Autophagy is an absolutely essential biological process that plays a key role in the normal functioning and survival of your brain cells.
The word autophagy is derived from the Greek words auto and phagein.
Auto translates to “self”.
And phagein translates to “devouring”.
So autophagy essentially means “self-devouring”, or “to eat oneself”.
That may sound scary and something that you would want to avoid…
But it’s actually something you want to embrace and induce yourself.
Because autophagy is a self-cleaning mechanism within our cells, which helps your brain detoxify, repair and regenerate itself.
It destroys the old, damaged, and malfunctioning components of your cells – and rebuilds new and healthier ones instead!
It’s sort of like spring cleaning or replacing old parts of your car.
By inducing autophagy, we are clearing out worn-out and faulty cellular parts within our brain cells.
Our brain cells need to last a lifetime, so autophagy is our body’s unique way of naturally rejuvenating them and defending them from disease.
How Does Autophagy Affect Your Brain and Mental Health?
Research shows that autophagy supports the central nervous system, improves brain function and reduces neurological cellular breakdown (136-138).
And studies suggest that autophagy is a built-in defense mechanism that detoxifies and clears the central nervous system (139).
But the autophagy process becomes less efficient as we get older.
And over time, our brain cells accumulate a variety of damaged organelles, abnormal and pathogenic proteins, and oxidized particles (141-142).
But autophagy doesn’t just decline in older individuals.
Even younger people with depression and schizophrenia have been shown to have deficiencies in autophagy pathways (162-163).
In fact, researchers have found a link between autophagy dysfunction and many neurodegenerative, neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders, including (143-161):
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
Autism spectrum disorders
Fragile X syndrome
The good news is that you can do something about this.
You have the power to activate autophagy.
There are several reliable and natural ways to increase it.
And by doing so, you can reduce neuroinflammation, protect the nervous system, improve cognitive function, encourage the growth of brain cells, and even fight depression and Alzheimer’s disease (164-174).
Read on to learn more about how you can induce autophagy.
Lifestyle Habits and Therapies That Induce Autophagy in the Brain
Exercise is one of the best ways to boost autophagy in the brain.
Researchers have found that aerobic exercise induces neuronal autophagy (1).
They believe the reason why exercise improves cognitive function is perhaps because it increases autophagy in the brain (2).
Exercise is a stressor on the body, and the body induces autophagy so that your cells can recover from the stress. All it takes is 30 minutes of aerobic exercise to activate autophagy in the brain (3).
Many doctors and researchers recommend exercise as their number one piece of advice for optimal brain health.
You should find a sport or aerobic exercise routine that you enjoy, so that you’ll stick with it consistently.
2. Intermittent Fasting
Fasting is another biological stressor that promotes autophagy.
When you’re fasting, your body isn’t receiving nutrients, so it stresses out and triggers autophagy.
Researchers have found that fasting activates “profound autophagy” in the brain (24-26).
As a result, it can help treat neurological conditions and lowers the risk of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease (27-28).
So how long do you have to fast to trigger autophagy in the brain?
Research suggests 24 to 48-hour fasts are ideal and have the strongest effects (29).
But long fasts are not very realistic and practical.
Luckily, even shorter fasts have been shown to significantly promote neuronal autophagy (30-31).
That’s why I personally eat all my food for the day within an 8-hour window, and then fast for the other 16 hours of the day.
You don’t need to go that long, but you should try to fast for at least 12 hours at a time.
The best way to get started is simply by eating dinner around 6, not eating anything after that before bed, and then eating a regular breakfast the next day.
That should give you about 12-14 hours of fasting time.
3. A Ketogenic Diet
A ketogenic diet is a very high-fat, low-carb diet.
To follow the diet, you need to get most of your calories from healthy fats, and no more than 10 percent of calories from carbs (less than 50 grams of carbs per day).
