Yeast infections are just the worst, right? They end up producing a bunch of profoundly unfun symptoms, and of course, they’re extremely common. But by knowing which kind of behaviors put you at additional risk, you can diminish your chances of being super uncomfortable (and wrecking your social life for the weekend).
What is a yeast infection, anyway?
Vaginal yeast infections are caused by a fungus, with Candida albicans being the most common, says Jessica Shepherd, M.D., OB/GYN and founder of Her Viewpoint. “The normal pH in the vagina is around four, and when the vagina becomes less acidic, vaginal yeast begins to proliferate—and can cause a yeast infection,” Shepherd says.
She notes that more than two-thirds of women will experience at least one in their lifetime… so if you haven’t had one yet, strap in, because the chances are pretty dang high that The Yeasties are coming for you too.
Symptoms you should look for:
White discharge is a common symptom of a yeast infection, but vaginas produce discharge naturally—it’s needed for healthy regulation of our reproductive systems. This is why Sherry Ross, M.D., OB/GYN, and author of She-ology, says it’s important we don’t mistake just any trace of white discharge for a sign of an infection.
“Typical symptoms of a yeast infection include an inflamed vagina with itching, burning, redness, and swelling,” she says. There may or may not be an obvious, often-white, vaginal discharge which can appear thick, lumpy, and cottage cheese-like in consistency. You may notice a vaginal odor different from your normal scent, Ross says.
Ross says that there are a lot of reasons for yeast infections, including using certain detergents or bath products, sanitary wipes, lubes, sperm, saliva, and even underwear. All of these items come in contact with the vagina and have the potential to disrupt pH balance—particularly anything that’s inserted vaginally. One way to combat these effects: Wash your vulva with an unscented, gentle cleanser, like dermatologist-beloved, super-cost-effective Cetaphil.
It’s equally important that your clothes and underwear are made of light, breathable materials. Spandex, satin, and other fabrics—yep, all the cute ones—trap moisture and promote heat, which leads to yeast growth. Try to opt for the kind with a cotton crotch, whether or not they’re cotton all over.
Of course, it’s totally OK to wear your tight, sexy clothes from time to time, if that’s your jam. But if you don’t give your vagine a break, you might end up giving yourself an infection. Sleeping without underwear is another way to make sure your body gets to breathe.
Other factors, like pregnancy, having diabetes, or following a high-glycemic diet filled with white sugar, white flour, alcohol, and processed foods can lead to an increased risk for recurrent yeast infections. And if you expose your hoo-ha to super-moist environments—say, working out in sweaty underwear or swimming in a pool—you’re going to increase your chances too. Swimming comes with risks because chlorine kills bacteria, including your good vaginal bacteria, but also promotes a moist, warm environment for yeast to multiply.
Antibiotics also kill off both harmful and healthy bacteria throughout the body indiscriminately—and once the healthy bacteria are killed off, the Candida can begin taking over. Just another reason not to use antibiotics unless you truly need to.
It’s never a good idea to douche your cooch.
If you are blissfully unfamiliar with the concept, douching means squirting a “cleansing” mixture (usually water, vinegar, and some sort of perfume) high up into the vagina. It used to be a super-common practice intended to make your vagina smell like laundry detergent instead of like a vag, but not only are your lady parts not intended to be chemical-lavender-scented, this process is very, very bad for you—and totally leads to yeast infections.
“The active cleaning ingredients used in most douches can upset the healthy vaginal discharge and pH balance, and create a yeast or bacterial infection,” Ross says. Basically, why ruin a good thing? Your vag is self-cleaning.
Ross also says that those Goop-sponsored vaginal steams and yoni eggs may be rooted in indigenous traditions, which can give them historical value, but they haven’t had enough medical research to confirm or deny their efficacy.
“The end result, so they claim, is to help treat irregular periods, vaginal cysts, bladder infections, yeast infections, uterine fibroids, infertility, and even hemorrhoids,” Ross says. “But medical research studies are still needed to really prove these benefits from a vaginal steaming.”
