AUTOPHAGHY – Tune Up Your Body From The Cellular Level

The Samahita Blog

AUTOPHAGHY – Tune Up Your Body From The Cellular Level

Sarah Pierroz
By Sarah Pierroz

Photo credit by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

Feeling Sluggish? Tired? Slow?

How are your energy levels these days? Are you feeling energized when you wake up? What about the rest of the day? How efficient is your digestion? Are you having two bowel movements a day? Yes….two !! Now how does one do that?

One reason your body might feel a bit slow or off is because the process of autophagy could be slackening

What is Autophagy?

Autophagy is an important and natural process within cells. It’s generally thought of as a cellular recycling factory. The etymology of ‘autophagy’ comes from the Ancient Greek autóphagos, which means “self-devouring” or “self-eating”. It was coined by a Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve, in 1963. He discovered the lysosome, while he observed unneeded cellular structures and degraded proteins being engulfed in a big bubble and transported to this waste disposal unit in the cell.

Typically, autophagy works quietly behind the scenes in maintenance mode. It plays a more active role when your body responds to stress and regulates cellular function (1). Autophagy helps to recycle unnecessary cellular components, such as damaged mitochondria or proteins, which may prevent cells from dividing and functioning normally. It also helps to eliminate pathogens and toxins at the intracellular level.
This clearing helps your body to regenerate new and healthy cells more effectively (2).

Studies on Autophagy

Only as recent as 2016, autophagy was found to have a key role when the body responds to starvation and infection, and it has become linked with specific conditions, including cancer and neurological disease (2). Years of impressive research and study by Yoshinori Ohsumi led him being awarded the Nobel Prize in this emerging field.

It’s hardly surprising that autophagy is important for long-lived cells such as neurons. Unlike other cells, neurons do not cellularly divide and do not die off to be replaced by new ones. This makes them vulnerable to degradation and may negatively impact learning and memory (3).

A recent UCLA study, printed in Toxicological Sciences in May 2020, investigated the effects of diesel exhaust on the risk of Parkinson’s disease. It showed that increased exhaust exposure increased the prevalence of Parkinson’s, and decreased the efficacy of autophagy (4). What was really interesting with this study is that these researchers were able to investigate the process of autophagy in real time by using transparent zebrafish as their subjects. They could actually watch the process of autophagy, or lack thereof, happen right before their eyes. With such novel techniques, the future of research in this area is full of promise.

“Autophagy helps to recycle unnecessary cellular components, such as damaged mitochondria or proteins, which may prevent cells from dividing and functioning normally. It also helps to eliminate pathogens and toxins at the intracellular level.”

Main Benefits of Autophagy

    As we learn more about autophagy, the emerging research has found that it seems to help:

  • Regulate inflammation (5)
  • Protect against neurogenerative diseases, like Huntington’s, Alzheimers’ & Parkinson’s (6) (7)
  • Reduce heart disease (6) (7)
  • Suppresses tumors, promote genome integrity and inhibit inflammation (8)
  • Promote healthy cell survival in the face of nutrient stress (9)
  • Support brain health by clearing out old proteins and making way for new ones that allow communication between neurons (10)
  • Reduce infection and support immunity (11) (12)

So, How Can You Increase Your Autophagy Power?

There are several ways you can rev up your body’s autophagy process. One easy way, is to add a little bit of acute, short-term stress to your system. This can be achieved in three simple ways:

  1. Fasting

    The most typical trigger of autophagy is nutrient starvation or fasting. Fasting gives your system some space for proper bowel movements elimination and time for the body to naturally detox and repair (13). It is generally recommended to fast for a period of 18-20 hours for autophagy to kick in. For example, finish dinner at 6 pm, and wait until 6 pm the following day to eat again. In a 2010 study, mice fasted for 24 or 48 hours to promote the autophagy process (14) (15). If taking a 24 hour caloric break is too much, some have tried intermittent fasting. This can involve a 16/8 plan, where you eat during a 8 hour time window and fast for the other 16 hours of a day. For example, only taking food from 11 – 7 pm. This timed pattern for eating has also been associated with weight loss, insulin sensitivity and lower disease risk (16).

  2. HIIT Exercise

    When researchers talk about HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) they referring to workouts that alternate between hard-charging intervals and rest or less intense exercise. During the intense interval, a person’s heart rate reaches at least 80 percent of its maximum capacity, for one to five minutes.In a recent 2018 study, a group of men completed an eight-week exercise program where one subset cycled at a low intensity for three days each week, while the other subset cycled at high-intensity intervals (17). Researchers found that the short bursts of exercise, or a “less is more” approach, induced autophagy. Additionally, weightlifting and resistance training for even bursts of just 30 minutes was also found to heighten autophagy. So the next time you go for a walk or run, you can easily add in interval training by alternating between a sprint followed by a walk, and repeat! Jump start your autophagy! We know you’ll feel better!

