Autophagy vs. Apoptosis: What's the Difference? - Clovis

Autophagy vs. Apoptosis: What's the Difference?

If we’re talking about fasting (one of my favorite health hacks to discuss), the words autophagy and apoptosis are bound to come up. Two concepts, both having to do with our cells that are always getting mixed up.

Yes, both concepts involved a sort of “cell destruction” process, but at their core, their mechanisms of action are entirely different. Autophagy and apoptosis are vital components of long term health. They both assist in disease prevention and increase longevity. That said, it’s critical to understand what these functions are and how they work.

That’s why I’m here...  to let you in on the beautiful benefits of cell destruction! Don’t worry, it’s not that complicated, and it's not as scary as it sounds. As an added bonus, I’ll even give you the insider tips on how to use these tools to optimize your health and speed up fat loss!

Okay, let’s dive in.


We’ll start with autophagy. The word “autophagy” is defined as, “self-eating.”

Auto = “self”

Phage = “to eat”

Autophagy is a process occurring in our cells that can be characterized as a “detox.” A clean-out or a replacement of certain parts of the cell. Autophagy does not destroy the whole cell. Instead, it picks at the parts of the cell that aren’t working so well, targets them, and destroys them. In a sense, autophagy occurs when your body eats itself. Kinda weird, right? The good news is, the cell gets a makeover! The old, broken down parts are replaced with shiny new parts! Think of autophagy like a NASCAR pit crew for your cells.

Naomi Whittel, the author of Glow15, uses the analogy of a kitchen to explain autophagy at its finest (and not so finest):

“Think of your body as a kitchen. After making a meal, you clean up the counter, throw away the leftovers, and recycle some of the food. The next day, you have a clean kitchen. This is autophagy doing its thing in your body, and doing it well.

Now think of the same scenario, but you’re older and not as efficient. After making your meal, you leave remnants on the counter. Some of it gets into the garbage, some of it doesn’t. They linger on the counter, garbage, and recycling bin. They never make it out the door to the dumpster, and toxic waste starts to build up in your kitchen. There’s food fermentation on the floor and all kinds of nasty smells wafting out the door. Due to the onslaught of pollutants and toxins, you’re having a hard time keeping up with the daily grime. This scenario resembles autophagy that isn’t working as well as it should.”

It would take me a book or two to describe to you all the benefits of autophagy for long term health, so we'll fast forward... I go into more in-depth info in my podcast episode, “Fasting Facts: From Fat Loss to Longevity." If you want to geek out on this stuff, that's the episode for you!

At its core, autophagy metabolizes (uses for energy) proteins (the makeup of our cells). It selects specific proteins that are old and/ or malfunctioning by destroying them.


Now we’ll get into apoptosis, and how it differs from autophagy.

Apoptosis is actual cell death. It is a form of programmed (regulated) cell death that allows cells to self-destruct. The cell self-destructs without causing any harm to its surrounding environment. Apoptosis is a clean and tidy process of your cell breaking down its internal components (proteins and chromosomes) and disposing of them in a way that allows surrounding cells to use the “left-overs” for their own benefit.

Literally defined, apoptosis means “falling away.”

Apop: "away" (or, from)

Tosis: "falling"

Apoptosis is a very healthy, necessary process of the human body. It “keeps things clean” by disposing of pre-cancerous cells, infected cells, and cells with growth abnormalities. Removing these cells helps to maintain balance in the body by getting rid of unnecessary components that would otherwise clog things up. Getting rid of these problematic cells is one of the top hacks for disease prevention, clear skin, fat loss, and longevity. Just think about that squeaky clean kitchen: it’s bright, shiny and ready for anything you throw at it!

So, if these powerhouse processes are so crucial to our long term health goals, how can we activate them?

Here comes the insider secret


The quickest way to hack your body into an optimized level of autophagy and apoptosis is through fasting. As little as a 12hr fast induce autophagy in the body. Why is fasting necessary? Because when your body is expending enormous amounts of energy digesting your food all the time, it hardly has time for anything else. Let alone initiating amazing processes like autophagy and apoptosis….

When we give our bodies a break from digesting food all day, from our mid-day snacks and “second-breakfasts,” it actually has the chance to catch up, clean house, and provide us the support we need for optimal health and longevity!

If you want to give this a shot, autophagy can begin in the body in as little as 12-16 hours into a fast! Generally speaking, autophagy begins once liver glycogen has depleted. Depending on the number of carbohydrates in your diet, this could take as long as 24-48 hours. It really depends on the person.  If that seems a bit daunting, try your hand at intermittent fasting, which is a great way to dip your toes in the water. I recommend starting with a 16hr fast, giving yourself an 8hr eating window to play with. As you practice intermittent fasting more and more, you will reduce the amount of time it takes to deplete liver glycogen. Thus, you will reduce the amount of time it takes to induce autophagy!

Apoptosis is a bit less understood, and it's difficult to pinpoint when it happens. Apoptosis is more or less "pre-programmed" and is happening all the time in healthy human bodies. After a cell divides a certain number of times, apoptosis goes to work. That cell self-destructs and is replaced by a shiny new cell! There is some evidence suggesting that during prolonged fasting (72+ hours), the body's ability to identify malignant or precancerous cells is amplified and apoptosis can carefully select and destroy the most "at risk" cells in the human body. This could be a powerful mechanism for disease prevention! 

If you’re interested in understanding more about why autophagy, apoptosis, fasting or intermittent fasting are key hacks for your health, pick up my e-book, “The Perfect Fasting Protocol.” A comprehensive, deep-dive, into the world of fasting! I outline everything from intermittent fasting to prolonged fasting and everything in between. I even give you details on what type if fast I recommend for specific goals and how to optimize the results of fasting by implementing certain food items such as Bone Broth and Healthy Fats!