What is Autophagy?
A process that involves clearing out the damaged cells from the body and replacing them with new ones is known as autophagy. It is a natural process. This process has potential benefits and limits the development of conditions such as cancer, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.(1, 2)
Autophagy is a natural process and occurs constantly in the body. It cannot be felt physically. There are ways that can fasten the process, which include fasting, exercising, and restricting calorie intake.(3)
The signs and symptoms of autophagy can be noticed by changes in metabolism or levels of specific hormones.
Signs and Symptoms of Autophagy
Increased Ketone Levels
When the body does not have enough carbs, ketone bodies are produced from fatty acids.(4) Research suggests that the production of ketone bodies stimulates autophagy.(5, 6) This increase in ketone levels can be a sign of autophagy. To know whether autophagy is occurring, the level of ketones can be measured in blood, breath, or urine using special meters and strips.
During autophagy, there is a change in the level of hormone-like glucagon and insulin.(7) The glucagon hormone that is known to regulate blood sugar levels tends to increase. This leads to a reduction in appetite.(8, 9)
Also, due to a reduction in insulin levels, there is a reduced appetite.(10) Ketosis also leads to a reduction in the level of ghrelin, which is a hunger hormone. This leads to a decrease in hunger.(11)
Autophagy is also associated with fatigue. The different methods that are associated with inducing autophagy include fasting or following a ketogenic diet, leads to low energy levels and fatigue.(12,13) These eating patterns can lower blood sugar levels and further cause fatigue. However, these low energy levels due to the diet may be temporary. As the body adjusts to these eating patterns there is an increase in the energy levels while following these diets.(14) It should also not be forgotten that fatigue can be caused by other health issues such as nutritional deficiencies and psychological conditions.
Those following a ketogenic diet for autophagy may notice bad breath. It is a sign that the body has entered ketosis. Ketosis is a process to increase ketone levels, resulting in autophagy.(15) The bad smell is described as a fruity or metallic smell, which is due to acetone.(16) Brushing teeth more often or chewing mint can help in getting rid of the bad breath.
Various methods that are used to induce autophagy lead to calorie restriction thereby reducing weight. There are other metabolic changes that occur during fasting and ketosis, which can boost fat burning and support healthy body composition.(17) Autophagy also affects the level of hormones such as ghrelin, glucagon, and insulin, which are known to decrease hunger. A decrease in calories intake can help with weight loss.
There are studies that suggest that increased autophagy plays a role in fat metabolism and could increase lipophagy that is the breakdown of fat droplets.(18, 19) Most of the studies are test tube animal studies and more studies on humans are needed to know whether or not autophagy affects body composition.
Improves Brain Function
There are studies that show the role of autophagy in improving brain function and maintaining nerve cell health.(20) A 3-year study linked intermittent fasting with improving brain function in old-aged people with mild mental impairment.(21) Another study had similar findings and showed that the associated effects of intermittent fasting could be due to autophagy and several other factors.(22)
Ketones are used as an effective source of energy for the brain and could help in improving brain function.(23) There are a few studies that suggest that a ketogenic diet may help with a neurodegenerative disorder like Alzheimer’s disease.(24)
No matter autophagy is associated with several potential health benefits, the methods that are used to stimulate it are not suitable for everyone. Practicing an intermittent diet or following a ketogenic diet is not recommended for older adults and people with eating disorders. Also, those with an underlying condition should speak with their doctor before following such a diet.