Autophagy – how our cells clean

autophagy how cells clean health retreat

This month we want to take a quick look at autophagy. This is a natural process in our body, which is important for our health. But what is it and why does it matter? 

If we break down the word into parts:

  • Auto – means it is automatic
  • Phagy – means to eat

So, the literal translation of autophagy is to self-eat.

This sounds a little bit scary, however all it means is that the body has this mechanism so that it can clear out damaged or old cells, recycle some useful parts of these cells, to make way for regeneration of newer healthier cells. It clears about debris and occurs when our body is placed under a particular type of stress. It also helps with balancing sources of energy and is an essential part of homeostasis. (For more information about homeostasis, read our introductory article: understanding physiology, understanding health). Cellular homeostasis requires removal of damaged and worn-out components, and replacement with new.

We have discussed before here on the blog, the importance of the health of a cell and how this contributes to our overall health. Cells are basically the building blocks of every tissue and organ in our body. As cells work and age, they can become damaged or just stop working. Autophagy can breakdown the cells, pick up the parts that still work or are useful for other cells, and get rid of the bits that no longer function. It is also the process whereby bacteria and viruses in cells get destroyed.

Some authors refer to autophagy as “housekeeping”. It is quite amazing that the body has evolved to incorporate this natural process.

What does autophagy mean to us?

Originally scientists thought that autophagy was simply a necessary process of keeping us tidy inside. In recent decades more attention has been drawn to its role in preventing ill-health – i.e. in keeping us healthy – and helping to prevent aging. Research is still in its infancy, however the potential is huge.

It is also seen to play a role in the biological processes of development and immunity. (Read this article in Nature: Autophagy: eat thyself, sustain thyself. Link opens in a new tab). Autophagy is a balance: too much or too little can be equally as harmful.

There have been some studies that suggest that problems with autophagy is associated with Parkinsons, heart disease, Crohns disease, diabetes and others. The pathway is unclear – for example, does poor autophagy cause Parkinsons or does Parkinson’s cause poor autophagy. Most research has been done in animals so far, so there is much research needed to fully understand this.

Science is currently investigating the role of autophagy in cancer – they think that autophagy might inhibit cancer cell growth. Cancer starts from defective cell(s) so if there is a natural process in our body that can identify and remove defective cells, it stands to reason that there is a potential for developing a treatment in some form or another. There is a great deal of work needed in this area.

What can trigger autophagy?

As mentioned above, your body does this process naturally. However, science has identified certain situations that increase autophagy.


Fasting involves not eating for periods of time. When the body is starved of nutrients, it automatically starts to break down cellular material, to help to maintain energy and body function. Clearly, this is not a long-term solution, however short periods of fasting have been included in spiritual journeys for centuries. Fasting has been suggested to improve longevity. (We need to note here that fasting is not suitable for everyone – pregnant women, and people with some diseases should not fast – best to check with your medical practitioner first).

Calorie restriction

As the body does not have enough calories to function, it turns inside to release more energy from the cells. Again, this is not a long-term option. A juice cleanse might lead to a decrease in calorific intake, so can have the effect of triggering autophagy.

Low sugar

Low sugar levels in the body is said to bring a positive stress to the body, which in turn triggers autophagy – survival mode. So, having a period of time which is sugar-free, or low in sugar might help.


Some types of exercise are also said to trigger autophagy, as exercise can cause some cell components to become damaged.

As research and understanding the complex nature of autophagy is still in its infancy, scientists would urge caution in focusing on, or acting to trigger autophagy. Instead consider the other health benefits of the actions mentioned above. For example, intermittent fasting and calorie restriction has been shown to assist weightloss and help to boost metabolism.

Early days for autophagy research

Studies are ongoing around the world to explore and understand the complex function of autophagy. We will continue to monitor the science and share when more information is available.

In the meantime, enjoying a healthy diet (lots of nutrients), regular exercise, good rest, connection (with self, others and the world), having a healthy mindset can all contribute to maintaining good health and well-being. Read more about the La Crisalida holistic programme for health and well-being here.

About the author

Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).