Coffee and Autophagy: Activate and Amplify the Metabolic Switch
Written by Stephen Anton PhD on Jan, 15th 2021
Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in the world; it not only helps you feel more energized, burn fat and improve physical performance, but daily consumption lowers your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart failure, and certain types of cancer (1,2,3).
Even more exciting, a very large recent study revealed that individuals who drink at least 3–4 cups of coffee a day had a reduced risk of mortality, heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, and respiratory disease (4).
Coffee has also been associated with a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome and obesity.
There appears to be a common mechanism responsible for the many health benefits of coffee, unknown until recently.
And that mechanism is that coffee can greatly enhance the body’s waste removal process, also known as autophagy.
However, before discussing how coffee and its components work to stimulate metabolism and activate autophagy, let’s see how the process of autophagy works in the body.
What Is Autophagy?
In many ways, the body’s autophagy process resembles the process you use to take out the trash in the morning.
First, you put trash or waste in a trash bag, and when it is filled up you take it outside where it is eventually taken away.
In a very similar manner, your body traps waste products in little bags within your cells and then takes these waste bags into the bloodstream to be removed.
Why Is Autophagy Important?
Autophagy is critical to your health.
Indeed, one of the main reasons people become sick is related to low levels of autophagy: cells become full of waste products and the body becomes “toxic.”
When this happens, some sort of illness typically occurs that shuts down your appetite, so that your cells can use the extra energy available to remove wastes and create cleaner cells.
In many ways, the process of autophagy is blunted or disrupted in individuals with obesity and metabolic dysregulation.
Their body does not respond normally to insulin: glucose cannot enter the cells as easily and builds up in the blood.
This state, called insulin resistance, prevents the body from shifting into a fasted state.
Rather, the body stays in a post-meal (post-prandial) state most of the day and glucose levels do not drop low enough for the metabolic switch to occur.
This means that the signal to “take out the trash” is not being sent to the cells.
The body experiences a “metabolic storm” where the immune system stays overtaxed by the inflammatory signals sent out by toxic cells, and the waste products accumulate from underactive autophagy.
Intermittent Fasting and Autophagy
The autophagy process seems to only occur at a high level when our bodies are in a fasting state.
And this is one of the many reasons why sleep is so good for you; during the night fast, your body is actively cleaning and detoxifying your cells.
By giving your body sufficient time to remove toxic substances, including harmful viruses and bacteria, you dramatically increase the health of each and every cell in your body.
And once the wastes and other threats have been removed, the cells are free to work their magic and engage in the vital processes that keep us alive and feeling good.
So, step number one to upgrade your health is to practice intermittent fasting and refrain from eating for at least 12-hours on a daily basis, to give your body sufficient time to clean itself.
How and Why Does Coffee Enhance the Effects of Intermittent Fasting on Autophagy?
First, there is only one type of coffee that can enhance autophagy, and that is black coffee, preferably organic or with as few pesticides as possible.
This is because any coffee that contains calories from cream, sugar, or butter, will stop the autophagy process (unless less than 10 calories) and shift the body from waste removal to the digestive process.
To learn more about the popular types of coffees that do and do not break a fast, please see my other blog: Does Coffee Break a Fast?
There are a number of mechanisms through which black coffee can enhance autophagy, but I believe the primary one is by activating and amplifying our body’s metabolic switch (5).
This is the natural switch our bodies use to produce energy from our body fat when energy from food is not available.
It is also known as the glucose to ketone switch.
Ketones are the energy molecules produced from burning our own fat stores which happens when we are fasting.
Without this ability to switch metabolic fuel sources (glucose to ketones), our ancestors would not have been able to survive during times of famine, so in a very real way, the metabolic switch is responsible for the survival of our species.
How Does Coffee Activate and Amplify the Body’s Metabolic Switch and Enhance Autophagy?
Caffeine is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think about coffee.
But coffee also contains antioxidants and other active substances that can impact your metabolic processes and protect you against disease.
Its unique compounds work together to increase fat metabolism (fat burning) and shift the body into a deeper state of fasting, marked by increased levels of ketones and autophagy.
First, coffee contains compounds called chlorogenic acids, which are major dietary polyphenols that work directly on the mitochondria (our cells’ powerhouse) to accelerate fat metabolism in the body (1).
For example, a study confirmed that daily intake of chlorogenic acids increased fat oxidation in healthy male adults after just 5 days (6).
So, when you combine the chlorogenic acids in coffee with the increase in fat metabolism from intermittent fasting, you create a powerful combination.
But the benefits do not stop there!
Coffee also contains other polyphenols and chlorogenic acids, which work together with caffeine to stimulate fat burning.
A few additional compounds, such as trigonelline, cafestol and kahweol have also been shown to activate fat metabolism, by affecting specific nutrient-sensing pathways and enzymes which play a role in cellular energy balance (7,8).
Extra Benefits: Hunger Deterrent
Now with all this activation of metabolism, one might think that drinking coffee would increase hunger levels while fasting, but almost everyone reports feeling less hungry.
This is due in large part to the increased ketones produced through fat burning and other unique compounds that work to reduce hunger, making coffee the perfect partner to intermittent fasting.
Autophagy and Coffee Conclusion
In summary, coffee has a number of impressive health benefits.
When consumed while fasting, coffee can help activate the body’s metabolic switch, enhancing our bodies’ health promoting process of autophagy.
So, feel free to drink up – just remember not to consume too late in the day as caffeine could affect sleep in caffeine-sensitive individuals.