As you age, and as a normal response to just going through life, proteins and organelles in your body get damaged or die. If they’re not cleared out, these damaged particles accumulate in your cells and jam things up. When this happens, your cells can’t divide and function normally—this can cause cell death and age-related diseases, contribute to poor tissue and/or organ function, and even become cancerous.
Enter the process called autophagy. During autophagy, the body marks damaged parts of cells, unused proteins, and other junk in the body for removal and clears them out. This is a form of cellular cleansing and, really, the true meaning of a detox. Autophagy also helps deliver nutrients to cells that need them.
“Autophagy can dictate not only how well we live but perhaps how long we live,” says board-certified integrative neurologist Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D. “It is a key physiological mechanism that has been conserved throughout evolution for the distinct purpose of allowing the human species to thrive. But when the autophagic mechanisms are overwhelmed or dysfunctional, cells are unable to perform optimally and disease can occur, as well as more rapid aging.”
Autophagy is absolutely essential for healthy, functioning cells and if it’s never kicked on to its full potential, you can get sick. One of the most notable ways these dead proteins accumulate is seen in Alzheimer’s disease. Because they are never cleared from the body, dead proteins travel to the brain and get stuck there, causing the characteristic plaques associated with the disease.
Think of it this way: autophagy is like the robot vacuum you have in your house. When things get messy, it kicks on, cleaning up debris and unwanted junk, leaving you with a nice clean slate and preventing a buildup that can lead to a bigger mess down the road.