How Can We Activate Autophagy?

Dr Mehmet Yildiz

Findings are based on reviews from scientific papers.
Photo by Olga Guryanova on Unsplash

Background and Context

I conducted a comprehensive literature review to understand autophagy. Without going into details, I provide only key points in this post.

Before discussing why to initiate autophagy, I want to introduce what autophagy means briefly. Autophagy is a natural process in our bodies, aiming to clean damaged cells and generate healthier cells. In its original language, ancient Greek,autóphagos” means “self-eating”.

The science of autophagy is complicated and intriguing to the public. As a result, it is now heavily researched as part of biology, physiology, medicine, and medical science disciplines. Even a Nobel Prize in Physiology in 2016 was given to a researcher, Yoshinori Ohsumi, who explained autophagy's morphological and molecular mechanisms.

In some popular articles and blogs, autophagy is referred to with the metaphor of cannibalism. From a realistic perspective, this is a helpful metaphor to serve the purpose because our bodies cannibalize the damaged cells. They eat them and turn them into other metabolic resources.

The main reason to instantiate autophagy is to clean our dead or zombie cells. Zombie cells are neither dead nor alive. These damaged cells may affect our body’s homeostasis. The instability of zombie cells may cause critical health risks

Our body needs well-functioning cells to survive and thrive.

The process of autophagy removes these unnecessary and damaging cells. So the purpose of initiating and sustaining autophagy is to have healthy cells for our organs. In simple terms, with new and functioning cells, a human being may get healthier, more energetic, and fitter.

How can we initiate autophagy?

There are various ways to initiate autophagy. I only focus on natural methods. There are also complicated pharmacologically modulating autophagy approaches, such as those in oncology studies aiming for cancer treatment.

As far as natural processes are concerned, one of the efficient ways to initiate autophagy is fasting. Fasting is not eating food and drinking caloric beverages for an extended period.

Humans have been fasting throughout history. Our ancestors only ate food when they found something to eat, usually by hunting animals or picking vegetables and fruits in certain seasons. They did not have access to food as we do now 24 hours a day.

Several religions and spiritual practices recommended fasting by using various regimes. For example, some religions require fasting during the day and eating at night.

Eating at a specific time of the day can create a caloric deficit. When we are in a caloric deficit, our body uses fat stores to produce energy.

The impact and implications of a caloric deficit on health are well-researched. Practitioners widely use it for weight loss and several other health conditions.

When we fast, our body uses fat from our stores and less essential proteins like damaged cells.

Scientists have proven that caloric restriction and fasting regimes could initiate autophagy. For example, a study by Kuma & Mizushima in 2010, examined autophagy's physiological role as an intracellular recycling system, emphasizing nutrient metabolism.

Another study in 2018 titled Autophagy and intermittent fasting: the connection for cancer therapy states that:

Dysfunctional autophagy contributes to many diseases, including cancer. Autophagy can suppress or promote tumors depending on the developmental stage and tumor type, and modulating autophagy for cancer treatment is an interesting therapeutic approach currently under intense investigation. The nutritional restriction is a promising protocol to modulate autophagy and enhance the efficacy of anticancer therapies while protecting normal cells.

Seeing research on the use of autophagy for cancer treatment is promising.

The optimal way of fasting is drinking water with electorates. Even though some fitness enthusiasts try dry fasting, it did not work for me. I needed drinking water and keeping my electorates in balance to sustain my energy.

A common way of fasting that is popular is intermittent fasting. The protocol is eating in a particular window, such as within 1 to 8 hours of the feeding window. Many fitness enthusiasts use the eight-hour feeding window. I use one hour as my eating regime is one meal a day. This regime allows me to fast every day.

Since I started one meal a day, I noticed the effect of autophagy in my life. Most of my health conditions were fixed, and symptoms disappeared. For example, my chronic inflammation was substantially reduced. My allergies and food tolerances disappeared. My arthritic pain was reduced.

Fasting also helped me to melt my stubborn belly fat and eliminate excessive loose skin.

After the fasting protocol, the next well-known autophagy-inducing process is exercise.

As mentioned in a 2017 study titled “Exercise-Induced Autophagy in Fatty Liver Disease”, exercise may improve NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease) through enhancing autophagy.

For example, an outstanding study in 2012 titled “Exercise induces autophagy in peripheral tissues and in the brain” investigated the exercise mechanism for inducing autophagy.

While scientific studies are progressing, many people use exercise for various health reasons, such as increasing longevity and preventing cardiovascular diseases, stroke, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer.

Informed fitness experts believe that the benefits of exercise are closely associated with autophagy.

After reading hundreds of studies and listening to fitness experts' anecdotes, I created a customized workout regime for my fitness and health goals.

Exercise requires motivation. Unless we maintain our motivation, exercise may be a chore or a tedious task and may bore us. It happened to me when I was highly career-oriented and neglected exercise due to work stress.

However, turning exercise into a hobby and making it joyful increased my motivation to sustain my workout regime and meet my fitness goals.

To get the best out of my exercise for initiating autophagy, I used mild fasted cardio. Undertaking 30 minutes of fasted sessions for six months helped reduce my stubborn belly fat and eliminate excessive loose skin.

In addition, after six months, I noticed a substantial improvement in my skin. It looked softer and brighter. Many spots and markers disappeared.

I did not want to lose more fat as my body fat was around 7% when checked with a DEXA scan. Anything under this amount is considered risky for some people. Besides, I also did not want to lose lean muscle mass.


To keep my healthy body fat and lean muscle, I developed joyful, consistent, and sustainable workouts and turned these workouts into daily habits. I always kept autophagy in mind as a motivating factor. Belief is a critical motivational factor. My beliefs come from some evidence from science and practice.

We know that movement can create good stress. Good stress is also known as acute stress. This kind of pressure is useful because it might initiate autophagy without causing elevated cortisol. Good stress is considered to be healthy in the medical, health, and fitness literature. With good stress, we can stay motivated to exercise. Regular exercise can contribute to fitness, strength, flexibility, and overall health.

I refrained from overdoing cardio because it caused me chronic stress. I replaced it with resistance training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

As my health mentors and coaches mentioned, weight training and calisthenics could initiate autophagy based on my body type, age, and eating regime in the form of OMAD (one meal a day),

By applying intermittent Fasting and joyful exercises, I believe my body has induced autophagy regularly. Even though there are no tests verifying autophagy, I noticed a considerable improvement in my blood markers, such as reduced inflammation markers and optimized hormones.

Learning from ongoing research, I believe that fasting and regular exercise help me induce autophagy. Perhaps, one day scientists will find ways to validate this belief.

Thank you for reading my perspectives.

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I write about important and valuable life lessons. My goal is to delight my readers. My content aims to inform and engage my readers. I'm a technologist, cognitive scientist, and postdoctoral researcher, with four decades of experience.


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