The skincare/cosmetics industry bombards us with enticing marketing messages of magic pills and miracle creams daily. But what if the secret to healthy, glowing skin isn’t something that can be purchased? What if it lies within you, and all you have to do is activate it? Better yet, what if it was free, saved you time and also provided a host of additional health benefits?
The process I’m referring to is autophagy, or the body’s way of eating unnecessary or malfunctioning cell parts and replacing them with new, better functioning parts (something that happens when we are in a fasted state).
The word itself is derived from the Greek words for “self” (auto) and “to eat” (phagein). The process of autophagy was discovered by a Japanese cell biologist named Yoshinori Ohsumi, who won the Nobel Prize of Medicine in 2016 for his groundbreaking research on autophagy.
Autophagy is only just beginning to gain momentum for its profound effects on anti-aging, health and healing. I’ve experienced its effects first-hand through several months of intermittent fasting and even more so with a few extended multi-day fasts.
In this post, we’ll walk through what autophagy is, the tangible effects it has on skin health + overall health, and how to activate this innate process. I’ve been obsessed with educating myself on this function for months and am thrilled to finally share this information with you. Let’s dive in, shall we?
HOW AUTOPHAGY WORKS
In a nutshell, autophagy is the process of clearing out old, junky proteins and cellular parts. This analogy from Dr. Jason Fung really helped me to understand what that means exactly:
Dr. Fung, a leading expert in therapeutic fasting, has written extensively about autophagy and fasting. And something he wrote about in one of his books, The Ultimate Guide to Fasting, completely blew my mind.
At his clinic in Canada, Fung sees several patients a year who are chronically ill. He helps them get onto a path to better health through various fasting protocols. Many of his patients are overweight or obese and end up losing significant amounts of weight with fasting. But this is what shocked me – out of the hundreds of people who have lost large amounts of weight through their work with Fung, he has yet to send one of them in for skin removal surgery.
Why? You may have guessed it – autophagy.
Now, that’s not to say that these patients weren’t left with any excess skin, but simply that in his experience it hasn’t been as much of an issue as it typically is with mainstream weight loss techniques.
Similar to how our bodies can eat away at unnecessary skin cells from loose skin through the process of autophagy, the appearance of aging is also slowed (and many say can even be reversed to an extent) when we activate this mechanism of clearing out old cellular parts – therefore revealing more youthful, vibrant skin.
And in addition to slowing signs of aging in the skin, there are many additional benefits of autophagy which we’ll dive into next!
BENEFITS OF AUTOPHAGY
Autophagy provides a host of benefits on the inside and on the outside. Here are the main ones:
- Anti-aging: My interest in autophagy/fasting was initially sparked when I heard Dr. Terri Wahls speak to it on a podcast. She mentioned that her children have started referring to her as “Benjamin Button” because of how she has progressively been looking younger and younger as a result of consistently fasting for 6 days/month.
As the owner of a beauty brand and a self-proclaimed skin biohacker, this caught my attention. I’ve always believed that skincare products have a huge impact on skin health, but that what’s happening on the inside makes up an even bigger piece of the puzzle.
Upon doing more research on fasting and autophagy, it made sense that the buildup of old or damaged cellular components may be to blame for many of the effects of aging (if autophagy isn’t being routinely activated).
- Prevention: Because autophagy targets diseased or broken cell parts in its process of cellular cleansing, there is a growing buzz in the scientific community about its effectiveness in preventing various diseases including cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
For this reason, Dr. Thomas Seyfried, a professor of biology at Boston College, believes that it may be beneficial to do a yearly seven-day water only fast as a method of cancer prevention. According to Seyfried,
- Nutrient absorption: Remember Dr. Fung’s analogy I mentioned above about the importance of demo-ing old kitchen cabinets, countertops, etc. before building new ones? Our bodies work in a similar way.
It’s important to consume foods that are rich in nutrients, and many of us also take supplements in an effort to achieve optimal health. However, we won’t experience the full array of benefits from these nutrients if the unnecessary (and oftentimes harmful) cellular accumulation hasn’t first been removed.
This is where autophagy comes in. Autophagy acts as a “reset” for the body, allowing us to better absorb and utilize the nutrients we take in. This renewal takes place during the re-feeding period after autophagy has been activated through fasting.
During this period, something magical happens – new cell parts are built to replace the ones that were destroyed, creating a situation where the body is primed and ready to better absorb and utilize nutrients (one reason why it’s important to take in healthful foods post fast)!
I also wonder (and this is 100% my own speculation) if just as the gut is better prepared to utilize nutrients after a fast, if our skin is also more primed to absorb topical nutrients from creams, serums, etc. after autophagy has been activated. I’m not sure if there will ever be a clear answer on this one, but I think there could be some truth to it!
HOW TO ACTIVATE AUTOPHAGY
The quickest and most effective way to activate autophagy is through intermittent fasting and extended fasting.
According to Dr. Fung in The Ultimate Guide to Fasting,
I haven’t found a definitive answer on how long it takes to activate autophagy, but it does seem to depend on the length of a fast. A traditional intermittent fasting window is 6-8 hours of eating per day and 16-18 hours of fasting, which is generally considered to create a healthy rhythm of cycling in and out of autophagy on a routine basis.
Extended fasts of 24+ hours, and especially anything over 72 hours, will provide even greater benefits. If intermittent or extended fasting sounds too intimidating, circadian fasting (eating only from sunrise to sunset – usually about a 12 hour eating window) can be a great place to start!
Mild levels of autophagy can also be activated through a ketogenic diet, but because most fatty foods do contain some protein, the autophagy won’t be quite the same as it would with a true fast.
Exercise also has the potential to activate autophagy – one reason why it may be beneficial to exercise in the morning prior to taking in any food in order to ramp up autophagy levels in the body.
Although the process of autophagy is a fairly new discovery, fasting itself is nothing new. In fact, people throughout history have instinctually recognized that fasting is vital to health and healing. Paraclesus, a Swiss German physician and the founder of toxicology wrote, “Fasting is the greatest remedy – the physician within.” Benjamin Franklin also once wrote, “The best of all medicines is resting and fasting”.
Throughout history, there have been periods of fasting and feasting. Sometimes out of necessity, and sometimes by choice. But one thing is for sure – there has never been a time in our history in which it has been normal to eat as much, and as often, as we do today.
In addition to the importance of what we eat, I’m becoming more and more convinced that when we eat can be equally as impactful in achieving optimal health and longevity. After several months of routinely activating autophagy in my body, I can honestly say that my body, mind and skin feels healthier and more clear than it has in years.