Autophagy: What It Is (In Simple Terms) & How to Boost It

Autophagy is your cells’ way of taking out the trash.

Imagine your body as a bustling, busy city. People are going to work, cars are honking, and hot dog vendors are peddling questionable meat. But just like any city, waste accumulates.

Autophagy is like your city’s waste management system, but for your cells. It cleans up the broken bits, the dysfunctional proteins, and the cellular debris that you don’t need. It takes all that crap and either recycles it into something useful or gets it the hell outta there.

Yoshinori Ohsumi earned a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine back in 2016 for his discoveries on how autophagy works. So yeah, this isn’t some crackpot theory from a late-night infomercial; it’s legit science.

So what?

Autophagy has been shown to have a role in slowing down the aging process, fighting off diseases like cancer and neurodegenerative disorders, and improving overall cellular function. That could translate to more vitality, better health, and less of those nagging aches and pains that seem to crop up the older you get.

The Nitty-Gritty Science Stuff

Cellular Mechanisms

illustration of organelles

Here’s the deal: Your cells are complex little dudes, full of organelles (think tiny organs) that all have specific jobs.

These jobs range from generating energy to manufacturing proteins.

And just like in a real city, things can go south.

Machinery breaks down; waste piles up.

Autophagy is the cellular process that identifies what’s not working and either fixes it or tosses it out.

Autophagosomes and Lysosomes: The garbage trucks and recycling centers of your cells.

In the cellular city, you’ve got special vehicles called autophagosomes. These bad boys envelop all the cellular junk and then ship it to a lysosome, which is pretty much the recycling center.

The lysosome has enzymes that break down the waste into stuff the cell can reuse.

It’s like composting for your cells, turning yesterday’s trash into today’s treasure.

Role in Cellular Health: Cleaning up rogue proteins, damaged organelles, and fighting infections like a microscopic superhero.

You might be thinking, “Cool, but why should I give a damn about my cell’s garbage trucks?” Well, because when stuff piles up, cells can’t function properly. This leads to all sorts of bad news, from inflammation to diseases and—drumroll, please—aging.

Autophagy helps prevent that mess. It’s crucial for getting rid of faulty proteins that could otherwise form plaques associated with Alzheimer’s.

It also recycles malfunctioning cellular bits into energy, making your cells more efficient.

Autophagy and Health

Anti-Aging: Could this be the Fountain of Youth in a petri dish?

Here’s the thing about getting old—it sucks. Your energy depletes, your skin looks like a used leather bag, and things start hurting in places you didn’t even know you had.

But what if autophagy could be a game-changer for aging? Preliminary research suggests it can slow down the cellular aging process.

Disease Prevention: From Alzheimer’s to cancer, autophagy is your body’s unsung hero.

You know those diseases that scare the hell out of you when you do a late-night WebMD search? Yeah, many of them have one thing in common: cellular dysfunction.

Autophagy is like your cells’ in-built defense mechanism against such diseases. It has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer, fight off bacterial and viral infections, and even act as a barrier against neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s. 1

So, autophagy isn’t just your friendly neighborhood trash collector; it’s also your personal bodyguard.

Physical Performance: Why fitness freaks and biohackers should give a damn.

Now, if you’re the type who’s always chasing a new PR at the gym or hacking your way to peak performance, listen up. Autophagy helps in muscle regeneration and adaptation. This means you recover faster, perform better, and are less likely to get injured. Think of it as a natural, non-sketchy performance enhancer that’s already built into your system.

So, in summary, autophagy is basically that friend who always has your back—keeping you young, protecting you from bad stuff, and making you look good. And the best part? You don’t even have to remember its birthday or buy it dinner. Just treat your cells right, and they’ll return the favor tenfold.

How to Trigger Autophagy

So by now you’re probably sold on this whole autophagy thing, right? Your next question is probably, “Great, how do I get in on this cellular self-cleaning action?” Well, you’re in luck because there are some lifestyle tweaks and potential quick fixes that can help kickstart this process.

Fasting: Skipping meals isn’t just for Instagram fitness models.

Fasting triggers a sort of survival mode in your cells. They stop focusing on growth and start cleaning up.

Intermittent fasting or even just time-restricted eating (like eating all your meals in an 8-hour window) can be a straightforward way to give autophagy a little nudge.

Exercise: Make your cells sweat, not just your pits.

Physical exercise induces stress on your cells—good stress, not the “I-forgot-my-wedding-anniversary” kind.