She does, however, note that the effects can disrupt the pH balance in a way that’s similar to douching—and that’s definitely not good. Same goes for most yoni eggs, which tend to be made of porous material like jade rather than stainless steel or glass: If you repeatedly place an item that can’t be sterilized in your hoo-ha, you’re going to increase your chances of spreading bacteria up in there.
So what should you do?
“The key to reducing yeast in the vagina is to keep the vaginal vault at the right pH, in order to minimize the amount of yeast to thrive and multiply,” Shephard says.
Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet, not wearing moist clothes for long periods of time, and wearing breathable materials is a good start. However, some individuals are just genetically predisposed to an overproduction of yeast.
If you’re dealing with a yeast infection right now, it’s fine to seek short-term relief in over-the-counter products like Monistat. However, if the issue is persistent—or if you’re allergic to the over-the-counter stuff—you might need to see your doctor for a prescription. And if you find yourself battling yeast infections often, it might be time to evaluate your body products, diet, and exercise habits.
When it’s a recurring problem…
Ross and Shepherd agree yeast infections are common and non-harmful, but they also mentioned the importance of seeing your doctor if they persist or happen more than four times per year.
And not to freak you out, but there’s a chance you’re misreading the symptoms. “There are many vaginal infections that can mimic a yeast infection, including certain STIs, like chlamydia,” Ross says. There’s also a possibility that you may have a skin allergy to latex, a hormone imbalance, or some other issue.
And while it may feel embarrassing to talk to your doctor about, remember that they see dozens—if not hundreds—of individuals with similar symptoms on a weekly basis. So be your own best advocate and ask about any symptoms you’re experiencing.
A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a diversity content specialist who produces materials relating to mental and physical health, sociology, and parenting. Her work can be seen on several national platforms. Check her out on Facebook and Twitter.
Why Is It That Some People Just Can’t Dance?
If you’ve ever been to a wedding, you know one hard truth: Some people just can’t dance.
Sure, nobody expects a dance floor full of Fred Astaires, but is there any real, scientific reason why some people just can’t feel the beat? (Sort of!) And can you fix it? (Yep!)
So if you fall more to the Drake end of the dancing scale (I’m using the almost-scientific Drake to Baryshnikov scale here), there’s hope. Scientists and dance professionals have some insight on how to be a better dancer, even if you think you have two left feet.
The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You
Globally, pretty much every culture has incorporated some form of dance. That’s because rhythm naturally affects us. When you hear music you like (or music you hate that still has a pretty catchy beat), your body wants to move in time with the rhythm. You might not break out into a moonwalk, but almost all people will nod their heads or tap their toes unconsciously with the music.
And that’s true even as a fetus! Moms talk about babies kicking around when certain songs come on (my youngest sister was apparently really into that Chipmunk Christmas song in utero), and a study from Duke University found that babies can detect rhythm in the womb.
But it’s not quite so simple. Musicians from Pharrell to Justin Bieberhave complained about audiences clapping off-beat to their songs. As a person who’s taught musical improv, I know firsthand that finding the beat is not always natural. And that doesn’t even include all the dads on dance floors who look like they’ve never encountered the concept of rhythm.
For a small portion of people, this lack of rhythm has a name: beat deafness. A study from McGill University found that three percent of people suffer from congenital amusia (…which might become my drag name), and that means they can’t perceive music through either pitch, timing, or rhythm.
An even smaller percentage of the amusical are considered “beat deaf.” As in, they cannot find the beat in any form of music. The study found two such beat deaf individuals. Though they could keep time with a metronome, once actual music entered the picture, they were lost.
Are you (or your dance-impaired friend) beat deaf? Probably not. It’s extremely rare. Though nearly all humans have some sense of rhythm, i.e., they can tap their feet to the beat, that doesn’t mean they have a good sense of rhythm. Remember those bad clappers Justin Bieber yelled at? They were clapping to the beat—just not the right beat for the style of music. As soon as he stopped the song and corrected the audience, they were able to do it correctly. Sorry to reference the Biebs so many times: He just actually proves a point.
Yes, there are people with a bad sense of rhythm. From my experience, those people thought I’m just not good at rhythm and never tried to learn. But with a little guidance, they could find a basic beat.