When you restrict carbohydrate-rich foods – such as grains, sugar, and even potatoes, legumes and fruit – your body enters “ketosis”, a metabolic state in which your body and brain run on fatty acids and “ketones” instead of glucose.
And this be very beneficial and increase autophagy in the brain.
Researchers have found that ketosis is neuroprotective and reduces neurodegeneration by promoting autophagy in the brain (4-6).
Autophagy reduces amyloid beta, the main component of amyloid plaques found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease (8-9).
An animal study also shows that ketosis reduces brain injury (during and after seizures) by activating autophagy (10).
I follow a ketogenic diet every so often.
These foods are included in my Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health.
I also take Optimal Ketones every day, which are exogenous ketones that get my body into a state of ketosis very quickly. That way I get the mental clarity of ketosis without having to follow a ketogenic diet all of the time.
Research shows that the ketone bodies in Optimal Ketones stimulates autophagy (7).
4. Circadian Rhythm, Melatonin and Deep Sleep
Getting enough high-quality sleep is very important if you want to increase autophagy.
I used to have very poor sleep and it was one of the main factors that contributed to my poor cognitive function.
Research shows that not getting enough sleep, and waking up intermittently throughout the night, negatively alters autophagy in the brain (11-12).
So it’s the length and quality of your sleep that matters.
That’s why I highly recommend getting at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night.
What can you do to improve your sleep?
Maintain a proper circadian rhythm
Promote the production and release of melatonin at night
Researchers have found that our circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) controls autophagy and plays a role in cognitive decline (13-14).
Melatonin is a hormone released by your pineal gland, a small gland in your brain.
It helps control your circadian rhythm, and adequate levels of melatonin are necessary to fall asleep quickly and sleep deeply throughout the night.
Melatonin has been shown to induce autophagy in the brain, and it reduces the risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders (66-68).
Even mild changes in our external environment (i.e. blue lighting at night) can affect our circadian rhythm and reduce melatonin production, negatively altering autophagy and our cognition the next day (13-14).
Knowing this, here is what you can do to support melatonin production, maintain your circadian rhythm and maximize the quality of your sleep:
Expose your eyes to sun in the morning. This sets your circadium rhythm.
Keep a regular sleep schedule and go to bed at the same time every night.
Blue light significantly suppresses your body’s production of melatonin, leading to disrupted sleep patterns and abnormal functioning of your nervous system. As soon as it’s dark outside, you should avoid sources of blue light. Turn off household lights or install red light bulbs, install Iris on your computer and/or wear blue blocking glasses. These glasses block out blue light in your environment.
Avoid stimulating movies and TV before bed.
Avoid caffeine in the afternoon. Most people should completely avoid it after 2 pm. Some may have to cut it out even earlier. I can’t have any after 12 noon, otherwise the quality of my sleep suffers.
Sleep in a dark environment. Completely black out your room with curtains or wear a sleep mask overnight. Sleeping with lights on in your room decreases neurogenesis and impairs cognitive performance. If you need to have light in your room (nightlight or alarm clock), it’s better to have red, orange or amber lighting rather than blue.
Avoid alcohol before sleep, as it prevents getting into the deeper stages of sleep, which is when the body and brain heal.
5. Hot and Cold Exposure
Exposing yourself to both hot and cold temperatures can stress your cells and promote autophagy.
Several researchers have found that “heat stress” triggers autophagy and stimulates the autophagic process (15-18).
Autophagy and the heat-shock response are also tightly linked (19-20).
Researchers have found that cold exposure induces neuronal autophagy, and they believe it can reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases (21-22).
Research also shows that switching back and forth between cold and hot can induce autophagy (23).
So how does this translate into every day life?
Try switching back and forth between hot and cold in the shower.
Or spend time in a sauna or steam room, and then take a cold shower.
I personally like to go outside with minimal clothing in the winter, and then eventually come back inside and take a hot shower.
Cold plunges, cold baths and cryotherapy are some other ways to expose yourself to cold.
6. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is a treatment that enhances healing and recovery after injury to the central nervous system.
