Autophagy vs. Apoptosis: What’s The Difference?

Published August 25, 2019
<article> <section> <p>Imagine what your street would look like if they stopped picking up your trash each week for a year? </p> <p>Next, picture what would happen if all your neighbors got super sick, then came onto your lawn and started passing along the illness.</p> <p>Given the choice, you probably wouldn’t want to live in that neighborhood.</p> <p>At a cellular level, that’s kind of what life would be like without autophagy or apoptosis. Without these forms of programmed (or regulated) cell death, our bodies would become packed with diseased cells. Those toxic cells would, in turn, harm our healthy cells.</p> <p>But, as you’ll learn, the two are different. Here’s how.</p> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <header>Science Alert!</header> <p>We’re about to dive into a heap of science in this article—with a few scoops of developmental biology. And for dessert? A big bowl of Google-verified sources. </p> <p>But don’t worry. </p> <p>With your <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">health and fitness goals</a> in mind, we broke everything down to keep the information interesting and useful for you. </p> <p>To help you digest all the facts, we’ve organized this article into three sections. We’ll look at what autophagy and apoptosis are, answer the most important questions about how the two are (and aren’t) linked, and how both forms of programmed cell death help you lose weight and get healthy.</p> <picture class="lazy-load"> <source data-srcset="" type="image/webp"> <source data-srcset="" type="image/jp2"> <source data-srcset=""> <img src="" class="img-fluid" alt="woman-outdoors-park-sunset-0228"> </picture> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <header>Part I: Autophagy vs. Apoptosis—Explained</header> <p>In this section, we’ll break down autophagy and apoptosis, and make them easier to remember.</p> <div class="sub-head">Autophagy vs. Apopotis: The Difference, Simplified</div> <p>Welcome to science class! Understanding autophagy and apoptosis are important, so here’s the bare-bones version of each for you. Refer back to them if you need a reminder in part II or III.</p> <ul> <li>In a fasted state, autophagy is a natural process where a cell eats itself to make room for new cells. The <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">benefits of autophagy</a> are immense. New cells need room to flourish and risk getting infected by damaged cells if they aren’t disposed of. You’re likely to feel better and live a long life because of it.</li> <li>Apoptosis means programmed (or planned) cell death. Apoptotic cells are typically injured or potentially harmful cells that could leak toxins and damage nearby cells.</li> </ul> <p>Given the choice, you’d likely pick autophagy over apoptosis. Just remember, cell dinner is preferable to cell death <sup>9</sup>. </p> <p>Still, <i>both</i> processes allow healthy, functioning cells to flourish and reduce the risk that they’ll be affected by harmful toxins.</p> <picture class="lazy-load"> <source data-srcset="" type="image/webp"> <source data-srcset="" type="image/jp2"> <source data-srcset=""> <img src="" class="img-fluid" alt="cell-graphic-componets-biology-0228"> </picture> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <header>What is Autophagy?</header> <p><i>Autophagy</i> is the body’s way of ridding itself of dead and damaged cells. Cell death, as you’ll come to appreciate, is a vital process for keeping the body healthy. Cell death clears the path for new, fully functional cells to take their place. </p> <p>Take a look at the image above: a lysosome in the cell (the little guy hanging out in the top left corner). It clears out components of the cell to make it more efficient.</p> <div class="sub-head">Intermittent Fasting and Autophagy</div> <p><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Intermittent fasting</a>—or timing your meals into an eight-hour window each day—and autophagy <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">are linked</a> (see part III for more). As intermittent fasting grows in popularity as a tool for weight loss, more studies are being done on autophagy.</p> <p>Namely, alternating days of fasting and normal eating increases autophagy. While decreasing your risk of cancer <i>and</i> slowing aging <sup>3</sup>.</p> <picture class="lazy-load"> <source data-srcset="" type="image/webp"> <source data-srcset="" type="image/jp2"> <source data-srcset=""> <img src="" class="img-fluid" alt="apoptosis-infograph-process-0228"> </picture> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <header>What is Apoptosis?</header> <p>Apoptosis, or programmed cell death, is the act of a cell killing itself. It sounds harsh, but it’s actually a neat and orderly process initiated by your brain <sup>4</sup>. </p> <p>The brain tells these things called <i>caspases proteins</i> to do the dirty work, destroying the cell through apoptotic pathways <sup>5</sup>.