If you’re not inclined to trust an improv teacher/freelance writer on the art of dance, here’s an actual professional’s POV. “If you give yourself enough time and are dedicated to the learning process, even the most challenged can develop their rhythm at any age,” says Preston Li, an instructor at the Beijing Dance Academy. Sure, not everyone will tap out Whiplash-style syncopations, but even the rhythmically challenged can find a beat… with practice.
She Blinded Me With (Dance) Science
So, if most people aren’t beat deaf, and rhythm isn’t the only answer, what else makes a dancing so hard? Well, Northumbria University and others finally decided to study dance because it’s a form of courtship and attraction that’s gotten relatively little scientific love—especially since people sometimes evaluate mate potential based on their moves alone. The studies aimed to find the moves that make women and men more attractive to one another. Note: All the studies in this section were based on heterosexual attractiveness. Sorry.
For women, dances that involved hip swings and asymmetrical movement of the arms and thighs were considered most appealing. So, maybe something like this.
The study concludes that hip movement may indicate fertility and increase attractiveness to males. Fertility does seem to get guys going since another study found that strippers made more money per lap dance when they were ovulating. So, ladies, if you really want to get a guy hot and bothered, let him know that an egg just dropped into your fallopian tube.
But what sexy moves can men do to look like Travolta on the dance floor? Well, according to Northumbria University, women liked “variability and amplitude of movements of the neck and trunk and speed of movements of the right knee.”
Oh man, remember in Magic Mike where Channing Tatum moves his right knee? His knees were really the least of my concerns during that dance, but that must just be me because the study said it’s all about neck, trunk, and knee. So, by that logic, this is one of the sexiest dances of all time.
Now, maybe I’m crazy, but that doesn’t really look like great dancing. The male avatar does the running man, for crying out loud! So we have to keep peeling this dance onion to find another layer of the bad dancing mystery.
Shame, Shame, Shame
As the good folks over at Northumbria University pointed out, dance is often used as a form of courtship. And even if you’re not trying to find a life mate, there’s a strong sexual component to social dancing. Guess what else goes along with sex and moving bodies? Shame!
Dancing, moving your body around, and trying to be sexy are all fairly vulnerable acts. Because if you do a bad job, people think you look stupid, you get rejected, and you wind up embarrassed. This fear of embarrassment often makes people stiff and uncomfortable on the dance floor.
Also, dance is not always embraced. There are tons of stories of high schools banning dances or putting “leave room for Jesus” type rules in place. And although Footloose was not a documentary, it was based on a real “No Dance Allowed” town.
Pablo Solomon, an artist and former teacher at the Houston Contemporary Dance Theater, says that a lot of his students came from backgrounds where dance and shame went hand in hand. For those students, “they not only have to teach their bodies to move in time with music, but they must often overcome the stiffness and awkwardness of suppressed guilt and fear.”
Solomon found that overcoming the potential embarrassment of dancing led to the greatest growth. “Many were so tense and full of fear of embarrassment or being ridiculed that any attempt at movement seemed to await some sort of horrible repercussions,” Solomon says. Once the student relaxed, they were able to find rhythm more easily, which led to better coordination and confidence in their abilities.
In my opinion, embarrassment and shame are the biggest reason why people suck at dancing. Or at least, why I suck at dancing. Now, I have a good sense of rhythm, took dance classes from first grade to college, and did musical theater for a living. If you need a pas de bourrée and single pirouette, I’ve got it (I mean, I’m not heading to ABT, but I’m not terrible). But put me in a club? Sweet Jesus, that’s some sad business!
It’s not because I don’t know how to dance. It’s because the idea of moving without choreography in a sexy way fills me with embarrassment. So, I look like an awkward weirdo (if I ever try to dance at all) because I’m so self-conscious about every move.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone is like me, but the risk of potential embarrassment often outweighs the rewards of dance for many people. So if everyone really could “dance like no one else is watching,” we’d probably be a lot better off (and we wouldn’t have to see that quote on a stock image of a girl in a boho dress spinning in a field ever again).
You Have to Practice
Another reason dancing is hard? Because it’s hard. But Solomon has found that almost all of his dance students got better with time, no matter how bad they were to start. But it took practice. And most of us aren’t going to go to a dance studio to get better for the one wedding a year we go to.
