Autophagy is a cellular process that has been gaining attention in the health and wellness community for its potential benefits in anti-aging, disease prevention, and longevity. However, for beginners, it can be a complex topic to understand.
Leslie Kenny, Founder and CEO of Oxford Healthspan, a leading anti-aging supplement brand, has provided expert opinion and insights on this topic to give you a better understanding of what autophagy is and how you can activate it to improve your health and wellbeing.
What is autophagy?
Autophagy. You may have never heard of it but I can guarantee that it’s a powerful process of cellular renewal and recycling that your body performs nightly without you being aware of it. And it’s so powerful and important that it can replace dysfunctional key cellular components like mitochondria which make energy to keep you going with better, healthier ones.
Put another way, have you ever thought about what would happen if you never took the rubbish out? It would begin to pile up and decompose and begin to make everything nearby less functional.
Think of autophagy as your body’s very own internal clear-up and spruce-up system: it bags and sorts parts of your cells into ‘Rubbish’ and ‘Recycling’ and takes care of them for you! It’s not just about getting rid of the worn out bits either. Those parts that can be salvaged are essentially chucked into the recycling bin to be turned into brand new healthy cells. Isn’t science amazing?
Autophagy is fundamental to the proper functioning of your cells across your lifetime, and your overall well being. Without it, proteins, organelles and other cellular matter build up and begin to cause the cells to malfunction or even die. Studies show that autophagy enhances our cognition, immune function, heart health and even our lifespan.
In 2016, Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi actually won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for his groundbreaking research explaining how autophagy works. He was able to demonstrate that this process of cellular recycling and renewal plays a key role in human health and slowing aging.
When we’re in our prime, this process happens seamlessly, but as we get older, autophagy slows down, similar to other processes, such as hormone production. This means our bodies are no longer as effective at getting rid and replacing all the damaged cell components, which is partly why we start to show signs of aging-both in terms of how we look and the effectiveness of our organs. Think back to our analogy at the start of the article: some of the ‘rubbish’ can simply hang around too long and that can cause all sorts of problems, as we need to make way for shiny, new cells.
How can we help induce autophagy?
The good news is there are ways to induce autophagy again, even once it slows down as we age.
“Autophagy-or the body’s in-built cellular waste removal system slows down the rate at which we age. But everyone can activate autophagy by periods of fasting” says Oxford University Emeritus Professor of Physiology Denis Noble, Co-Founder of The Oxford Longevity Project. Some people choose intermittent fasting, where they eat for shorter windows of time during the day. Fasting and having one meal a day can activate autophagy- and help our bodies regenerate new cells.
However, Professor Abhinav Diwan, an ObGyn and autophagy expert at Washington University in St Louis, USA, advises this is much better suited to men than women. Women are built for reproduction so when food appears to be scarce when we eat one meal a day, the body can shut down fertility since it perceives resources are too scarce to bring a baby into the world. It is also not appropriate for hypothyroid patients. Fasting has lots of benefits but it is not a one-size-fits-all answer, especially for women. And, of course, lots of people don’t want to go without food.
The good news is, there’s an even easier way to activate autophagy – and that’s to make sure you get enough sleep. “Most people don’t want to go without food and fasting isn’t recommended for everybody. Instead, the simple solution is to get more sleep-because when we sleep, we are also fasting! And this can induce autophagy,” explains Professor Noble.
Another way to activate autophagy is a potent compound called spermidine (something which is actually found in the seeds of all plants but also in high quantities in breast milk and semen to promote the survival of the next generation of our own species). Supplementing with spermidine in humans has been shown to support cognition and heart health, and higher spermidine levels have been found to correlate with a longer, healthier life, since it can activate autophagy and inhibit 9 of the 12 so-called ‘Hallmarks of Ageing’. These include things such as stem cell and mitochondrial dysfunction, shortened telomeres, inflammation and gut biome imbalances.
“Intake of dietary spermidine inversely correlates with the incidence of cardiovascular disease and death. The more spermidine you have, the less cardiovascular disease you have in terms of obesity,” says Dr. Sandra Kaufmann Kaufmann Anti-Aging Institute, Miami, and Scientific Advisor to Oxford Healthspan, a British start-up that has brought food-derived spermidine along with other co-factor polyamines to market based on Oxford research.
“Luckily, when we’re young our gut biome and our tissues do a great job of producing two thirds of our body’s spermidine. This is known as ‘endogenous production’. But we get the final third through diet. Spermidine can be found in higher concentrations in foods such as shiitake mushrooms, peas or the traditional Japanese fermented soybean dish, nattō. But as we age, our tissue and microbiome production of spermidine begins to wane and we need to increase our intake of spermidine through food. But this isn’t a great time to be increasing the overall amount of food we intake, so by far the easiest way to meet this increase in daily needs is by supplementing. When I discovered spermidine, I knew it was special but I couldn’t find it on the market, which is when I launched Oxford Healthspan, a premium, food-derived spermidine supplement containing all of the co-factor polyamines that only appear with spermidine in food,” says Leslie Kenny, Founder and CEO of Oxford Healthspan.
Another way you can induce autophagy is exercise, but gentle stretches or a walk in the park won’t cut it.The good news is you don’t need to spend a long time exercising to induce autophagy, but it does need to be intense. Think circuit training and resistance training with weights.
Leslie Kenny is the Founder and CEO of anti-aging supplement brand Oxford Healthspan, and the Co-Founder of the Oxford Longevity Project, which brings together world-class lab scientists to discuss the latest breakthroughs in ageing with medical clinicians translating those discoveries into patient protocols.