Patients inhale 100% oxygen in a total body chamber.
Several studies have shown that HBOT elevates and enhances autophagy in the central nervous system (41-44).
You’ll need to find a practitioner or clinic in your area that provides this treatment.
HBOT can be expensive though. That's why I decided to buy my own oxygen concentrator. An oxygen concentrator is much less expensive than HBOT but it still helps a lot. My doctor recommended it to me and it has helped me recover.
Check out my full article about oxygen therapy for more information.
Acupuncture is an alternative treatment that has been shown to induce autophagy in the brain (69).
Another found that acupuncture promoted the “autophagic clearance” of proteins from the brain that contribute to Parkinson’s disease (71).
I’m a really big fan of auricular acupuncture. Auricular acupuncture is when needles are inserted into ear. I’d recommend trying to find a health practitioner in your area who provides it, especially if you’re weening off psychiatric medication. It really helped me the first time I came off antidepressants. I was surprised.
In my experience, ear acupuncture is more effective than regular acupuncture.
I also lie on this acupuncture mat at home to relax before bed.
Foods That Induce Autophagy in the Brain
8. Coffee and Caffeine
Drinking coffee is another great way to induce autophagy in the brain.
Researchers have found that both regular and decaffeinated coffee rapidly trigger autophagy (32).
The polyphenols in coffee are also good for your brain health because they stimulate autophagy (32).
I drink one cup of this high-quality coffee every morning.
Coffee and caffeine can disrupt sleep though, so make sure you don’t drink it later in the day. I have my last cup sometime between 10 in the morning and noon. If I have it any later than that, it disrupts my sleep.
It’s also a good idea to try to consume the whole coffee fruit, instead of just the coffee bean or pure caffeine.
Traditionally, the coffee bean is extracted from the coffee fruit for roasting. And the surrounding fruit is discarded.
But that’s a problem because the coffee fruit contains several healthy compounds not found in coffee beans themselves.
And after years of careful clinical research, scientists have discovered that ingesting whole coffee fruit concentrate significantly increases brain function.
Coffee fruit concentrate is included in the Optimal Brain supplement.
9. Green Tea
Epigallocatechin-3-Gallate (EGCG) is the main polyphenol found in green tea.
It’s been shown to have anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects.
It also improves learning and memory after chronic stress by restoring autophagic flux in the brain (39).
I also take a supplement that includes green tea extract and EGCG.
10. Coconut Oil and Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs)
Coconut oil is one of the best foods for your brain.
It’s especially important if you want to support your thyroid.
But it can also stimulate autophagy in the brain by increasing ketone levels (45-46).
Ginger is one of the healthiest spices.
It contains lots of nutrients and bioactive compounds that have powerful, protective benefits for your brain (47-49).
6-shagol, one of the active compounds within ginger, induces autophagy (50-55).
12. Reishi Mushroom
Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is a powerful fungus with hundreds of bioactive compounds.
It has been used for thousands of years by Chinese medicine practitioners to support the immune system, regulate inflammation, lower anxiety and support brain function.
Research shows that reishi mushroom can induce autophagy (56).
It also protects the brain from oxidative stress by regulating autophagy (57-58).
I’ve supplemented with this reishi mushroom tincture in the past to support my immune system.
13. Turmeric (Curcumin)
Curcumin is the most heavily researched compound within turmeric, the spice that gives curry its yellow colour.
It’s one of my favourite natural compounds for the brain.
14. Broccoli Sprouts (Sulforaphane)
Sulforaphane is a phytochemical found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kale.
As a result, researchers believe it can be a therapeutic tool in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases (63).
Broccoli sprouts are the best source of sulforaphane.
You can also take sulforaphane in supplement form.
If you decide to take it in supplement form, make sure you get the "myrosinase-activated" form.
Myrosinase is the enzyme in broccoli that helps metabolize sulforaphane.
I once bought a supplement that didn't contain myrosinase and had to return it, and then ended up buying this one instead.
