The key to longevity and more?
It seems like some of my patients continue to look for that “magic bullet” when it comes to health and longevity. What if there was a magic bullet that could help your patients be healthier and live longer? It turns out the body already has a mechanism that can do all of this and more! It is something called “autophagy.” Autophagy (pronounced aw-taw-fuh-gee) is the body’s way of breaking down old or damaged cells and recycling their components into new, healthy cells. Think of it as the body’s own KonMari decluttering system—an internal housekeeping process designed to remove cellular debris (including damaged proteins and organelles), eliminate pathogens and prevent the buildup of toxic cellular waste.
The word “autophagy” comes from the Greek meaning self-eating. The process was first discovered in the 1960s, but its real importance to human health wasn’t recognized until 2016 when scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize for his discoveries into how autophagy protects against diseases like Parkinson’s disease and some types of dementia while also having the potential to extend the human lifespan.
The problem is, the body’s natural ability to initiate this process naturally declines, like many other processes, with age. But a growing body of research suggests that making simple changes to diet and lifestyle can stimulate autophagy and provide all the benefits it has to offer. Here are some of the most effective ways to enhance your patient’s autophagy efficiency.
One of the best ways to induce autophagy isn’t by what your patients eat but by when they eat. Intermittent fasting simply means going a period of time every day or every week without eating. One of the most popular ways to fast is the 16/8 program, where you refrain from eating for 16 consecutive hours and then enjoy an eight-hour eating window. Another common fast is called 5/2 where you eat normally five days per week and then fast for two non-consecutive days per week.
Here’s why fasting works: When the body is in a fasting state, the number of times the pancreas secretes insulin throughout the day is limited. This prevents blood sugar spikes and allows the body to burn through the glucose stores in the liver. Once this occurs, the body is forced to burn fat for energy. This, in turn, stimulates autophagy.
Intermittent fasting has many immediate benefits, including weight loss and increased energy. Prescribing a fasting protocol can also help bring about some profound long-term benefits as well. One study conducted by the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA, found that short-term fasting induced autophagy in the brain. This may reduce the risk for neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
“Keto” has become all the rage in weight-loss circles due to its ability to help people drop weight quickly, however, it’s also a good way to trigger autophagy. A ketogenic diet is of course a high fat, moderate protein and very low carbohydrate way of eating that causes the body to go into ketosis. When this happens, the body becomes incredibly efficient at burning fat, instead of glucose, for energy. Ketosis turns fat into ketones in the liver, which can supply energy for the brain as well as the body. This shift mimics fasting and can as well, increase autophagy.
A ketogenic diet has taken some getting used to by my patients as it’s considerably different than the standard Western diet. It typically contains 75 percent fat, 20 percent protein and only 5 percent carbs. But once ketosis is achieved, studies show that it can help to reduce body fat while still helping you retain muscle. There’s also evidence that being in ketosis can help lower the risk of some cancers, reduce the risk of diabetes and protect against the damage from some neurological disorders, especially epilepsy. This was shown in one animal study during which rats who were fed a keto diet had less seizure-induced brain damage.
As we all know, exercise provides beneficial stress to the body and it is another modality to help induce autophagy. This could be, at least in part, the reason why exercise is linked to healthier aging. Preliminary research conducted at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center suggests that running for 30 minutes on a treadmill triggers an uptick in autophagosomes—structures that form around pieces of cells slated to be recycled. And more exercise equaled more recycled cellular material. New research in the journal Aging Cell shows that both aerobic and resistance exercise can jumpstart autophagy. In fact, some studies show that high-intensity interval training (HIIT)—which elevates your heart rate and works your muscles by combining both types of exercise—can effectively induce autophagy.
When it comes to efficient autophagy, sleep also matters. Too little, or interrupted sleep can turn down autophagy. I am encouraging a seven to nine hour block of good quality, uninterrupted sleep per night to give this repair and recycling process ample time to work its magic. I know this is sometimes easier said than done, but this is an area that needs to be assessed and treated if not in place.
Not hard to believe, but pharmaceutical companies are in a race to come up with drug that can enhance autophagy. But Mother Natural has already provided us with several nutrients that can do just that. Here are my top three:
Curcumin, the most active compound in the spice turmeric, has been shown to activate autophagy and help fortify healthy cells. New findings in the Journal of Cellular Physiology suggest that curcumin has anti-tumor properties and may play a preventive role in the development of cancer. In another preliminary study that appeared in the journal Bioscience Reports, researchers reported that curcumin improves joint health on a structural level by promoting autophagy. This is in addition to the compound’s ability to ease the pain of osteoarthritis.
French Grape Seed Extract is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound that supports healthy aging and provides a number of health benefits, including cancer prevention and cardiovascular health. What’s grape seed’s secret? Research recently published in the journal Oncolgy Letters points to a type of tannin in grape seeds known as oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs) and their ability to trigger autophagy. This helps eliminate damaged cells that play a role in many types of disease.
Most tannins in grape seeds have a high molecular weight—which means that the molecules are too large to be absorbed by the body. Opt instead for a French grape seed extract that provides OPCs with a low molecular weight. This means the molecules are small enough to guarantee absorption.
Korean Red Ginseng appears to regulate autophagy so that it enhances the beneficial recycling process when needed, and turns it off when other processes like apoptosis (programmed cell death) are needed instead. Research in Oncology Reports found that red ginseng regulates adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK), a key enzyme involved in autophagy that impacts aging, inflammation, metabolic function and mitochondrial health. In this particular study, the researchers found that the ginsenosides in Korean red ginseng influenced AMPK to induce autophagy in experimental lung cancer cells. While human studies are needed to further explore Korean red ginseng’s role in autophagy, this study provides a promising glimpse into the herb’s potential anti-cancer properties.
Just be aware that many Korean red ginseng supplements may contain pesticide residue and can be lower in potency due to substandard growing and processing methods. However, a unique form of ginseng known as HRG80 is composed of 100 percent whole Panax ginseng roots cultivated under the strictest environmental and social European standards. This specially developed form of ginseng is grown hydroponically using high-tech vertical farming to reduce the crop’s environmental footprint. Another difference? Traditional ginseng takes up to six years to mature; HRG80 takes a mere six months. Once harvested, the ginseng is steam-cooked using traditional Korean methods. The resulting ginseng root powder provides rare noble ginsenosides that are seven times more concentrated than the ginsenosides found in typical Korean red ginseng supplements. Check the Supplement Facts panel to ensure the ginseng in your product is the HRG80 form.
While there’s still a lot scientists need to learn about the benefits of autophagy, the future certainly looks bright when it comes to health and longevity—especially since there are so many ways to enhance this natural process.
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Dr. Holly Lucille is a nationally recognized licensed naturopathic physician, lecturer, educator and author of Creating and Maintaining Balance: A Women’s Guide to Safe, Natural, Hormone Health. Her private practice, Healing From Within Healthcare, focuses on comprehensive naturopathic medicine and individualized care. Outside of her practice, Dr. Lucille holds a position on the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians board of directors and is on the faculty of the Global Medicine Education Foundation. She is the past president of the California Naturopathic Doctors Association, where she spearheaded a lobbying effort to have naturopathic doctors licensed in the state of California. A graduate from the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine, Dr. Lucille’s commitment to naturopathic medicine has been recognized with the Daphne Blayden Award and, more recently, the SCNM Legacy Award.