Autophagy is a natural regeneration process that happens at a cellular level within the body, decreasing the probability of contracting some diseases in addition to prolonging lifespan.

In 2016, Japanese scientist Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi received the Nobel Prize for his discoveries into the mechanisms of autophagy. These have led to a greater understanding of ailments such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Since then, pharmaceutical firms and academics have raced to seek out medicine that can stimulate the process, and wellness and diet experts are leaping on the bandwagon claiming that the process could be induced naturally by high-intensity exercise, fasting, and restricting carbohydrates.

What do scientists say?

“The proof from experiments in mice suggest that would definitely be the case,” stated Dr. David Rubinsztein, professor of molecular neurogenetics at the University of Cambridge and UK Dementia Research Institute.

“There are studies where they’ve switched on the process utilizing genetic tools or medication or fasting, and in these instancesentirely the animals tend to live longer and be in better overall shape.” However, he stated that it was not yet entirely apparent how that translated to humans.

“For instance, in mice, you see the effects of fasting on the brain in twenty-four hours, and in some areas of their body, like the liver, far more quickly. But even though we know fasting is beneficial, we do not know yet exactly how long people would need to fast to see the advantages,” added Dr. Rubinsztein.

That said, fasting does stimulate autophagy, he stated, and its advantages had also been confirmed by other research.

What’s autophagy?

  • The word autophagy comes from the Greek for “self” and “phagein,” which means “to eat”
  • It’s the process by which cells degrade and recycle their elements
  • After an infection, autophagy can destroy viruses and bacteria
  • It provides fuel for power and building blocks for cell renewal
  • Cells use autophagy to eliminate damaged proteins and organelles, to counteract the adverse effects of aging on the body.
the autophagy process
Mechanism of cellular authophagy – Source: Shutterstock

Autophagy was first discovered in the 1960s. However, its fundamental significance was only recognized after Yoshinori Ohsumi’s research in the 90s.

“What we have discovered is that it protects against diseases like Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and certain types of dementia, it also appears to be beneficial in the context of an infection control, in addition to protecting against extreme inflammation.” stated Dr. Rubinsztein.

New lifestyle books are saying the process might be “switched on” by modifications to our diet and way of life, such as fasting – already popular with lots of those who follow the 5:2 or Fast Diet.

Muscle mass

Glow 15, a new guide by Naomi Whittel – a self-styled “wellness explorer” – sets out a 15-day programme that includes 16-hour fasts 3 times per week, intervals of high-intensity exercise, decreasing protein on some days, and eating carbohydrates later in the day. In first tests of the programme on volunteers at Jacksonville University in Florida, she says she discovered a variety of benefits.

“Some individuals lost weight, as much as 7 lbs (~3 kg) in 15 days. Others noticed improvements in lean muscle mass, a reduction in fine lines, and changes in their blood pressure,” she says.

Dr. Rubinsztein says none of those lifestyle suggestions are going to do you any harm.

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“And in case you have a bad lifestyle, in case you’re always snacking and eating garbage, then you definitely would not have the chance to switch this on,” he says

Nerve cells

Dr. Rubinsztein is optimistic in regards to the future benefits of autophagy for treating disease. His laboratory found that proteins form in clumps in the nerve cells of individuals with diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

“We discovered that if you switch on autophagy, you remove these proteins quickly and shield against neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington’s and forms of dementia.”

Autophagy Infographic - In detail
An infographic briefly explaining Autophagy

He hopes that in the future there may be medicine accessible to spice up autophagy. Others clearly hope so too. It was reported recently that a new start-up in the U.S., Casma Therapeutics, acquired $58.5m to look into new medicine to use and turn on autophagy.


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