Autophagy—Your Cells’ Natural Housekeeping Process: What It Is and Why It Matters
In this article:
- What Is Autophagy?
- Quality Sleep Promotes Autophagy
- Fasting and Time-Restricted Feeding
- Exercise Induces Autophagy
Autophagy is the natural process through which cells clean out waste products. In particular, it’s the brain’s way of detoxing (or “taking out the trash”).
Without autophagy, our cells can become clogged with waste proteins. Build-up of these proteins can interfere with cell signaling and reduce our ability to think, communicate, move, and more. These proteins are even implicated in the development of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
If you or a loved one are looking to boost brain function, improve metabolic health, or reduce your risk of cognitive decline, amplifying your body’s ability to perform autophagy is a great way to do it! Here are a few steps you can take to improve your autophagy each day.
Much of our brain-based autophagy happens during the night while we’re deep in sleep. Autophagy has a circadian rhythm just like the rest of the body, and it is optimized when we align our internal rhythm with the sun’s cycle around the earth. To put it simply—go to bed with the sun and get up with the sun and you’ll be good!
In practice, this means going to bed around sunset. For many of us who live in places where the sun sets quite early several months of the year, going to bed at sundown may not be practical. If this is true for you, you can simply aim for a 9 p.m. bedtime instead.
Many people find it difficult to go to bed this early, especially if they’re used to going to bed late. There are a lot of great tips for resetting your sleep schedule in this article, but here are some of my favorites.
Use melatonin temporarily to help shift your bedtime 15 minutes earlier each night. Trying to do more than this generally backfires, so take it slow and steady!
Take 1 to 3mg of melatonin 30 minutes before your new desired bedtime. If you usually go to bed at 11 p.m., take melatonin at 10:15 p.m. so you can get to bed at 10:45 p.m. The next night, take it at 10:00 p.m. so you can get to bed at 10:30 p.m.
Continue this until you’re able to go to bed as close to 9 p.m. as your schedule allows. In no time, you’ll be feeling better in the morning and won’t need melatonin anymore to go to sleep.
Use earplugs, eye masks, white noise machines, and other sleep hygiene products, like blackout curtains, to help you get restful sleep, no matter what time you go to bed.
Avoid Blue Light
Use blue-light-blocking glasses to make sure blue light doesn’t interfere with your body’s natural ability to make melatonin.
Build a Routine
Implement a nighttime routine that allows you to begin winding down about 2 hours before bed. Include aromatherapy, bath time, skincare, reading, journaling, or any other relaxing activity that helps you let go of the day’s worries and settle into sleep.
Be an Early Bird
Try to wake up around sunrise each day if possible. Sunrise may be at a different time depending on the season and where you live, but you can look it up on your local weather app! The earlier you get up, the earlier you’ll get tired. Part of the reason many people have trouble getting to bed earlier is that they’re waking up too late.
Get Enough Sleep
Aim to be asleep for 8 hours. Your body needs enough sleep to do the complete work of cellular repair.
Restricting food intake to about 12 hours or so—beginning with breakfast and ending with dinner at least 3 hours before bed—is a great strategy for maximizing autophagy. This is called “time-restricted feeding” or “intermittent fasting” in medical literature, and it’s thought to have some major benefits. You can read more about your options for incorporating this practice into your own health routine in this article.
Additionally, short fasts of 24 to 48 hours are suggested to induce increased levels of autophagy. It’s important to note that most of the studies supporting these claims were done in mice, not humans.
Water fasting can be dangerous and should always be supervised by a medical provider. Ask your doctor before attempting a fast like this and don’t attempt this fast if you have blood sugar issues or are underweight or malnourished.
In general, a 12-hour eating window between 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. is more than strict enough to help you achieve the daily benefits of intermittent fasting, which include improved glycemic control, muscle building, mood, and more.
I don’t often advise my clients to go beyond this window or to restrict their food intake more intensely than this, because the process is often so stressful that it backfires, resulting in hypoglycemia or worse. Additionally, many people are nutrient deficient, and fasting exacerbates this condition—making you feel worse instead of better.
Finally, intermittent fasting by skipping breakfast or severely limiting the times you can eat usually deprives you of energy when you need it most—during the day and for work and athletic performance.
If you’re someone who has a hard time eating breakfast, either because you simply aren’t hungry or find mornings too hectic to make a meal, consider these meal replacement options, such as grab ‘n go bars, shakes, or granola.
Instead of going to extremes when it comes to fasting, just moderate your food intake, eat every 3 hours, don’t eat within 2 hours of bedtime, and consistently nourish yourself. You’ll still get all of the benefits of autophagy this way. If you want more intensive guidance on fasting, ask your doctor.
Exercise can also induce autophagy. Research on this is still developing, but it’s clear that aerobic exercise of around 50 to 70% of your VO2 max—or the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise—induces autophagy when performed for over 60 minutes. In practice, this could be jogging, brisk walking, doing aerobic exercise, or hiking for an hour or more a few times per week.
In general, I encourage you to follow the American Heart Association’s recommendations for exercise if you’re just starting out—150 minutes of cardiovascular activity each week to keep your heart strong. That can be broken down into 5 sessions of 30 minutes each. Slowly build your endurance until you’re able to do more. Eventually, you’ll get up to 60 minutes per session. Try to pick movements you enjoy, like a dance class or hiking with your kids or friends!
Be sure to stay hydrated and fueled with good nutrition while you work out so you don’t wind up with low blood sugar or dehydration. One easy way to make sure your fluids are healthy and hydrating is to supplement with electrolytes, which help balance the amount of water in your body. You can add electrolyte powder to your water, or invest in some gummies to eat before or during your workout. I often add trace mineral drops to my water during a workout, which also helps ensure that I’m getting all the nutrients my body needs for a good recovery post-workout.
After your workout, be sure to get some protein to your muscles so that they recover quickly and start to build. Protein is readily found in red meat, lean meat, and fish, but you can easily supplement your protein intake with protein powders and protein bars.
If you’re new to exercise, talk with your doctor and consider hiring a personal trainer or joining a nearby gym that offers coaching so you can make sure you’re moving in a way that’s good for your body.
The way you sleep, eat, and move determines your body’s ability to perform autophagy, which keeps your brain and organs young. Use the tips above to make the most of your everyday routine so you can enjoy all of the benefits that autophagy confers.
Summary of Supportive Supplements
- Sleep: This article explains how sleeping helps your cells stay healthy. In order to achieve healthy, productive sleep, consider supplementing your bedtime routine with the following:
- Practice mild Time-Restricted Feeding (TRF): This article explains how TRF can assist in cell health. To get the most out of your food, consider supplementing your diet with the following:
- Exercise: This article explains how exercise increases cell health. In order to get the most out of your workout remember to hydrate and fuel your body! Consider the following supplements to better your workout routine:
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