Galangal is a spice.
It’s known as “Thai ginger” or “Siamese ginger” because it looks very similar to ginger.
But it’s actually a different spice altogether.
It's commonly found in Thai, Indonesian, and Malaysian cooking.
Galangin, a compound within galangal, has been shown to induce autophagy and protect dopaminergic neurons in the brain (64-65).
16. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Oleuropein)
Olive oil has numerous health benefits, particularly because of its strong anti-inflammatory effects.
I add olive oil to my salads and sometimes even just take a tablespoon of it straight.
Be careful though. A lot of cheap extra virgin olive oil in grocery stores are not actually “extra virgin.”
Investigations have found that there is a lot of fraud within the olive oil industry and many so-called extra virgin olive oils contains other cheaper, refined vegetable oils, such as soybean, corn and canola.
This is discussed more in the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.
You don’t just have to eat olive oil to get the benefits of oleuropein though.
And for good reason.
All three berries have been shown to significantly activate autophagy in the brain (74-74).
I try to eat one cup of berries every day to support my brain health.
18. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself, and they are absolutely necessary for the normal functioning of your brain and nervous system.
They have been shown in many studies to significantly reduce brain inflammation; improve memory, mood and cognition; and protect against mild cognitive impairment, dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
So increasing your intake of them is one of the most impactful actions you can take to support your brain.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found primarily in cold water fish, including:
These foods are included in my Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health.
Unfortunately, most people don't consume enough omega-3 fatty acids through their diet.
I feel off when I stop taking it. I actually notice the difference.
Some researchers believe that the beneficial effects of supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids may simply be due to their ability to activate autophagy (107).
Natural Supplements That Induce Autophagy in the Brain
Research suggests that certain probiotics can stimulate autophagy in the brain.
In one study, researchers gave the SLAB51 probiotic formulation to mice, and it partially restored autophagy in the brains of the mice (75).
I tried to find the SLAB51 probiotic formulation online, but it doesn’t appear to be commercially available yet.
I personally take the Optimal Biotics supplement every day to support my gut and brain health.
I also like to drink kombucha and eat fermented foods regularly.
Check out this older article for several other ways to increase your good gut bacteria.
And if you struggle with anxiety, here are 9 probiotic strains that can help.
20. American Ginseng
Researchers have found that it induces autophagy, which then protects the brain from neurotoxicity and reduces mitochondrial dysfunction (76-78).
Because of this, researchers believe it can help treat neurodegenerative disorders (77, 79).
American ginseng is included in the Optimal Ketones supplement. I find it increases my mental clarity and energy.
21. Ginkgo Biloba
Ginkgo Biloba is a plant that has been used in China for thousands of years to treat a number of health problems.
It’s one of the top-selling natural supplements in the world, and it’s even a prescription herb in Germany.
It’s most commonly used to improve brain health because it increases brain blood flow and improves memory, mood, mental energy and attention in both healthy and unhealthy individuals. It even reduces the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers have also discovered it helps treat dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by activating and increasing autophagy in the brain (80-82).
Ginkgo Biloba is included in the Optimal Brain supplement.
Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALCAR) is an acetylated form of the amino acid carnitine. It’s been shown to have neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing effects.
I find that it personally gives me a big boost in mental energy and resilience.
ALCAR is included in the Optimal Brain supplement.
23. Vitamin D (and K2)
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that your skin synthesizes when exposed to the sun.
Unfortunately, researchers estimate that 50% of people are at risk of Vitamin D deficiency.
This is a huge problem because every tissue in your body has Vitamin D receptors, including the brain, so a deficiency can lead to costly physiological and psychological consequences.
Vitamin D supplementation in mice also increases levels of autophagy (92).
And some researchers have pointed out that Vitamin D deficiency is associated with many diseases that involve defective autophagy (94).
Ideally, you should get your Vitamin D by going outside and getting sun.
I try to get sunlight every day during the spring and summer months.
