By Mila McManus, M.D.
What in the world is aah-TAAH-fuh-jee you ask? “Auto” means self and “phagy” means eat. Thus the literal meaning is “self-eating”. It is the natural way that the body cleans out accumulated debris, including toxins and damaged cellular components, to make way for regeneration of newer, healthier cells. Autophagy takes place in every cell, except for red blood cells.
We have trillions of cells in the body that carry out numerous tasks. Some give the body shape and form; others take in nutrients from food. Some make energy while others are disposing of waste. Cells build proteins and provide your brain with information. As they perform all of these duties, they suffer some damage. Overall cellular function suffers when the damaged, impaired cells and cellular components are in the way. This is the aging process we experience in life at the cellular level. Damage leads to disease, and eventually to death. There is good news……
Autophagy is the process through which the body works toward self-healing, wherein your healthy cells devour damaged and non-functioning cells. The devoured cell parts can be used for energy, as well as for building blocks to create new cells, proteins, etc. When autophagy is inhibited through poor diet, excessive oxidants, and inflammation, the cellular trash lingers, builds up, and perpetuates inflammation, which affects how well a cell can function, and most often leads to disease and the acceleration of the aging process.
If your goal is to stay healthy and age more slowly, pay attention to autophagy. Thankfully, there are ways to trigger, induce, and enhance autophagy, even in an aging body:
- Fasting for 16 hours or more, when it is most widely agreed this is when the body begins to address cell damage via autophagy (always check with your medical provider to determine if fasting is a wise choice for you).
- Protein fasting is a good alternative if you cannot go without food completely. This involves reducing protein intake 2 to 3 days a week down to 15-20 grams per day.* (a raw boneless skinless chicken breast yields about 3 ounces of cooked chicken, or 21 g of protein)
- Exercise (Yup, one more reason to do it!) 30 minutes a day is enough to induce the process, and any kind of exercise is fine.
- Sleep quality is critical, and autophagy is most effective if you maintain a steady life rhythm for waking and retiring, eating, and exercising. Plan for 7-9 hours of sleep, getting away from electronics 2 hours before bedtime, and preparing a cool room. The fewer electronics in the bedroom, the better you will achieve deep restorative sleep and autophagy function at night.
- Diet is always important for improved health. Garbage in equals an inflammatory garbage pile up, especially if you are aging faster than your body can perform autophagy! Consuming high amounts of healthy, undamaged fats, and very low carbohydrates mostly found in fresh vegetables, with moderate quantities of quality protein, will almost mimic fasting in some ways. Fewer carbs results in a metabolic state called ketosis which can trigger autophagy. (Read Triggering Autophagy through Nutrition, to learn some do’s and don’ts as well as foods that hurt or help autophagy.)
 There are 7 grams of protein in 1 ounce of cooked meat.