What the Heck is Autophagy? – The Bakery Analogy

“Autophagy” is a hot topic in nutrition science, particularly as relates to brain health. The discovery of autophagy-related genes was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and autophagy is often touted as the abstract biological reason fasting is good for you. But for those who don’t have a medical or science degree, what the heck is autophagy?

Here’s a fun analogy! Imagine you’re running a bakery with no trash cans. Ideally, you’d love for every ingredient to be used and for every crumb of every pastry to be eaten. Unfortunately, that’s unrealistic. In other words, you need a way to dispose of the waste. Because you have no trash can, you have two options. First, you can grind up all the excess and try to flush it down the toilet. This could work for a bit, but it may not work forever. Plus, it’s pretty wasteful. Your second option is to get creative with the leftovers! Rather than flushing old bananas you meant to use for your banana foster, mash them up and bake them into banana bread. Rather than throwing out the stale sourdough, make crotons!

These two options (flush down the toilet or get creative and recycle) are akin to the options your brain bakery has for dealing with its cellular waste. It can try to flush excess down the toilet (by grinding it up using a molecular food processor called the proteasome and attempting to flush metabolic by-products out via out glymphatic system) or it can get creative and recycle the excess to make new and useful microscopic bits and pieces! You guessed it; the second option is “autophagy.”

Autophagy is a cellular recycling process in which waste (including old and damaged proteins and mitochondria) is wrapped into a package called an “autophagosome.” The autophagosome fuses with another package called a “lysosome” and the contents are broken down into their constituent parts. These parts can then be used to refresh and renew your brain cells!

So how do you activate autophagy in the brain? One sure-fire way to do so it through intermittent fasting. In mice, brain autophagy begins after about 24 hours of fasting. Unfortunately, we don’t yet know how long you need to fast to activate autophagy in the human brain (because the experiments we would need to perform to find the answer would require sacrificing human subjects). Other ways to potentially activate autophagy include achieving ketosis and through exercise. By combining these techniques (intermittent fasting, ketosis, and exercise), you can maximize autophagy, help optimize your brain health, and potentially protect yourself against diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and migraines.

Your brain is a bakery. Get creative. Recycle ingredients. Don’t waste the yummy goods!


No medical advice

The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.