If you want to get better at social dancing? Well, unless the waltz makes a comeback, there’s no place to go to get better. You have to risk stepping out onto a dance floor with a bunch of cool, sexy people and just give it your best shot. There aren’t even moves to learn! You just have to kind of gyrate and move your arms asymmetrically until you get it right.
When you already feel like you’re a bad dancer, it’s unlikely you’ll seek out a lot of opportunities to learn how to get better. Instead, you ignore it, drink a little too much, and do some crappy moves at your niece’s Bat Mitzvah when your favorite song comes on.
Dancing is both perfectly natural to humans and incredibly complicated: It takes the ability to process music, understand rhythm, and have a good sense of coordination to be able to do basic moves. You have to do all that and not feel self-conscious about flailing your body around in front of strangers. Honestly, it’s surprising that anyone can dance.
Still, there’s hope for the dance challenged. If you want to get better in a hurry, just get over the embarrassment, practice finding rhythm, and let that right knee go to town.
Amber Petty is an L.A.-based writer and a regular contributor to Greatist. Follow along as she shares her weight-loss journey in her new bi-monthly column, Slim Chance. Take singing lessons from her via Sing A Different Tune and follow her on Instagram @Ambernpetty.
Some Big News From Greatist
I’ve got some big news to share.
Greatist has been acquired by Healthline, one of the best and biggest health sites out there.
It’s no doubt a wild ride for digital publishers these days, and we’re excited to partner with a brand that’s so complementary to ours. Healthline is great at scale, quality, resources, and profitability—all things that make them a smart business for us to align with! Oh, and we’re hopeful some of Greatist’s strengths, like our strong brand and voice, will have some influence here too. I’m sure our brand will evolve in the coming months—that’s always the way it works—but we’re excited for Greatist to grow while maintaining its soul and important message.
When I started Greatist eight years ago, I set out to build a brand in health and wellness that would make you feel better about yourself instead of worse. A brand that spoke to you like a friend who’s just a little further along. A brand that encouraged you to improve and celebrated when you got even a little better. Since then, the health space has changed an awful lot. Wowza. Health is cool now! (Even salads, I think!) And while a lot of what’s new in health is presented through an uncertain Instagram filter, it’s heartwarming to know a lot has improved for the better. And I’d like to think we played a role in pushing the right narrative forward.
I couldn’t be more proud of what Greatist and its extraordinary team have accomplished, from day 1 to whatever-the-heck day it is now. And I’m excited about how the space will continue to change. As our Healthline chapter begins, I’ll be taking a break before starting work on my next great brand that does good (if you’d like to keep up with what I do next, sign up here).
Thank you all for an amazing, unforgettable ride—and thank you all for being such a greatist.
– Derek Flanzraich
Founder & CEO, Greatist
11 Quotes That Will Inspire You to Live More Fully
I’ve been collecting quotations since I was five years old—my mum and I have always found joy through our shared love of them. I found early on that quotations could shift your mood, perspective, and vibe altogether. They’ve anchored me and brought me peace. I would even go so far as to say that during various traumas, when I was feeling scared about the future, repeating them saved me.
I still consider the wisdom I learned from authors, philosophers, and big thinkers the basis of my perspective. Here are 11 quotations to move you to live more fully and impactfully this year:
1. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” — Mary Oliver
Yep. There’s only one. We forget that. We even “wait” for life to begin. Are you maximizing your one time visiting this Earth? Squandering it? It is precious. How can you be most present, alive, even… wild version of yourself? The world is big and YOU—your existence—is also big.
2. “A person will be called to account on Judgment Day for every permissible thing he might have enjoyed but did not.” — The Talmud
I love this quote! What are you not enjoying? What do you take for granted or skip over because you’re in a bad mood? What are you not fully seeing and experiencing? The purpose of life is joy.
3. “The whole future lies in uncertainty: Live immediately.” — Seneca
Real talk. Fear falls away in the face of this reminder. There is no certainty of even a next year. Why are you waiting to be fulfilled, content, adventurous? The future is guaranteed to no one. We have no idea how many days we have left on planet Earth. This day is your life!
