What is autophagy?

The word AUTOPHAGY comes from Greek (αὐτόφαγος autóphagos) meaning “self-devouring”. It was first coined by Belgian biochemist Christian de Duve over 50 years ago. In essence, autophagy is the body’s mechanism by which it gets rid of all damaged and old proteins, cell membranes and organelles. Thus, autophagy is a regulated process of degradation and recycling of cellular components. During autophagy, the cells remove the unwanted molecules and dysfunctional parts. These molecules and parts are either destroyed, or recycled into new components.

There is a better-known process in the body called apoptosis, which means “programmed cell death”. After a certain number of divisions, the cell dies. Although it sounds bad, it is a positive thing for the organism because it is necessary for proper functioning and overall health. Autophagy is a similar process, only it refers to the replacement of old cellular elements. It could be said that it is apoptosis at the subcellular level. Through it, cellular organelles are destroyed by lysosomes – special enzymes that break down proteins, and then we come to the space for building new ones.

Schematic depicting the mechanism of autophagy
Schematic depicting the mechanism of autophagy
What activates autophagy?

Nutrient deprivation is key to entering autophagy. Glucagon is the opposite hormone from insulin, and an increase in the secretion of one leads to a decrease in the other. When we eat, insulin rises, and glucagon falls. An increase in glucagon is the most significant indicator of entry into autophagy.

Fasting is not only useful for activating autophagy but for an additional reason, too. Studies show that fasting leads to a significant increase in HGH (Human Growth Hormone) levels. HGH acts on our body so that it begins to produce new reliable parts, and in that way, we get a complete renewal.

Currently, fasting is a popular method of losing weight and improving health. However, there is nothing “modern” in fasting because generations of our ancestors had been practicing it throughout history. Fasting was almost “forgotten” in modern society, so it is only now returning in previous years – and almost exclusively as a way to lose weight. Experience shows us that in most spheres of life, returning to ancient recipes can contribute to a better, healthier and happier life.

Fasting is a different category from starvation. Hunger is the involuntary absence of food for an extended period of time and is not intentional. Fasting, on the other hand, is the deliberate abstention of food for health, spiritual, or other reasons. It is performed by someone who is not malnourished and has sufficient body fat to survive. Food is readily available, but we choose not to eat it. It can be a few hours or a couple of days, and with medical supervision, a week or more. Fasting does not have a standard duration because whenever one does not eat, they fast.



Although there are still no many clinical trials to prove the claims, it is assumed that autophagy has a crucial role in disease prevention. Cancer, neurodegeneration, cardiomyopathy, diabetes, liver disease, autoimmune diseases and various infections are just some of the health problems autophagy might prevent or, at least, slow down. Autophagy is essential for basal homeostasis. It is also vital in maintaining muscle homeostasis during physical exercise.

In 2016, Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize for his discoveries in autophagy mechanisms. These have led to a better understanding of diseases such as Parkinson’s and dementia. 2019 study finds that while autophagy can help stall the development of cancer cells, it may also promote their growth, depending on the tumor stage. A 2020 review article explored the ways autophagy may help protect liver cells from drug and alcohol-induced liver injury.

Other research states that autophagy plays a role in many liver functions and could prevent the progression of several liver conditions. Autophagy also seems to play an essential role in the immune system by cleaning out toxins and infectious agents. There is evidence that autophagy may improve the outlook for cells with infectious and neurodegenerative diseases by controlling inflammation.

Autophagy is very difficult to measure outside of a lab environment. Many experts agree that it initiates in humans after 18-20 hours of fasting, with maximal benefits occur after 48–72 hours. 


popular patterns of fasting in 2020

5:2 approach (eating your regular amount of calories five days a week, keeping your calorie intake for two days below 500/600 kcal (women/men). More information about this approach HERE)

Alternate-day fast (follows the similar rules like 5:2, but instead of having a fast day just twice a week, you do it every other day. Get more information about it HERE)

Time-restricted eating (widely known as intermittent fasting – you have a fasting window and an eating window within 24 hours. You can find more information about different eating:fasting patterns HERE)

If one considers autophagy for weight-loss reasons, they should keep in mind that it is not a magic pill. It takes time and endurance. The results will come, but perseverance is crucial. Together with that, have in mind that it is essential not only when a person eats but also what and how much they eat. Whether they follow ketogenic, low-carb, high-protein, paleo, vegetarian, or Mediterranean diet – it all comes down to the quality of calories and how much food they consume. It is unreasonable to think that it is possible to lose weight and continuously stuff on junk food during eating windows. People should avoid unhealthy food or indulge in it on rare occasions.

Anyone who is considering making serious changes to their lifestyle to induce autophagy should seek advice from a doctor beforehand.



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