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6 Signs of Autophagy (Cellular Spring Cleaning)

By Liam McAuliffe Updated on

Autophagy means “self-devouring,” and it’s the name of a process where old cells and damaged cell parts get broken down and recycled into new cells. Though you can’t feel autophagy directly, there are some tell-tale signs of autophagy you can look for. 

In this article, we’ll look at how autophagy works, how you can stimulate it, and six signs that it’s kicked in. 

Table of Contents

What is Autophagy?

Autophagy is a natural process that your body uses to repair damaged cell parts like organelles and misfolded proteins by recycling them into fresh components. To a lesser extent, autophagy also completely eliminates damaged cells. 

Autophagy steps. Schematic diagram. Natural mechanism in the cell that removes unnecessary components. Vector illustration

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Benefits of Autophagy

Though research on autophagy is still emerging, there are already numerous studied benefits, including: 

  • Longevity and anti-aging 4 5
  • Reduced Inflammation 6 7
  • Anti-cancer properties 8 9 
  • Supports heart health 10
  • Protection against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s 2

How to Induce Autophagy

white plate with spoon and fork, Intermittent fasting concept, ketogenic diet, weight loss

Autophagy is a process that is always taking place to some degree in your body. However, the standard American diet and lifestyle dramatically inhibit this natural process. 

Fortunately, there are ways to induce higher levels of autophagy. Studies show you can induce autophagy by either eating a high-fat, low-carb (ketogenic) diet, fasting, restricting calories, and exercising. 5 7

If you’re using an intermittent fasting plan to induce autophagy, you need to fast for at least 16-18 hours. 

The timing of your fast is equally important–you must align your fast with your circadian rhythm by fasting overnight.[1] [2] [3]

Though you won’t be able to feel autophagy, there are some key signs that tell you when that its taking place. 

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1. Elevated ketone levels

Studies suggest that ketone bodies induce autophagy.8 9

The level of ketone bodies in your blood increases when you cut carbs or restrict calories during intermittent fasting. 

Ketone bodies are energy molecules produced from breaking down fatty acids stored on your body and from the foods you eat. 7 8

You can measure ketone levels in your blood with ketone meters and test strips. 

2. Keto “nail polish” breath

“Nail polish breath” is often one of the first signs that your body has begun producing elevated ketones.  This is because Acetone–the main ingredient in nail polish remover– is also a ketone that gets released in the breath. 23 24

As mentioned above, elevated ketones are associated with autophagy.22

This sign of autophagy will be temporary, lasting only a few weeks at most. As your body becomes adapted to intermittent fasting and/or high-fat low-carb eating, it begins to process acetone and other ketones more efficiently. [25]

3. Reduced Appetite

During autophagy, glucagon levels tend to increase. Glucagon plays a role of managing blood sugar and suppresses apetite.6 10 11

Additionally, high-fat low-carb eating and intermittent fasting decrease insulin and ghrelin levels. Lower levels of both of these hormones decrease hunger. 12 13 14

4. Improved Cognitive Function

Various studies have shown that intermittent fasting can improve brain function and protect against age-related impairment.34

Autophagy has been identified as one of the neuroprotective factors induced by intermittent fasting. 35

Various studies show that autophagy is a key factor in brain function and the health of nerve cells that contribute to proper cognition.32  33

Ketones, which are associated with autophagy, have been shown to be a powerful energy molecule in the brain, promoting brain function and protecting against degradation.36 

Autophagy plays a major role in neuroplasticity–the ability of brain neurons that change their structure and function according to previous experience. Greater neuroplasticity is associated with improved cognitive ability as well as prevention and recovery of neurodegenerative disorders like stroke and Alzhiemers.5

Not surprisingly, high-fat low-carb diets that increase ketone levels and autophagy have been shown to be protective against brain disorders like seizures and Alzheimer’s disease. 37 38

5. Reduced Inflammation and Faster Healing

Studies show that autophagy reduces excessive and chronic inflammatory responses by preventing inflammasome activation, mediating the clearance of DAMPs (damaged associated molecular patterns), including cell parts, while degrading inflammatory mediators.6

Other studies show that autophagy regulates inflammation–meaning that it turns it on and off at the proper times, keeping inflammation in balance. Inflammation is a natural healing function. It’s only damaging when it turns on too high and stays on too long. 

To these ends, research shows that autophagy protects against infectious, autoimmune, and inflammatory diseases.5

6. Temporary Fatigue

When first adapting to an intermittent fasting and/or high-fat low-carb regimen, fatigue is a common side effect.15 16 17

These lifestyle changes cause a change in blood sugar and related hormonal balances that have been shown to result in temporary fatigue.18 19

The good news is that once your hormones adjust and your body becomes adapted, studies show that fasting and ketogenic diets result in more stable and higher energy levels.20 21

What Should I Eat to Induce Autophagy?

dr kiltz's BEBBIIS plan image

Autophagy is induced when you eat a high-fat low-carb diet. 

By reducing carbs your body focuses on breaking down fatty acids into energy molecules called ketones. And ketones have been shown to induce autophagy. 

Dr. Kiltz recommends his BEBBIIS plan. B.E.B.B.I.I.S. stands for

Each of these foods is fantastic on its own and an archetype of the entire food group. For example, bacon stands for all pork products. Butter represents all full-fat dairy like Dr. Kiltz’s favorite creamy blue cheese.  And ice cream represents low-carb treats to be enjoyed occasionally.

Focusing on these animal-based whole foods provides a variety of nourishing, satiating, nutrient-dense foods that work seamlessly with intermittent fasting. 

When Should I Eat to Induce Autophagy?

To promote and amplify autophagy while on a high-fat low-carb diet, time-restricted eating is a winning approach. 

Most people start out by practicing a gentle intermittent fasting approach by eating twice a day within a moderately restricting window like circadian rhythm fasting, or the 16/8 approach

16-8-Intermittent-Fast table

Once you’ve adapted to intermittent fasting and developed a nourishing meal plan, you can turn up the autophagy by practicing OMAD (one meal a day fasting). 


Signs of Autophagy: The bottom line

Autophagy is a process of cellular recycling and renewal. It is associated with numerous health benefits, including longevity, reduced inflammation, heart health, and brain health.

Though autophagy occurs at all times, our modern lifestyles, characterized by chronic high carb intake, constant caloric intake, and lack of movement, can interfere with this process. 

Simulating ancestrally eating patterns through high-fat low-carb diets and intermittent fasting induces greater autophagy. 

Although you can’t feel autophagy taking place, the signs listed above are evidence that your body is undergoing a much needed cellular spring cleaning. 

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