This stress signals your cells to start the autophagy process, sort of like shaking a snow globe.

Now, you don’t have to become a CrossFit champion overnight; even 30 minutes of daily moderate exercise can do the trick.2

Drugs and Supplements: Pills and potions that might (or might not) kickstart the process.

Before you go raiding the supplement aisle, let’s get one thing straight: There’s no magic pill for autophagy. That said, some substances like resveratrol, found in red wine, or spermidine, found in foods like soybeans and mushrooms, are being researched for their potential to induce autophagy.

Senolytics are compounds that are specialized in taking out senescent cells—those aged, dysfunctional cells that are basically the grumpy old men of the cellular world. They’re not contributing to society (read: your body) anymore, and they’re causing a ruckus by secreting inflammatory substances. Senolytics come in, identify these troublemakers, and usher them out, leading to reduced inflammation and a healthier cellular environment.

Both senolytics and autophagy are involved in cleaning up your cellular neighborhood, but they’re not the same thing. Senolytics target specific cells for removal, while autophagy is more of a general maintenance process.

However, some evidence suggests that senolytics could potentially induce autophagy. The thinking goes something like this: by removing senescent cells, senolytics reduce the overall inflammatory state of the tissue. Lower inflammation could potentially create an environment more conducive to autophagy. Additionally, some of the pathways activated by senolytics might overlap with those that kickstart autophagy.

But—and this is an important but—this is a complex area of biology. We’re dealing with intricate cellular processes, and messing with one can have a ripple effect that impacts others. The current scientific literature isn’t crystal clear on how strongly senolytics can induce autophagy, or even if they do so in a clinically meaningful way.

The “Don’t Try This at Home, Kids” Section

The Dangers

We’ve hyped up autophagy as this amazing cellular cleaning service, but guess what? Even janitors can make a mess if they’re not careful.

For example, in some cases, autophagy can actually provide nutrients to cancer cells, helping them grow. It’s like inviting the wolf in to clean the henhouse.

So, while it has tons of potential benefits, under certain conditions, it can backfire spectacularly.


Autophagy is not a panacea. It’s not going to solve all your problems or give you the abs of a Greek god overnight.

It plays a role in a broader health ecosystem. So, while it can contribute to anti-aging, disease prevention, and performance enhancement, it’s not the be-all and end-all.

Other factors like genetics, lifestyle choices, and other cellular processes also come into play.

Consult Professionals

Before you start any drastic diet or lifestyle change aimed at triggering autophagy, chat with a healthcare professional—someone who went to school for a gazillion years to study this stuff. I mean, you wouldn’t try to rewire your house based on a YouTube tutorial, would you? (And if you would, we need to have a different conversation.)

Conclusion: The Takeaway That Won’t Leave You Hungry

Alright, let’s bring this home. We’ve delved into what autophagy is, its benefits, the science behind it, how to potentially trigger it, and the cautions you should keep in mind. It’s like a full-on Netflix series, but for your cells. And if you’ve stuck with me this far, you’re clearly interested in living your best life—or at least in making your cells live theirs.

Complexity: It’s Not Just About Autophagy

The reality is, human biology is complicated as hell. Autophagy is just one cog in a giant, convoluted machine that is your body. It has its role, sure—a very promising, exciting role—but it’s not flying solo. It’s part of a broader network of cellular processes, all working in concert to keep you ticking.

Balance: Don’t Be a Zealot

You don’t want to be that guy who hears about something cool and then goes off the deep end, obsessing over it to the exclusion of everything else.

Life—and health—are about balance.

Pushing any one aspect too hard can tip the scales in a way you’re not going to like.

Consistency Over Hacks: The Long Game Wins

We all love a good life hack. They’re the cheat codes for adulthood. But when it comes to something as fundamental as your health, there’s no substitute for consistent, good habits. Whether that’s a balanced diet, regular exercise, or adequate sleep, the boring stuff is often the most effective.

  1. Rangan, Priya, Fleur Lobo, Edoardo Parrella, Nicolas Rochette, Marco Morselli, Terri-Leigh Stephen, Anna Laura Cremonini et al. “Fasting-mimicking diet cycles reduce neuroinflammation to attenuate cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s models.” Cell reports 40, no. 13 (2022). ↩︎
  2. He, Congcong, Rhea Sumpter, Jr, and Beth Levine. “Exercise induces autophagy in peripheral tissues and in the brain.” Autophagy 8, no. 10 (2012): 1548-1551. ↩︎

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