Forget juice cleanses and detox diets. While there's probably nothing wrong with drinking your weight in liquid kale, it won't flush out toxins any faster than if you were eating, you know, actual food.
The good news: There's a little-known way your body does cleanse itself, and it's a process you can optimize.
All you need to do is practice a little self-cannibalism.
How autophagy works
Yes, you can actually train your body to eat itself - and, believe it or not, you want it to.
It's a natural process called autophagy (the word literally means “self-eating”).
It's one way your body cleans house. In this process, your cells create membranes that hunt down scraps of dead, diseased, or worn-out cells; gobble them up; strip 'em for parts; and use the resulting molecules for energy or to make new cell parts Glick D, et al. (2012). Autophagy: cellular and molecular mechanisms. DOI: 10.1002/path.2697
“Think of it as our body's innate recycling program,” says Colin Champ, MD, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Champ is also the author of “Misguided Medicine,” a book that questions many traditional health recommendations and provides evidence-based advice on diet and lifestyle.
The benefits of autophagy
There's some evidence to suggest that autophagy (“ah-TAH-fah-gee”) plays a role in controlling inflammation and boosting immunity, among other benefits. In one 2012 study on mice, researchers found that autophagy protected against: He C, et al. (2012). Exercise-induced BCL2-regulated autophagy is required for muscle glucose homeostasis. DOI: 10.1038/nature10758:
- neurodegenerative disorders
- inflammatory diseases
- insulin resistance
Another study from that year showed how a lack of autophagy can be harmful. Researchers found that removing the autophagy gene in mice caused weight gain, lethargy, higher cholesterol, and impaired brain function. Coupé B, et al. (2012). Loss of autophagy in pro-opiomelanocortin neurons perturbs axon growth and causes metabolic dysregulation. DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2011.12.016
“Autophagy makes us more efficient machines to get rid of faulty parts, stop cancerous growths, and stop metabolic dysfunction like obesity and diabetes,” Champ says.
How to kick-start autophagy
“So how do I eat myself?” is a question you probably have never asked, but we're about to tell you how. Autophagy is a response to stress, so you're going to want to put your body through some hardship to drum up a little extra self-cannibalism.
(We know this article keeps getting weirder, but trust us.)
As is often the case, short-term discomfort can bring long-term benefits.
“It's our ancestral and evolutionary response to dealing with feast and famine in times of stress,” Champ says. “Since a lot of these things would kill us, like starvation and exercise, it only makes sense that after millions of years we adapted those mechanisms to make them positive.”
Here are the three main ways to boost autophagy in your body.
1. Lower your carb intake
There's a great way to activate autophagy without forgoing your favorite rib eye - though you'll probably need to quit candy.
It's called ketosis. The idea is to reduce carbohydrates to such low levels that the body has no choice but to use fat as a fuel source. This is the magic behind the wildly popular ketogenic diet.
Keto diets are high in fat and low in carbs (steak, bacon, and peanut butter shakes are a bonus for the keto crowd). Between 60 and 70 percent of your overall calories come from fat.
Protein makes up 20 to 30 percent of calories, while only 5 percent comes from carbs.
Being in ketosis can help people lose body fat while retaining muscle. There's some evidence that it also may help the body fight cancerous tumors, lower the risk of diabetes, and protect against brain disorders, particularly epilepsy. Paoli A, et al. (2013). Beyond weight loss: A review of the therapeutic uses of very-low-carbohydrate (ketogenic) diets. DOI: 10.1038/ejcn.2013.116
In fact, in a 2018 study, rats fed a keto diet had less brain damage during seizures. Wang B-H, et al. (2018). Ketogenic diet attenuates neuronal injury via autophagy and mitochondrial pathways in pentylenetetrazol-kindled seizures. DOI: 10.1016/j.brainres.2017.10.009
“Ketosis is like an autophagy hack,” Champ says. “You get a lot of the same metabolic changes and benefits of fasting without actually fasting.”
If staying in ketosis sounds too hard, take heart. A 2012 study noted similar benefits in people who followed a diet in which no more than 30 percent of their overall calories came from carbs, Champ says. Draznin B., et al. (2012). Effect of dietary macronutrient composition on AMPK and SIRT1 expression and activity in human skeletal muscle. DOI: 10.1055/s-0032-1312656
Note: Anyone with health issues, especially kidney or liver problems, should talk to a doctor before beginning a keto diet.