But most people still don’t get enough Vitamin D from the sun, especially during the winter.
During the winter months, when there isn't enough sun, I use this Vitamin D sunlamp.
I also take this Vitamin D supplement as needed, depending on my blood test levels.
If you decide to take a Vitamin D3 supplement, it’s a good idea to take it along with Vitamin K2. They are synergistic and mix well together.
There is also some evidence that Vitamin K2 stimulates autophagy as well (87-88).
Lithium is predominantly known as a medication given to bipolar patients to manage their symptoms.
However, it’s also an essential mineral.
Bipolar patients are often given high doses of lithium carbonate.
I used to take this lithium orotate. I don’t take it anymore because I don’t need it, but I remember it making me feel calm and stable.
25. Cannabidiol (CBD)
Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), CBD isn’t psychoactive and doesn’t make you “high”.
But it can help treat a number of diseases because it reduces inflammation.
Researchers have found that CBD activates and enhances autophagy pathways in the brain (98-100).
I only took it in the evening because it made me too drowsy during the day, and I don’t need to take it anymore.
If you decide to get the same CBD oil as me, I found out you can use the coupon code 10off406 for a 10% discount.
Rhodiola, also known as golden root or arctic root, is a Traditional Chinese and Scandinavian herb.
It’s one of the most popular adaptogens used to increase physical and mental stamina.
Other studies have found that the herb significantly upregulates autophagy (102-103).
Check out this post all about rhodiola to learn more about this amazing herb.
Berberine is an alkaloid extracted from various plants.
It has anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective and possibly antidepressant effects. It can also improve intestinal health and lower cholesterol.
One study even found it reduces neurological deficits and promotes neurogenesis by stimulating autophagy (106).
I’ve experimented with varying dosages of this berberine. I personally didn’t notice any profound brain and mental health benefits, but I have heard good things from other practitioners.
Nicotinamide, also known as niacinamide or nicotinic acid amide, is the water-soluble, active form of Vitamin B3.
It also improves cognitive performance and preserves mitochondrial integrity (113).
Years ago, I took this nicotinamide supplement after reading that it could help with addiction, withdrawal and energy. It did, but I don’t take it individually anymore. I now take this all-in-one B complex instead.
Schisandra is a berry commonly used by Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners.
The seeds of the berry contain lignans, which have health-promoting properties.
This is because it reduces neurodegeneration and cognitive impairment by enhancing autophagy (117-120).
Besides promoting autophagy, it also has anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects upon brain cells (116).
You can also get Schisandra as dried whole berries or as juice.
But it usually isn’t used as a food.
Spermidine is a polyamine compound with various metabolic functions.
It’s found in living tissues and within a wide range of foods, including aged cheese, fermented soy, chicken, mushrooms, pears and potatoes.
It can also be taken as a supplement.
Researchers have found that it’s neuroprotective and reduces synapse aging by enhancing autophagy in the brain (121-127).
31. Resveratrol and Pterostilbene
It’s known to help prevent the development of neurodegenerative diseases.
And researchers are starting to understand why.
Several studies have shown that resveratrol induces autophagy in the brain (128-132).
Researchers propose it could even be used to help prevent and treat Alzheimer’s Disease due to its autophagy-enhancing effects (130).
I tried this pterostilbene and it was beneficial, but I didn’t find it any more helpful than resveratrol, so I’ve decided to just stick with resveratrol considering it has significantly more research to back it up.
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About the Author
Jordan Fallis is a health and science journalist and researcher, and the founder of Optimal Living Dynamics, a website that has helped more than 1.5 million people improve their brain and mental health. His work has been featured in the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and the Canadian Pharmacists Journal. Jordan has also interviewed, consulted, and worked with more than one hundred medical doctors, health practitioners and leading researchers. He spends a lot of time scouring medical research, writing about what he finds, and putting the theories to the test on himself.
Medically reviewed by Dr. Robert Blake Gibb, MD