What is autophagy and when does it start?

Many people first heard the term “autophagy” in connection with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, where the Japanese Yoshinori Ohsumi was honored in 2016 for his research on autophagy. Still, most of them have nothing to do with the word. It only rings when the layperson speaks of a “self-cleaning process of the body” or “garbage disposal in the cells”, because most of them can at least roughly imagine something like that. But why are autophagy mechanisms so important and what do they actually do in the human body? Read on to learn the health effects of autophagocytosis, as it is also known as autophagy.

In this article you will learn:

  • What is autophagy
  • Why autophagy is important to the human body
  • Why the term self-cleaning process is often used in connection with autophagy
  • How fasting and autophagy are related
  • What research says about autophagy

What is autophagy?

The cells of the human body are constantly busy with metabolic processes – regardless of whether we are awake or asleep. This creates waste in the body, such as defective proteins, incorrectly folded protein or lipids. Autophagy ensures that our body cells clean themselves and that membrane components, protein accumulations and discarded mitochondria are subjected to a kind of recycling process.

In order to keep the human body efficient and healthy, the body “eats up the cells” itself during autophagy. Bacteria and viruses are disposed of, cell damage can be repaired and the cells are supplied with energy that they can use to create new parts. So there is a kind of self-digestion of the cells .

With the help of autophagy, not only is the survival of cells ensured, cells that have already suffered damage are also disposed of at the same time. This ensures that our organism, which consists of many different cells, survives. So-called cellular homeostasis ensures that both old and new components of a cell remain in balance. Thus, autophagocytosis is an important cell renewal process in our body.

Even though Yoshinori Ohsumi received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2016 for his research on autophagy, the phenomenon was first described in 1962 – by the Canadian cell biologist Keith R. Porter and his student Thomas Ashford. The term autophagy was only coined a year later by the Belgian Christian de Duve. Translated, the term means something like “eat yourself”.

But what exactly does autophagy do, why is it vital and what role does autophagy play in our health? To understand this, one has to take a look at the processes that take place inside our body cells. There, for example, harmful substances that arise during the metabolism, unneeded proteins and old cell organelles are disposed of.

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The “organs”, a cell, are called organelles . These are structurally easily delimited areas within a cell with a special function. Each organelle has a specific task – similar to how our gastrointestinal tract is responsible for our digestion or our heart is responsible for supplying our body with blood that is rich in nutrients and oxygen. So while one organelle stores water, another cell organelle supplies the cell with energy and others ensure that the individual cells can multiply. Like the rest of our body, organelles are subject to an aging process. This can mean that they can no longer perform their function properly and stress the cell.

Autophagy ensures that cellular recycling takes place. The waste is not simply excreted, but digested by the cells themselves. For this reason, the term “recycling program” or “self-cleaning process” is often used in the course of autophagy. The body can break down proteins and break down the proteins and organelles into chemical building blocks, from which the cells can create new substances that they need for cell renewal and the maintenance of their function .

The so-called autophagosomes play a key role in this . These are cell organelles that arise in the course of autophagy. Cellular material such as misdirected proteins fuse with lysosomes , which act as transporters for the enzymes required for degradation, ultimately forming autophagosomes.

Science is only just beginning to understand the importance of autophagocytosis to the human body. It is clear, however, that a dysregulated or reduced autophagic activity can lead to diseases.

Above all, these include the following diseases:

  • Cancer due to a lack of tumor suppression, a lack of destruction of damaged organ cells or dysregulated cell death
  • Neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia due to impaired intracellular protein breakdown
  • Functional liver failure
  • Muscle disorders
  • Infectious diseases due to a disturbed immune defense due to a lack of destruction of intracellular pathogens

In cancer research in particular, scientists see autophagy as an important topic and place their hopes in autophagy inhibition as a cancer therapy . Autophagy plays an important role, especially with regard to tumorigenesis, because it is considered to be a tumor suppressive principle in the body. The development of tumors has been linked to the ability of cells to perform a self-cleaning process. Experiments on mice with an autophagy deficit showed that they developed more tumors spontaneously. At present, scientists are primarily researching how the processes of autophagy can be used to overcome resistance to therapy in cancer therapy and thus improve therapy options.