2. Try intermittent fasting
Skipping meals is another stressful act that the body may not immediately love but ultimately benefits from. Research has shown there are loads of positives to an occasional fast.
One research review found that intermittent fasting and autophagy can make cancer treatments more effective while protecting normal cells and reducing side effects. Antunes F, et al. (2018). Autophagy and intermittent fasting: The connection for cancer therapy? //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6257056/
In another mouse study, intermittent fasting was shown to improve cognitive function, brain structure, and neuroplasticity, which is fancy-speak for the brain's ability to reorganize and rebuild itself. Li L, et al. (2013). Chronic intermittent fasting improves cognitive functions and brain structures in mice. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0066069
That said, it wasn't totally clear if autophagy was the cause. Plus, the study was done on mice. You may have heard about a certain Twitter account that has a problem with people talking big about mouse studies.
In the meantime, give fasting a shot. While Champ fasts for 18 hours per day a couple of times per week, he knows that can be a tough routine for most of us.
Different variations of intermittent fasting seem to show pretty awesome health benefits. A review of the research concluded that it may have an array of positive effects, ranging from a healthier body weight and lower risk of diseases to an increased lifespan. Stockman M-C, et al. (2018). Intermittent fasting: Is the wait worth the weight? //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5959807/
Keep in mind that fasting is generally not recommended for children, for some people with diabetes or other issues with blood sugar, or for pregnant women.
3. Exercise regularly
In case the sweating, grunting, and post-workout pain didn't tip you off, here's the deal: Exercise puts stress on your body.
Working out actually damages your muscles, causing microscopic tears that your body then rushes to heal. This makes your muscles stronger and more resistant to any further “damage” you might cause them.
Regular exercise is the most popular way people unintentionally help their bodies cleanse themselves. (So there's actually something to that fresh, renewed feeling you get after working out.)
A 2012 study looked at autophagosomes, structures that form around pieces of cells the body has decided to recycle. After engineering mice to have glowing green autophagosomes (as one does), scientists found something interesting. He C, et al. (2012). Exercise-induced BCL2-regulated autophagy is required for muscle glucose homeostasis. DOI: 10.1038/nature10758
The rate at which the mice were healthily demolishing their own cells drastically increased after they ran for 30 minutes on a treadmill. The rate continued to increase until the little guys had been running for 80 minutes.
So, what about humans?
It's hard to figure out the amount of exercise required to switch on the autophagy boost.
“These are hard questions to answer at the moment,” says Daniel Klionsky, PhD, a cellular biologist at the University of Michigan who specializes in autophagy. “Clearly exercise has many benefits, aside from the possible role of autophagy.”
Is there an easier way?
Not yet. But there's a lot money to be made if researchers can distill the benefits of autophagy into a pill, so you can be sure they're trying.
“Of course people are looking for ways to induce autophagy through chemicals, because it would be easier than dieting,” Klionsky says, but he warns that we're a long way off.
Champ notes that anti-epileptic drugs that mimic ketosis already exist.
In 2018, for instance, the FDA approved stiripentol, which can imitate the effects of a ketogenic diet. It's used for the treatment of seizures associated with Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy.
Still, don't get your hopes up. “There are so many metabolic changes that take place during ketosis that mimicking all of them with a pill might not be possible,” Champ says. “The bodily stress that comes with entering ketosis might be necessary for the benefits.”
Just remember: You don't have to stay in ketosis, fast, or exercise intensely all day, every day to experience these benefits. Even a few hours here and there can help.
The bottom line
Klionsky notes that there's still a lot we don't know about autophagy, and it's too early to definitively say that the process will cure cancer, make you a genius, or stave off aging.
“One fundamental problem is that it is still difficult to monitor autophagy in a living organism, especially a human,” Klionsky says. Still, there's a pretty strong case to be made that some stress on the body is a good thing.
The takeaway? Occasional carbohydrate restriction, fasting, and regular exercise all carry mountains of benefits in addition to their impact on autophagy. The best that could happen is a stronger, leaner, and cleaner body.
One more thing: Drink plenty of nature's own best liquid cleanser - pure, clean water.
Now that's our kind of detox.