The words “detox” and “cleanse” are two of the most overused terms in the area of health and wellness today.  They typically conjure up images of mud masks, spas and green juices that typically raise the skeptical eyebrows of scientists.  However, this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine went to Yoshinori Ohsumi, a pioneering scientist who did groundbreaking work in the area of autophagy, a true physiological method for detoxification where your body’s cells recycle and remove their internal waste products.

This cellular garbage collection and recycling service might sound like a mundane process, but having autophagy intact in our body is a central process for preventing disease and promoting longevity.  We’ll explore the science briefly and then talk about which key lifestyle practices promote autophagy.

What is Autophagy?

Autophagy, based on its Greek origin, literally means “self-eating” (auto=self and phagy=eating). The biological process of autophagy occurs when cells ingest degraded waste materials like damaged proteins and byproducts of metabolism.  The process of ingesting these products always conjures up the image of the video game character Pac-man, which is represented by the first step in the diagram below where the “stuff to go” is ingested into a structure called the autophagosome (“Pac-man”).

The autophagosome is the garbage truck which then transports the waste products into a structure called the lysosome, the discovery of which earned Christian de Duve the Nobel Prize in 1974. You see how important this process is…that’s 2 Nobel Prizes for autophagy!

The lysosome is the trash compactor which contains enzymes that allow the final digestion and consumption of the cellular waste material.

Why we need autophagy to work well

Imagine your brain cells (aka neurons) accumulating waste products inside them with no sufficient mechanism for removal.  How well do you think your neurons can consume nutrients and produce energy, so they can communicate with other neurons to allow you to think clearly, to remember important information, to create innovative ideas, and to regulate your emotions?  This is why dysfunctional autophagy has been linked to neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

Dysfunctional autophagy is also linked to other chronic health conditions like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and liver disease.  None of our body’s cells can work effectively if they are constantly being bombarded with cellular waste materials from the foods we eat and from other biological processes.  An inability to remove cellular waste products leads to eventual death of the cell which translates into accelerated aging and chronic disease.

Now that you’re familiar with autophagy and how it can slow down aging and prevent most chronic health conditions, let’s discuss how to optimize that process in our body.

6 ways to naturally optimize autophagy in our body

1.Fasting:  Fasting is a powerful way to stimulate autophagy and this study shows how it optimizes profound autophagy in our brain cells.  Read my book and this post for more details on fasting.

2.Exercise: We’ve discussed the numerous benefits of exercise and activity before, but this study shows how exercise boosts autophagy in our brain and other cells in our body.

3.Sleep:  People who sleep better live longer, have less disease, and look younger.  One of the mechanisms may be because autophagy is actually under the control of our body’s daily sleep/wake cycles (aka “circadian rhythm”) as shown in this study.  When our bedtimes and waking times are inconsistent and we expose our eyes to blue light from screens at inappropriate times, we disrupt our circadian rhythm, which in turn disrupts autophagy.  Be sure to read this post on restoring your circadian rhythm and improving your sleep.

4.Eat foods that induce autophagy:  There are specific foods and spices like turmeric which can help trigger autophagy as shown in this study, which may explain the cancer-fighting properties of this incredible spice.  Cruciferous vegetables, green tea and other antioxidant rich foods like nuts, grapes (including red and white wine in moderation), berries, and dark chocolate have been shown to induce autophagy mainly through the active compound resveratrol.

5.Watch protein intake:  Excess protein intake can actually reduce autophagy.  This is an important point since many dieters, especially of the low carb variety, indulge in excessive amounts of protein intake which should be replaced by more plants and healthy fats instead.  Protein moderation is key to keeping your autophagy engine humming, and I encourage you to read my protein post to help set some guard rails on protein intake.    

6.Ketogenic Diet:  The ketogenic diet, a more restrictive low carbohydrate diet that encourages intake of healthy fat and restrained protein, is a potent stimulator of autophagy and may explain why ketogenic diets are being used to combat many types of chronic health conditions including cancer and neurodegenerative disease.

Now you know the real science behind “detox.”  You can save your money on expensive retreats and overpriced concoctions and simply focus on the more intuitive, economical, and time-tested, autophagy-inducing approach of eating less overall food (aka intermittent fasting), choosing the right foods when you do eat (nutrient and antioxidant rich), moving your body more often, and prioritizing sleep.

A heartfelt congratulations to Dr.Ohsumi (pictured below) for his well-deserved award!