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The process of autophagy has been, and continues to be, studied greatly for its many implications — not only because of the role it may play in slowing aging, but because a lack of autophagy has been associated with many chronic and degenerative diseases.
What is autophagy?
The word “autophagy” comes from the Greek language and is translated to “self-eating.” When describing autophagy in the body, it does just that: The cells consume damaged or malfunctioning proteins. It serves as the body’s innate maintenance system, taking damaged proteins and repurposing them as energy or other fuel. Due to the fact that it is considered both an anabolic (building) and catabolic (breaking down) process, autophagy is of particular interest when it comes to the implications in dermatology, and for our purposes: hair.
How autophagy affects hair health
It turns out, the research goes both ways: In the skin, autophagy is required for self-renewal and differentiation of epidermal and dermal stem cells. However, an over-expression of this mechanism has been linked to psoriasis, vitiligo, and infectious skin diseases.
In hair, the role of autophagy is controversial. It seems autophagy can support or stimulate hair regeneration and growth, but as long as there is appropriate nourishment (i.e., adequate protein intake) and it is not induced by psychological stress. Autophagy induced by psychological stress can actually alter the hair cycle by prolonging telogen (hair follicle in the resting phase) and delaying anagen (hair follicle in the growth phase).
One example of how the inhibition or lack of autophagy may tie into both hair and degenerative processes is by looking at its role in sarcopenia. Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle mass and function. With this muscle loss, there is an increase in reactive oxygen species (ROS) and oxidative stress, which interrupts autophagy and induces apoptosis, or cell death. With regard to hair, inflammatory markers, increased ROS, and oxidative stress all have an effect on hair by disrupting the hair cycle and contributing to hair loss. If inflammation disrupts autophagy, we can reasonably surmise the inflammation and the lack of autophagy may also contribute to hair loss. Some studies have shown that autophagy may even play a role in preventing alopecia by reducing inflammatory markers and ROS.
To take it a step further, additional studies have demonstrated hair growth stimulation with autophagy. It’s a fascinating concept and yet another reminder that there are multiple factors that contribute to hair health.
How can you induce autophagy?
One of the ways autophagy is initiated is by long periods of fasting. But as mentioned above, you want to make sure you are getting adequate nutrient intake. Another way is to exercise. Intensity and resistance on the muscle not only induce autophagy, but also help prevent sarcopenia, which can lead to more inflammation which interrupts autophagy. Lastly, incorporate turmeric into your diet or supplement regimen because not only has it been shown to trigger autophagy, it also has benefits of modulating inflammation levels.