4. “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” — John A. Shedd
This exemplifies us playing small and safe out of fear of harm. But that’s not why we’re alive! The purpose of life is not to make it through unscathed. Are you in port or out at sea—where you ought to be?
5. “The definition of hell: On your last day on Earth, the person you could have become will meet the person you became.” — Anon
This quote makes me think of the small dash between the dates that will appear on our gravestones one day. Small. Undramatic. And yet – everything. What are you doing with your dash? How will you feel about it 20, 30, 40 years from now? What are you doing to regret-proof your life? Are you using your talents and skills, and acting on your dreams? Are you living the fullest version of your life or a shadow version of it? Are you living the experiences that you know are waiting within you?
6. “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the one who’ll decide where to go… ” — Dr. Seuss
Yep. You have all the power. Your head. Your feet. Your path. Other people can walk it with you, but no one else can walk it for you. You’re 100-percent responsible for your life. And what a relief that is.
7. “If we wait until we’re ready, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives.” — Lemony Snicket
All you need is the courage to say yes to life. Here’s a little secret: No one ever feels ready, ever. They just do the damn thing anyway.
8. “Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.” — Rumi
You were born with greatness within you. Stop apologizing. Stop acting small. You, like every other being, are part of this beautiful universe. You are meant to be here. Enjoy your time hurtling around this rock that circles the sun in this infinite universe. Just remembering what we’re a part of can astound and awaken us. Just look at the stars for 20 seconds at night.
9. “Close all your escape routes, burn all your plan Bs, and get busy doing that dream that only you were built to do.” — Robin Sharma
The secret to a lot of success is focusing on what only you can do. What is your unique thing? I found out all of my true strengths chasing down my passion with my side hustle.
10. “Anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve.” — J.K. Rowling
Action wins. Self-belief rules. Where can you apply more nerve? Try it. I dare you. Ask someone one. Go for gold with that pay increase. Start that passion project and watch your business take off. Once you just do it, the results are likely to startle you.
11. “I don’t like to gamble, but if there’s anything I’m willing to bet on, it’s myself.” — Beyoncé
You are your very best asset. It always has been and always will be you. Well said, Queen Bey.
Want more quotes to inspire you to live bigger? Grab my collection!
Susie Moore is Greatist’s life coach columnist and a confidence coach in New York City. Sign up for free weekly wellness tips on her website and check back every Tuesday for her latest No Regrets column!
6 Signs You’re Making the Wrong Decision
FEBRUARY 10, 2016 |
Some of these choices have larger consequences than others. For starters: Who we choose to surround ourselves with, where we live, and what career we pursue can have a huge impact on our health and happiness. And if more than a few of those decisions turned out to be less than wise in hindsight, then congratulations: You’re not a robot. (Let’s discuss that e-mail you sent your ex after two glasses of wine another time.)
How do we avoid making choices that invite regret, resentment, or erode our well-being? Though there’s no surefire way to never make a mistake, paying attention to signs we’re en route to bad decisions can help us switch course before it’s too late. Be prepared to step back if you encounter these six major red flags.
6 Red Flags
1. Your gut is telling you “no.”
Our instincts aren’t always on target, but if you’ve got a funny feeling about a request someone’s made or the risks inherent in embracing a new opportunity, process these feelings before proceeding, says Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist. “We’re less likely to feel secure with our choices when we haven’t resolved our own internal conflicts about them.”
Carmichael recommends making a pro and con list about big decisions (think: Should I leave this job or relationship? Should I apply to graduate school—and which one? Should I move in with my partner?). This can help us get in touch with our fears about what’s in store for us and assess whether the threats we perceive are actually realistic (this worksheet can help too).
No matter how overblown our apprehensions (your boss might not have it in for you after all, nor might your S.O. be cheating), clarifying them helps clue us into who we are and what we need, Carmichael says. Tuning into—and accepting—hard-to-feel emotions like anxiety or dread also helps us feel more grounded, an essential component of making wise choices wherever you are in your life.