</p> <p>(Big words, we know. Don’t worry, we’ll simplify this later on.)</p> <p>Today, apoptosis often pairs with an antibody to treat some forms of cancer <sup>6</sup>.</p> <p>Understand: apoptosis (and autophagy) is <i>much</i> preferred to other forms of cell death. There are other forms, like necroptosis, which is potentially harmful to neighboring cells. When cells <i>aren’t</i> programmed to die, they usually die due to injury (physical damage, infections, etc.). Which then leads them to leak toxins to neighboring healthy cells. </p> <p>That’s where the trash on the street analogy comes into play.</p> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <header>Is Autophagy the Same as Apoptosis?</header> <p>Nope, autophagy and apoptosis are not the same things.</p> <p>Both autophagic and apoptotic pathways involve making way for new, healthy cells. Both are a form of programmed cell death and cell deconstruction. But we can sum up the differences with two words: <i>optimization</i> and <i>destruction</i>.</p> <div class="sub-head">Optimization vs. Destruction</div> <p>Autophagy takes place during fasting or periods of starvation. Think of it as a survival mechanism of sorts <sup>7</sup>. By eating up unnecessary components of a cell, less energy is required for that cell to function and it becomes more efficient. The lysosomes <i>in</i> the cell do most of the “heavy lifting” here.</p> <p>(By the way: a lysosome is an organelle inside a cell. Its primary job is to aid in cell digestion and removal of waste from the cell <sup>8</sup>.)</p> <p>An easy way to remember autophagic behavior is to think of it as a cell “dinner.” It might also help to think of it as a form of <i>cell optimization</i>. Increasing efficiency within the cell so it can survive longer during states of starvation.</p> <p>Apoptotic behavior, on the other hand, means cell death. Your brain sends caspases proteins to destroy the cell completely—chunking it into pieces. Your immune system then comes in and devours everything to make way for new cells.</p> <picture class="lazy-load"> <source data-srcset="" type="image/webp"> <source data-srcset="" type="image/jp2"> <source data-srcset=""> <img src="" class="img-fluid" alt="trash-recycling-bins-cans-street-0228"> </picture> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <header>Part II: Autophagy vs. Apoptosis—Applied</header> <p>In this section, we answer two vital questions about how autophagic and apoptotic processes work in relation to one another.</p> <div class="sub-head">Is Autophagy Always Preferred over Apoptosis?</div> <p>You don’t need a white lab coat to surmise how cell optimization is preferential to cell death. But the two are linked, so to say one is preferable over the other is difficult. </p> <p>For example, prolonged autophagy will eventually lead to cell death <sup>8</sup>. At a certain point, your cell will devour so much of itself that it’s no longer functional.</p> <p>Another example is that when apoptosis sends signals from the brain to cells it can trigger autophagy, and vice versa <sup>9</sup>. </p> <p>This makes it hard to determine if one is better than the other. Especially because scientists still aren’t 100 percent clear how autophagic processes determine which parts of the cell to destroy to promote survival.</p> <p>What is apparent—and likely funding these studies—is the benefits of both forms of cell death are plentiful.</p> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <header>How Does Autophagy Inhibit Apoptosis?</header> <p>Another way to ask this question:</p> <p><i>Can autophagy—a cell survival mechanism—stop cells from killing themselves?</i></p> <p>Scientists may not be ready to say autophagy inhibits apoptosis <sup>10</sup>. But they do affect one another. What’s interesting is the relationship between the two paints autophagy as both the cell’s “savior” and the executioner.</p> <p>Studies are ongoing, but as of now, there’s no specific evidence saying one form of cell death controls the other.</p> <picture class="lazy-load"> <source data-srcset="" type="image/webp"> <source data-srcset="" type="image/jp2"> <source data-srcset=""> <img src="" class="img-fluid" alt="woman-jogging-sunset-0228"> </picture> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <header>Part III: Cell Death and Your Health Goals</header> <p>If you’ve made it this far, chances are high that you’re interested in how apoptosis and autophagy will benefit your health goals or weight loss efforts. </p> <p>Here’s how programmed cell death relates to the keto diet, intermittent fasting, and weight loss.</p> <div class="sub-head">Programmed Cell Death and Ketosis</div> <p>The growth of the <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">ketogenic diet</a>, a low-carb, high-fat nutritional approach, is one reason people are asking questions about apoptosis and autophagy. Here’s why.