What is Autophagy?

Autophagy is a process where non-functional or unnecessary cells are removed and recycled so healthy new ones can be built. This “cellular housekeeping” is crucial for immune health and the body’s ability to respond to immune aging.

Autophagy—which comes from the Greek words 'auto' meaning self, and 'phagy' meaning eat, literally translates to ‘self-eating’. Just as we tidy up our homes and throw out the trash, our cells have the ability to clean themselves when they are non-functional to get rid of the defective matter. Autophagy is frequently referred to as “cellular recycling,” as the macromolecular products of autophagy provide the raw building blocks for the synthesis of new proteins and organelles. The most studied type of autophagy concerns sub-cellular recycling. For example, damaged mitochondria can be removed, which promotes survival of the cell.

In other words: Autophagy is where our cells break up the old material and use it to create new, healthy cellular components.  

Autophagy is a key cellular mechanism for your body, and the benefits of this process are impressive: Autophagy helps support the normal function of the immune system, encourages healthy cellular aging by improving the metabolic fitness of cells, and controls inflammation at the cellular level.

How is autophagy triggered?

Although the body already performs autophagy without external influences, there are ways to encourage the process and its potential benefits—for example, with intermittent fasting and caloric restriction. Both fasting and caloric restriction put stress on the body, so cells are forced to work more efficiently in response. Autophagy can also be induced by certain medications and supplements, like our immune product Format, which contains an Autophagy Activation Complex. Unfortunately, it declines with age, which can lead to a decline in immune function. Elysium’s first fellow at Oxford, Hanlin Zhang, discovered that induction of autophagy has been shown to improve vaccine efficiency in old mice and improve the function of old human B cells (white blood cells that create antibodies). To date, there is not yet evidence that this animal study can be extrapolated to humans.

Autophagy and the immune system

Autophagy plays a crucial role in regulating immunity and the inflammatory response. For instance, if a pathogen successfully bypasses the first line of defense (the physical barriers) of a cell’s cytoplasm, autophagy is involved in the capture and degradation of the invading microbe. This specific type of autophagy is called xenophagy. 

Autophagy also helps control pro-inflammatory signaling, for instance by first sequestering and then removing damaged mitochondria, thereby keeping cells healthy. By removing the damaged mitochondria, this helps limit ROS (reactive oxygen species) production to help keep cells healthy. 

While your immune system can’t be “boosted”, there are things that help keep it robust and working at optimum ability—autophagy is crucial for clearing away non-functional parts to keep cells healthy and in good working order.

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