    For more on the benefits of HIIT, please read here and watch this HIIT training video
    For an uplifting core challenge, click here

  3. Take a Sauna or Cold Shower!

    Another way to dynamically change your intracellular system is to quickly shift your body temperature. Heat stress, as in using a sauna, soaking in a hot spring, a quick steam, and/or a cold therapy, like an icy shower, a cold plunge pool, cryotherapy, or a fresh jump in a lake will also do the trick. These are hormetic stressors to the body. This means when the small stress is applied to the body it can result in processes that make it stronger, or more resilient.
    Heat stress to the body creates heat shock proteins, which may fight free radicals, boost production of human growth hormone, promote repair of damaged proteins, which all in turn correlate to an increase in autophagy. Cold shock proteins help to maintain stem cells, repair damaged proteins, reduce inflammation, stabilize tumor factors as well as fight neurodegeneration. Cold exposure has also been shown to activate brown fat which boosts metabolism and mitochondrial function (18).
    Do be careful. If you are considering adding heat or cold therapy to your routine, please do so with the assistance of a professional. Go slowly and monitor yourself for tolerance and improvements closely. Remember the key is small stress. Then build your robustness!

    In Conclusion

    So whether it be alternating between eating and fasting in specific time windows, or shifting from intense movement to rest and then back again, or jumping into the cold, you can easily optimize the overall functioning of your physiology without making major changes to your daily life or workouts. The main difference in activating autophagy isn’t really in what you do, but more how you do it. It’s all part of the hormetic effect! So what have we done for centuries?  Restricted eating times, cold bathing, different activity.

    Yoga Practice and Autophagy (a note from Paul Dallaghan)

    To our knowledge to date there has been no direct studies on yoga practice’s effect on autophagy. However, an understanding of the nature of its process reveals how a thorough approach to yoga and its techniques would enhance autophagy. The process of autophagy is essentially cellular integrity with its functions carried out at greater efficiency. This is why inflammation is regulated, metabolism works better, immunity is supported, and neurodegeneration is more or less eliminated. The benefits noted in yoga texts, especially hathayoga, refer to similar outcomes when they describe energy levels increase, glowing skin arises, hair and nails rejuvenate, and how the body feels light, essentially meaning efficient in all its physiological processes. Hathayoga practice emphasizes certain cleansing techniques and works with the breath through retentions, processes that put immediate pressure and stimulation on the cell, effectively achieving the stress in HIIT or fasting and triggering autophagy. Equally, certain hathayoga āsanas (yoga poses) that work more with gravity, such as inversions, challenge the cells in a similar way enhancing this recycle and waste removal process. Yoga practice also brings awareness to diet, but more so to when and how much one eats, whereby natural intermittent fasts are part of the process, thereby doubling as automatic autophagy triggers. Ideally, a good hathayoga practice of poses, breath, and sitting leads to greater well-being because of improved autophagy, which aids sleep, feeding back on and improving this cellular healthy process even further. Overall, a regular and comprehensive (hatha) yoga practice offers a combined impact of many of the described triggers across action, diet, and sleep, so much so that we could almost call it hathautophagyoga!!

1. Nature, 2020 https://www.nature.com/articles/cr2013161

2. Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience, 2019 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fncel.2019.00228/full

3. Nature Communications, 2020 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-15287-9

4. Toxicological Sciences, 2020 https://academic.oup.com/toxsci/article-abstract/doi/10.1093/toxsci/kfaa055/5820985?redirectedFrom=fulltext

5. Journal of Experimental Medicine, 2015 https://rupress.org/jem/article/212/7/979/41860/Therapeutic-targeting-of-autophagy-in

6. Neurobiology of Aging, 2014 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0197458013005873

7. Nature Communications, 2020 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-15287-9 

8. Journal of Pathology, 2010 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/path.2697

9. Journal of Pathology, 2010 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/path.2697

10. Journal of Pathology, 2010 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/path.2697

11. Journal of Experimental Medicine, 2015 https://rupress.org/jem/article/212/7/979/41860/Therapeutic-targeting-of-autophagy-in

12.Nature, 2019 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41418-019-0295-8

13.Cellular and Mitochondrial Metabolism, 2011 https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/ajpcell.00056.2010?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub++0pubmed&

14. Aging Reviews Research, 2018 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1568163718301478?via%3Dihub

15. Autophagy, 2016 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.4161/auto.6.6.12376

16. Autophagy, 2016 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.4161/auto.6.6.12376

17. Nature, 2012 http://www.nature.com/articles/nature10758

18. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3169181/

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