</p> <p>Low-carb diets help you enter <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">ketosis</a>, a state where your body burns fat as its primary fuel source. </p> <p><i>Cool, you’re thinking, but why are we bringing this up?</i></p> <p>Because ketosis promotes autophagy, or that natural reset for your body’s cells. Since you’re not packing your body <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">full of inflammatory foods</a> with refined sugar and starches, the body has more time to focus on its own health and repair <sup>11</sup>.</p> <p>And, as you’ll see in the next section, ketosis and intermittent fasting go together naturally.</p> <div class="sub-head">Programmed Cell Death and Intermittent Fasting</div> <p>Intermittent fasting (which you do once every two weeks on our <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">14-Day Diet</a>) helps expedite weight loss and improve health. It’s also related to autophagy and apoptosis.</p> <p>The starvation state your body enters during <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">intermittent fasting</a> is the best way to free up resources so autophagic processes can happen.</p> <p>Besides, if you’re eating a ton of junk food in your eight-hour window, fasting for sixteen hours won’t matter much. You’ll have a much harder time losing weight.</p> <p>Think about it this way: keto makes it easier to fast. Fasting enables autophagy. The three things, though not directly related, are sort of like dominoes. Stack them up correctly, and they’ll fall down much easier.</p> <picture class="lazy-load"> <source data-srcset="" type="image/webp"> <source data-srcset="" type="image/jp2"> <source data-srcset=""> <img src="" class="img-fluid" alt="broccoli-strainer-prep-0228"> </picture> <div class="sub-head">Programmed Cell Death and Weight Loss</div> <p>One last popular health-related topic about apoptosis and autophagy:</p> <p><i>Will these forms of programmed cell death help you lose weight?</i></p> <p>Sort of like the conclusion in the previous section, programmed cell death and weight loss aren’t directly linked. But that doesn’t mean they can’t help.</p> <p><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Fasting and autophagy</a> increase gym performance and metabolic efficiency—all while preventing disease and aging. All four of these things contribute to your feeling, looking, and performing better <sup>12</sup>.</p> <p>If you’re feeling healthy and have more energy, you’re much more likely to tackle <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">the next workout</a>, <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">eat healthy food</a>, and practice healthy habits like <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">getting enough sleep</a>. </p> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <header>Autophagy and Apoptosis—Takeaways</header> <p>Alright, we threw a lot at you in this one.</p> <p>To sum up all the science (and save you a hundred Google searches), here are five key takeaways about autophagy and apoptosis as they relate to your health.</p> <ol> <li>Programmed cell death is natural, and necessary for your body to function at its very best.</li> <li>Autophagy and apoptosis are not the same, though they’re both a form of cell death and much preferred to unplanned cell death, which is much messier.</li> <li>Autophagy and apoptosis work in conjunction with proven weight loss tools like intermittent fasting. They may not <i>directly</i> relate to weight loss, but they can still help you look and feel your very best.</li> <li>Most importantly, you’re now an expert on autophagy and apoptosis. Our hats off to you for making it through!</li> </ol> <div class="sub-head">Resources</div> <ol> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Health Benefits of Alternate-Day Fasting</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Cell Suicide: An Essential Part of Life</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Cancer: Novel cell death technique may be better than chemo</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Necrosis</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Apoptosis vs. Autophagy</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Differentiate between Apoptosis, Necroptosis, Autophagy & Ferroptosis</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Differentiate between Apoptosis, Necroptosis, Autophagy & Ferroptosis</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Lysosome: Definition & Function</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Autophagy and Cell Death</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Autophagy and apoptosis- what’s the connection?</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Diet changes that can boost autophagy</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">What are the benefits of autophagy?</a></li> </ol> </section> </article>

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