Autophagy is a vital process in which the body’s cells “clean out” any unnecessary or damaged components. It may be possible to induce autophagy, but there may be associated risks.

Researchers have linked autophagy to several positive health effects. They also believe that a person might be able to induce autophagy by fasting.

However, it is important to remember that much of the research into autophagy is in its early stages.

This article looks at what autophagy is, its possible health effects, and its relation to fasting. It also looks at other factors that might induce it, and at some potential side effects.

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Exercise may help induce autophagy.

A person’s body contains trillions of cells. Over time, unwanted molecules can build up inside them; sometimes, this can damage some of their parts.

A 2015 article published in Nature explains that autophagy is a natural process that responds to this problem. During autophagy, the cells remove these unwanted molecules and dysfunctional parts.

Sometimes, autophagy destroys some of these molecules and parts. Other times, the cell recycles these parts into new components.

The term “autophagy” derives from the Ancient Greek for “self-eating.”

Research has linked autophagy with several health effects, but this cellular process is complex, so it can be challenging to draw conclusions.

For instance, a recent 2019 study surveys existing research into autophagy and cancer. It finds that while autophagy can help to stall the development of cancer cells, it may also promote their growth, depending on the stage of the tumor.

Researchers are also interested in the connection between autophagy and liver health. A 2020 review article explored the ways autophagy may help protect liver cells from drug- and alcohol-induced liver injury.

Other research states that autophagy plays a role in many liver functions and could prevent the progression of several liver conditions, including:

However, the majority of studies on autophagy have taken place in test tubes or animal models. As the authors of the research above argue, it is necessary to carry out more research in humans to determine how autophagy can influence treatment.

Autophagy also seems to play an essential role in the immune system by cleaning out toxins and infectious agents.

There is evidence that autophagy may improve the outlook for cells with infectious and neurodegenerative diseases by controlling inflammation.

Another review article explains that autophagy helps to protect cells against incoming microbes.

While there is plenty of research on autophagy’s effect on cells, researchers are still unsure about whether enhancing autophagy could be a new treatment for different conditions.

Autophagy occurs naturally within the body, but many people wonder if they could induce autophagy using specific triggers.

Fasting is a possible trigger of autophagy. When somebody fasts, they voluntarily go without food for extended periods — hours or sometimes a day or more.

Fasting is different from traditional calorie restriction. When a person restricts their calories, they reduce their regular intake of food. Fasting may or may not result in calorie restriction, depending on how much food a person consumes during feeding periods.

A 2018 review of the existing research strongly suggests that both fasting and calorie restriction can induce autophagy.

Although there is some evidence of this process occurring in humans, most of these studies involved non-human animals.

Fasting and calorie restriction puts the body’s cells under stress. When a person limits the amount of food that goes into their body, their cells receive fewer calories than they need to function correctly.

When this happens, the cells must work more efficiently. In response to the stress brought on by fasting or calorie restriction, autophagy causes the body’s cells to clean out and recycle any unnecessary or damaged parts.

Scientists are unsure about which cells respond to fasting and calorie restriction in this way, however. People trying to induce autophagy by fasting should be aware that this may not target fat cells, for example.

Researchers are still debating whether fasting can induce autophagy in the brain. At least one animal study suggests that short term fasting can induce autophagy in brain cells.

Fasting and calorie restriction both trigger autophagy by putting cells under stress. However, researchers believe that there may be other ways to induce autophagy.


Exercise also puts the body’s cells under stress. When people exercise, the components of their cells become damaged and inflamed. The authors of one paper explain that our cells respond to this problem with autophagy.

This suggests that people might be able to use exercise to trigger autophagy. Indeed, there is evidence that exercise increases autophagy in human skeletal muscles.


Scientists have also suggested that curcumin intake triggers autophagy, at least in studies involving mice. Curcumin is a naturally occurring chemical found in the turmeric root, a popular spice around the world.

For example, one animal study reported that curcumin-induced restoration of autophagy could protect against diabetic cardiomyopathy, a disorder of the heart muscles that affects people with diabetes.

Another study in mice suggested that curcumin helped fight cognitive impairment due to chemotherapy by inducing autophagy in certain regions in the brain.

Although these preliminary findings are promising, it is crucial to note that more research is necessary before scientists can draw any conclusions. In particular, scientists do not yet know if increasing curcumin intake can induce autophagy in humans.

It is important to distinguish between the risks of autophagy itself and the risks associated with people’s attempts to induce autophagy.

Autophagy itself is not always positive. Studies have shown that excessive autophagy may kill cells in the heart, and scientists have linked excessive autophagy to some heart problems.

Research has also found that inhibiting autophagy in mice could limit tumor growth and improve responsiveness to cancer treatment. This suggests that an increase in autophagy could theoretically worsen the outlook of somebody with existing cancer.

According to the researchers, “Autophagy plays a complex role in cancer” and “[c]hallenges and opportunities remain to identify patients most likely to benefit from this approach.”

Many people are interested in using fasting and calorie restriction to induce autophagy, but there is little evidence on the precise effect this has on humans.

Autophagy is an essential bodily process that removes damaged and unnecessary parts of cells. There is evidence that it can have both positive and adverse health effects.

Although research has shown that dietary restriction, exercise, and curcumin intake may influence autophagy, most studies have taken place on non-human animals.

Scientists do not have a full picture of the health implications of autophagy, nor of how individuals might induce it.

Anybody who is seriously considering making changes to their lifestyle to induce autophagy should, therefore, seek advice from a doctor beforehand.