickly digest it, using its autophagy mechanisms. Autophagy is the rate limiting factor for the macrophage to move on and clear another dying cell.
Autophagy has many other functions including mobilization of energy from stores of fat and glycogen, so fasting switches it on. Three meals a day and snacking in between suppresses autophagy and is a recipe for accelerated aging. On the other hand autophagy can be enhanced by:
  1. A ketogenic low protein diet also called a Fasting Mimicking Diet

  2. Fasting or Time Restricted Feeding: e.g. eating during a 6-hour window, or one meal a day (OMAD)

  3. Exercise

  4. Word of warning for HIGH PROTEIN DIETS: replacing carbohydrates with excessive protein is ill advised where consuming 0.8 gm/kg body weight may be ideal for optimal autophagy.