Autophagy Through Diet: Many times, people make diet changes for the simple goal of looking and feeling better in their skin. There’s nothing wrong with aesthetics as a goal because we also know that weight loss, when done correctly, will lead to significant health benefits to someone who was previously overweight.
But other times, changing the way we eat affects us for reasons beyond weight loss and lead to significant life changes that have potent biological effects. Diet changes that support the process of autophagy is an example of this.
Autophagy is the ultimate goal of many of the patterns of eating that I promote in my work with patients and practitioners. By definition, the word autophagy comes from the Greek words auto (“self”) and phage (“eat”). It is the body’s way of cleaning itself out by removing damaged or defective cellular debris to make room for new, healthy cells. You will learn more about how diet affects autophagy below, but in general, autophagy occurs during periods of fasting or low nutrient availability.
Impairments in autophagy have a clear association with conditions including:
- Food allergies and intolerances
- Autoimmune disease
- Diabetes and thyroid conditions
- Weight loss resistance
- Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia
The problem is that while our ancestors lived in an environment that promoted autophagy with periods of food scarcity paired with periods of feasting, today, we live in a constant state of abundance. We have food available to us anytime we want, we sit for long periods, and we never give our bodies a chance to repair and rest. Without periods of fasting or a reduction in nutrient availability, we miss out on autophagy.
Over time this abundance has led to the growth in age-related diseases. Without autophagy, our cells aren’t able to self-regulate and remove the potentially damaged cells. The result is a growth in many of the above conditions, with inflammation a root cause for most. In contrast, caloric restriction and fasting have strong associations with longevity and anti-aging benefits.
How can we use diet strategies to promote autophagy?
There are three diet changes we can use to drive autophagy. Because autophagy is turned on or off primarily due to the presence of insulin in response to carbohydrates, as well as amino acids – we can use the following diet patterns:
- Fasting. Whether intermittent fasting or longer water fasts, purposefully withholding nutrients short-term promotes autophagy. This is what makes intermittent fasting so popular – it is a way to support autophagy without having to constantly fast long-term, making it more accessible for the average person.
- Keto or low carb. Without carbohydrates as a substrate, autophagy can occur. And the more fat-adapted we are, the faster we move into autophagy once we start fasting. Without carbs, insulin is not needed to guide glucose out of the blood and into our cells. Insulin tells the body it’s time for growth via the mTOR pathway. The mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) pathway helps the body regulate cellular growth and metabolism by supporting anabolism (versus catabolism, or breaking down) in the body. When nutrients are scarce, mTOR is turned off, and autophagy switches on.
- Low to moderate protein. A drop in protein naturally happens when we are fasting. As protein decreases, autophagy ramps up. Again, the mTOR pathway is stimulated by the presence of amino acids from protein. When protein is limited, mTOR is muted, and autophagy can resume the reparative clean-up process.
While I’ve guided hundreds of people through ketogenic and fasting principles, it wasn’t until I discovered the power of what I’ve coined “diet variation” that I was able to put the benefits of all of these options into practice.
Diet variation takes the positive biological adaptations from autophagy, as listed above, and packages them into a realistic, long-term plan for wellness. It takes into consideration our current state of overabundance to create a plan that mimics the eating pattern of our ancestors and our natural biology. It is a plan that allows the body to heal itself.
How does diet variation work to support autophagy?
As you’ve learned, autophagy occurs through three dietary strategies. Diet variation uses these principles to encourage not only autophagy but also fat burning, hormone adaptation, decreases in inflammation, stem cell production, and so much more.
Most people either are not able to stay on one diet long-term – whether it is low-carb, keto, low calorie, or any other diet plan. It’s either too restrictive, and they lose motivation, or the body adapts and plateaus, leading to slowed metabolism and minimal benefits. Diet variation introduces cycles of high carb days with days of fasting to create positive stress adaptations that lead to autophagy.
The cycle between fasting, high carb days, and keto principles not only keeps you from feeling deprived (which can lead to loss of motivation), but also keeps the body from becoming overly stressed. It allows the body to balance periods of growth (mTOR turning on) with periods of repair (autophagy turning on).
There are several ways to follow diet variation based on the individual. Diet can be varied weekly, monthly, or even seasonally. Every person is different. Diet variation allows the choice to match a pattern that aligns with your lifestyle to make it healthy for your specific biological needs so it can be sustainable long-term.
As we learn more about the body, the more we understand just how smart and self-healing it is when we work with the natural biological processes. Autophagy is a powerful process that we should all be working to support in our everyday lifestyles – and with specific diet strategies, we can.
Mizushima, Noboru et al. “Autophagy fights disease through cellular self-digestion.” Nature vol. 451,7182 (2008): 1069-75. doi:10.1038/nature06639
Martinez-Lopez, Nuria et al. “System-wide Benefits of Intermeal Fasting by Autophagy.” Cell metabolism vol. 26,6 (2017): 856-871.e5. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2017.09.020
Bagherniya M, Butler AE, Barreto GE, Sahebkar A. The effect of fasting or calorie restriction on autophagy induction: A review of the literature. Ageing Res Rev. 2018;47:183-197. doi:10.1016/j.arr.2018.08.004
McCarty MF, DiNicolantonio JJ, O’Keefe JH. Ketosis may promote brain macroautophagy by activating Sirt1 and hypoxia-inducible factor-1. Med Hypotheses. 2015;85(5):631-639. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2015.08.002