Activate autophagy and build a stronger, better body as a result.
People go on cleanses with the aim of flushing toxins out of their systems, but it turns out your body can detox itself through a process called autophagy. You can activate it by making a few small changes to your routine, without having to resort to a juice-only diet.
To do it, the cells in the body self-destruct. (There’s a happy ending.)
“Autophagy is the biological process that removes and recycles the junk in your cells and repairs the cell damage that naturally accumulates,” explains Naomi Whittel, who interviewed several physicians and registered dietitians for her newly-released book Glow15, which touts a lifestyle plan based on this science.
Imagine an old building with rotted beams, shattered windows, and creaky floors. Those are your damaged cells. Now imagine demolishing that worn-down structure and rebuilding it with strong reinforcements. That’s essentially what autophagy does to your cells, replacing the old with the new.
At its best, this maintenance can help with weight loss, promote healthy aging, regulate cell metabolism and homeostasis, and in general, keep your body and brain strong. “When your cells function at peak performance, so do you,” Whittel says.
But certain factors (like too many calories, poor sleep, lack of recovery, and exposure to toxins like plastics and preservatives) can hinder these repairs. “When our cells don’t clean themselves properly, debris builds up like trash in a gutter,” says Jeffrey Morrison, MD, founder of The Morrison Center in New York City and a member of the Equinox Health Advisory Board. “That can lead to a slow metabolism, inflammation, and achy muscles and joints.”
New science suggests ways of activating autophagy in the body to keep it healthy, young, and strong. Kickstart the process with these three strategies.
Fast for five days each month.
Certain types of stress, like fasting, trigger autophagy. Morrison (who Whittel interviewed for her book) favors a program developed by Valter Longo, Ph.D., a professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. It requires you to semi-fast for four or five consecutive days each month. On those days, you eat between 800 and 1,100 calories in a six- to eight-hour window, sticking mostly to vegetables and lean proteins like chicken and fish.
Following this plan can lower blood pressure, ease inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth hormones that encourage cell reproduction. Research shows that depriving the body in this way gives cells a chance to rest, rebuild, repair, and regenerate, which it struggles to do when you’re eating more.
When fasting, athletes should limit their carb intake to 30 grams per day, Morrison says. That amount will trigger the fat-burning process of ketogenesis, which activates autophagy even more. (If you really want to push yourself to the max, you can consider a full-blown keto diet, but know that it comes with its own set of risks and side effects.)
Add these six foods to your diet.
Certain compounds prove particularly potent for firing up autophagy, Whittel says. Morrison agrees that the below foods put the process into high gear.
Eggs: They’re rich in sphingolipids, which work to keep cell walls strong.
Salmon: The omega-3 fatty acids suppress inflammation and stimulate “self-eating” in some cells.
Cauliflower: Compounds called sulforaphanes can turn on processes that degrade old abnormal proteins.
Avocado: It’s rich in vitamin E, which protects tissue from damage caused by free radicals; and vitamin K, which helps prevent blood clotting.
Legumes: These are high in saponins, plant chemicals that activate autophagy and stimulate your immune system.
Sauerkraut: The probiotics aid in digestion by sending signals and removing damage from cells.
Extend your workouts to 80 minutes when possible.
When it comes activating autophagy, exercise duration matters: A half-hour treadmill run can induce the process, but it peaks after 80 minutes of running, according to a study published in the journal Nature. The more intense the workout, the stronger the effects. But separate research shows that low-impact resistance training (consisting of a 10-minute warm-up and leg presses, bicep curls, and pec deck flyes) can also stimulate autophagy.