Autophagy is derived from the Greek words ‘auto’ and ‘phagy’ which means self-eating. Scientists first discovered that human cells could eat themselves in the 1950s when they noticed under a microscope that the cell constituents were consuming certain other smaller parts of it. Since then, the understanding of autophagy and its effect on human health and disease has developed. Its potential use for beneficial and therapeutic purposes may be more far-reaching than scientists once thought.
Autophagy isn’t as cannibalistic as it sounds. The process of autophagy is well regulated and is imperative for cells to function properly and thrive. Switching on autophagy is the premise of the current health trends in fasting and ketosis, and is associated with good health and longevity. However, should you always be trying to encourage autophagy in your body? And how is diet and nutrition-related to this process? In this article, I will uncover the pros and cons of enhancing autophagy, and when it is beneficial to stimulate this process for therapeutic purposes.
What is the purpose of autophagy?
Autophagy is key to cellular health as it maintains a neutral and normal functioning of the cell. If you tried to start a car when the engine is faulty, the car wouldn’t start. The same thing happens to the cell, so when parts of it stop working it either needs replacing or repairing, and that is the beauty of autophagy.
Autophagy makes sure that your cells’ parts – known as organelles – are in tip-top shape to ensure you function correctly and stay free from disease. If you drove a car with a defective engine, your safety would be in danger, which is the same for you and your cells. If they are running on faulty parts, then you are more likely to become sick. Your cells need to be running the well-oiled machine of your body with prime parts to keep you thriving in life. Autophagy is a vital process that makes this happen!
What stimulates autophagy?
When a cell is exposed to stress such as a nutrient deficiency – which may be harmful to the cell and put its survival at risk – the process of autophagy is upregulated. In this process, parts of the cell break down, and then it’s constituent elements such as fatty acids and nutrients, are recycled by the cell and used to ensure your cells survival. As part of this, the cell releases macromolecules such fatty acids into the bloodstream to generate energy. Autophagy also degrades faulty organelles to ensure the health of the cell is maintained.
The proficiency and tightly administered autophagy process suggest that its contribution to stress and human health is imperative. Autophagy is crucial in modulating a wide range of diseases and disorders, and further research probing into its role in human condition may lead to better treatment for common illnesses.
What is the role of mTOR?
mTOR plays a crucial role in autophagy. It is complex in your body which senses the availability of the building blocks of proteins called amino acids and growth factors in your body. When these are abundant, MTOR inhibits the process of autophagy, which means that you and your cells do not benefit from the maintenance services that autophagy usually provides. When your cells are starved of these nutrients, mTOR becomes inactivated, and autophagy can proceed as before. This inactivation of mTOR happens through a slightly different process when glucose and energy reach critically low levels. Still, it has the same effect, that autophagy prevails when supplies are short.
Which conditions does autophagy benefit?
Autophagy is essential for a properly functioning body, and as a result, any flaws in the process may lead to disease. Evidence is lacking to support its role in the onset of the disease. Still, without your cell’s waste disposal process, there may be a harmful build-up of disruptive proteins and reactive cells, which can cause harm to your cells and the energy process they rely upon to perform optimally. Here are a few conditions that may lead to impaired autophagy:
- Autoimmune disease & ‘Inflammaging’ – inflammation that causes ageing!
As autophagy might facilitate the clearance of damaged cells from the body, which cause inflammation, it may help appease the adverse effects of inflammaging! New research suggests that promoting autophagy in those suffering from autoimmune disease can clear out autoantibodies that are a factor in these conditions’ flare-ups.
- Brain health
Autophagy may be essential for brain conditions commonly associated with an accumulation of proteins on the brain as you age, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s Disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
- Fatty Liver
Studies have also demonstrated the role of autophagy in fat metabolism, especially fat that builds up in the liver as you age leading to fatty liver disease.
When to be cautious in promoting autophagy
In contrast, there are times when autophagy may not help prevent and manage disease. Although autophagy helps clean out foreign pathogens from cells, studies show that autophagy may suppress tumour development in cancer’s initial stages. Still, in later stages of cancer, autophagy may protect the tumour from your immune system’s defence mechanism.
Similarly, autophagy may have both beneficial and harmful effects in muscle and heart conditions so any regime to promote autophagy with these conditions, should be taken cautiously.
How to induce autophagy?
Fasting and ketosis induce autophagy as it causes short-term nutrient deficiencies at the cell level. Fasting regimes in humans have beneficial effects on blood sugar regulation, heart issues and cancer incidence. Scientific research is now providing answers as to why this might be the case. More research in this area is required, but what is notable from studies, is that sticking to a calorie-restricted diet or eating in a shorter time, such as 8 hours of eating and 16 hours of fasting, is beneficial for human health.
Can you eat yourself to wellness?
Autophagy appears to be another tool in your health-promoting toolbox. As with all biological processes, it has its place and function and rather than using it in isolation, it is part of the broader picture in holistic health. So, yes, you can eat yourself to wellness, but this includes variation – a whole food diet, a varied time eating window and a fasting regime that works for you dependent on your health status and needs.
If you would like to improve your health with nutritional therapy and lifestyle medicine, please contact The Autoimmunity Nutritionist clinic HERE.
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- Cuervo AM, Macian F. Autophagy, nutrition and immunology. Mol Aspects Med. 2012;33(1):2-13. doi:10.1016/j.mam.2011.09.001
- Saha S, Panigrahi DP, Patil S, Bhutia SK. Autophagy in health and disease: A comprehensive review. Biomed Pharmacother. 2018 Aug;104:485-495. doi: 10.1016/j.biopha.2018.05.007. Epub 2018 May 25. PMID: 29800913.
- Yin H, Wu H, Chen Y, et al. The Therapeutic and Pathogenic Role of Autophagy in Autoimmune Diseases. Front Immunol. 2018;9:1512. Published 2018 Jul 31. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2018.01512
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