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utophagy could play an important role in cancer therapy in the future.

Autophagy is particularly helpful in an environment where tumor cells are under stress due to adverse circumstances or where there is a reduced supply of nutrients . In this context, the term “programmed survival”, in German something like “programmed survival”, is used more often. When certain cell components break down and damaged organelles are removed from the cytoplasm, basic components stand for new molecules thanks to autophagyready again. Cancer cells are even protected from aggressive treatments in this way. These findings are of particular importance for cancer research, because substances that cause autophagy inhibition or even completely prevent autophagy could prove to be particularly helpful in cancer therapy.

In fact, to a certain extent you can activate autophagy yourself and help your body to renew cells. Sport and exercise, for example, have a supportive effect on autophagy. In addition, autophagy is activated in extreme situations. This is the case, for example, with severe cell damage.

Autophagy: when does it start?

If you read up on the subject of autophagy, the term fasting in particular appears more and more frequently. Although autophagy is constantly active in our body, it is assumed that the process is started up through longer fasting periods of around 11-12 hours . That is why many people rely on fasting cures such as regular therapeutic fasting or short-term fasting or eat “by the clock” like intermittent fasting. In addition, the autophagy is promoted by regular exercise.

Regular exercise can promote the process of autophagy.

Of course, our cells continue to renew themselves if we eat far too much and constantly. Here, too, old cell components are used. However, if we feed our body more food than we need, more tissue is created. In most cases it is fatty tissue. Continuous eating does not slow down autophagy, but longer breaks between meals can presumably accelerate the process of autophagy.

What are the benefits of intermittent fasting?

This is where intermittent fasting  comes into play. But be careful: Intermittent fasting is scientifically not without controversy . Especially when it comes to losing weight with intermittent fasting, the scientific basis has so far been rather thin. Fasting and a diet are two pairs of shoes that should not be lumped together, so before you start intermittent fasting to do something good for your body, you should seek advice from a doctor on whether this form of diet is for you suitable is. You should never fast on your own without the assessment, advice and, in the case of longer fasting periods of several days to weeks, never without the supervision of a doctor!

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Before intermittent fasting, seek advice from a doctor to determine whether this method is safe for you.

 

What actually happens when you fast? And how long should one fast to promote autophagy? First of all, you should know that the change in your organism takes place in stages during fasting. There is a slow change to “nutrition from the inside”, in which the substances necessary for the metabolism are drawn from the body itself and not from the food ingested. This process is called catabolism. With anabolism, on the other hand, fat or muscle tissue is built up. If you are maintaining your weight, the mechanisms are usually in balance.

As a result of the restricted energy supply , the body changes its metabolism. The energy required for bodily functions is now drawn from proteins from your muscles, carbohydrates in the form of your body’s own glycogen and fats from the subcutaneous fatty tissue. However, with longer periods of fasting, these effects are stronger than with intermittent fasting, to which special attention is paid in connection with autophagy.

A study is currently being carried out at the University of Graz on the subject of autophagy and intermittent fasting. In the so-called Inter-Fast study, Prof. Frank Madeo is studying the potential effects of fasting on the human body and the associated physiological and molecular changes with 90 participants. The scientist assumes that DNA mutations, defective enzymes and cell damage are destroyed with the help of intermittent fasting, because autophagy, as an independent breakdown process of the cells, maintains the state of health.

By the way: In connection with autophagy, one often speaks of self-cleaning or “cleaning from the inside”. Autophagy, however, is not a detox , which is about purifying the cells. The human body does not perform autophagocytosis because it wants to rejuvenate or de-stress. Rather, autophagy is a completely normal process, which is part of the constant chemical-biological degradationin our body is where cells are permanently renewed. To rebuild the cells, components of the old cells are used and rebuilt. So the perfect recycling system! The breakdown of the old cells is consequently the result of autophagocytosis and has nothing to do with detox – the kidneys and liver are primarily responsible for detoxification.

What is autophagy?

Cells eat themselves up from the inside, giving them energy and building blocks to create new parts. The mechanism keeps new and old cell parts in balance , a vital function for the human body. Although this process takes place continuously, it can be intensified by prolonged stopping of food intake, e.g. intermittent fasting.

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