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The Role of Autophagy in Maintaining Brain Health

The body’s natural process of cleaning out damaged cells and regenerating new ones may have significant benefits for brain health. Autophagy is a cellular process where cells break down and recycle damaged or unnecessary cellular components, such as proteins and organelles. This process is crucial for maintaining proper cell function and preventing the accumulation of harmful substances within cells.

Autophagy plays a critical role in maintaining brain health by removing toxic protein aggregates, promoting neuronal survival, and regulating inflammation. Dysfunctional autophagy has been linked to various neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease.

Research on animals indicates that autophagy has the potential to prolong life. However, further studies are necessary to verify these findings in humans.

Fasting and your brain

Fasting has been shown to increase the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the survival and growth of neurons, which could further contribute to cognitive enhancement. Healthy levels of BDNF support the areas of the brain that are vital for memory, learning, and higher cognitive functions. Regular exercise (30 mins per day), meditation, a diet high in omega-3 fats, quality sleep, and stress management can also support production of BDNF, which in turn, has been shown to stimulate autophagy.

What is the optimal fasting duration for health benefits?

The exact duration of fasting needed to stimulate autophagy in brain cells remains undefined, varying due to factors like age, individual metabolism, and overall health. Research indicates autophagy can start during short-term fasts of 12 to 24 hours. Extended fasts of 24 hours or more may boost autophagy, but medical supervision is highly recommended.

6 ways to promote a brain healthy diet that supports autophagy

Several lifestyle and dietary habits can potentially enhance the autophagy process, promoting brain health. These include:

    1. Adopting a low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diet, rich in healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocado, and fatty fish) and minimal in carbohydrates, facilitates ketosis. This metabolic state prioritizes fat as the primary fuel source. Ketosis is known to improve autophagy across different tissues, notably the brain.
    2. Engaging in both aerobic exercise and resistance training effectively activates autophagy across various tissues, notably in the brain.
    3. Quality sleep is essential for overall health, including brain health and autophagy. Chronic sleep deprivation has been associated with impaired autophagy and increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night.
    4. Chronic stress can negatively impact autophagy and brain health. Incorporate stress-reducing practices such as mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, or spending time in nature to help manage stress levels and support autophagy.
    5. Polyphenols (antioxidant properties) are plant compounds found in foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds that add vibrant colour to your meals. Some polyphenols, such as resveratrol (found in red grapes and berries) and curcumin (found in turmeric), have been shown to enhance autophagy and have neuroprotective effects.
    6. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish, ground flaxseeds, chia, and walnuts, have been linked to improved brain health and may enhance autophagy.

Can autophagy prevent Alzheimer’s disease?

Recent scientific research has begun to shed light on the potential of autophagy as a preventive measure against Alzheimer’s disease. A study published in the National Institutes of Health’s database suggests that inducing autophagy can help clear amyloid-beta plaques, a key hallmark of Alzheimer’s, thereby potentially reducing the risk or delaying the onset of the disease. The systematic degradation of these plaques could theoretically impede their harmful effects on neuronal function and integrity, suggesting a significant preventive strategy against the progression of Alzheimer’s. Further research is imperative to fully understand the mechanisms by which autophagy can be consistently and safely targeted as a therapeutic approach in human patients.

Autophagy plays a pivotal role in maintaining brain health by facilitating the removal of damaged cells and supporting neuron survival. Given the complexity of autophagy and its impact on health, particularly in relation to diet, it’s beneficial to engage with a healthcare professional to tailor the approaches to your individual needs.


We encourage you to consult with a Registered Dietitian to explore how you can effectively support autophagy through nutrition. Our dietitians can provide personalized guidance, ensuring your diet plan not only promotes autophagy but also aligns with your overall health goals.


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