2. You’re super emotional.
It’s one thing to be in tune with your feelings. It’s another to let them steer the course of important decisions in your life, says counselor and couples therapist Melody Li, LMFTA. When we’re riled up by anger, anxiety, and other intense emotions, we’re more likely to hit “send” when we shouldn’t, give in to immediate gratification, or shun people and situations we would be better off embracing simply because we perceive them as threats. (Feeling blue can also cloud what we see as our options and our willingness to choose which one is best. )
Though emotional reactions are designed to keep us from danger (e.g., jumping out of an oncoming vehicle’s path rather than pausing mid-crosswalk) we’re better off cooling down before making longer-term commitments or choices that impact important relationships, Li says. Lower the intensity of judgment-clouding feelings by taking a few deep breaths: Just five minutes of mindful inhaling and exhaling triggers your body’s relaxation response.
3. You’re totally exhausted.
When deprived of adequate zzzs, we’re more likely to opt for things that aren’t in our own (or others’) best interest, since our brains are too exhausted to adequately compute risk. Too little sleep also limits our ability to focus, revise plans, and communicate our wants and needs effectively. Add hanger to the mix, and your ability to problem-solve, pay attention, and recall facts gets even worse.
Trust the wisdom of “sleep on it” and wait ‘til you’re more rested to say yes or no to bigger decisions—as well as temptations. A session of overnight mulling allows our unconscious to weigh in, which, research shows, can lead to more satisfying and good-for-us choices.
4. You’re not telling the whole truth.
Keeping info about a decision you’re about to make secret from others could be a sign you aren’t totally OK with it. “Lying is often a sign someone hasn’t fully accepted his or her situation,” Li says. It may also indicate we’re not too proud of our choices—because if we were, wouldn’t we want to share it with those we love most?
Granted, there are exceptions (maybe don’t tell your BFF who just lost her job how you’re considering taking a new one). But when you find yourself fibbing, ask yourself if you’re doing so to avoid another person calling you out on your choices—if so, that’s a bad sign.
5. You’re moving too quickly.
“The urge to get something over with is often a sign something’s off-keel,” says Gina Ryan, an anxiety coach and mindful eating expert. Yes, we live in an age where instant responses are par for the course. But when we make a decision without taking time to process whether it’s something we actually want, we’re only inviting further confusion and unrest into our lives.
“It takes practice to break the habit of responding right away, but it really is just a habit,” Ryan says. Break it by requesting more time to think if someone’s pressuring you. (A simple “Let me think on that and get back to you” usually does the trick.)
The bigger the decision, the more time this might take, Carmichael adds. For example, set aside one week to clarify whether you want to apply to graduate school or change your career, another to research what program or field aligns with your interests, and another to factor in deadlines. “The sense of immediacy is good in a way, because it helps us to not get stuck in indecision—we just want to harness and manage it,” she adds.
Ask yourself, ‘How would I feel about said decision 10 minutes from now, 10 months from now, and 10 years from now?’
Another way to combat urges to immediately act on impulses? Deploy the 10/10/10 rule, popularized by business writer Suzy Welch: Ask yourself, “How would I feel about said decision 10 minutes from now, 10 months from now, and 10 years from now?”
Keeping the future in mind helps you resist the allure of short-term rewards that don’t lead to lasting satisfaction, Carmichael explains—such as staying involved with someone who makes you feel insecure because you don’t want to feel lonely, or accepting a promotion without considering how it’ll limit quality time with friends and family.
6. You haven’t talked it through.
If you’re basing your decision only on unchecked assumptions, you may not have enough facts to make an informed choice or a contingency plan if things don’t pan out perfectly. To avoid this sneaky trap, “identify three people you trust; come up with three-to-five questions related to the decision you’re stumped with; then set up a phone call, cocktail, or lunch date with them to gain their input,” Carmichael says.
Even if you don’t follow their advice to a T, she says, viewing your future through others’ lenses helps you discover solutions you may never have come up with by yourself.
We can’t eradicate uncertainty. But we can make more informed choices when it comes to the big stuff in our lives. Considering the consequences of particular courses of action, weighing the pros and cons of major changes, consulting others, and gaining distance from our own biases and emotions helps make for the healthiest decisions. And even if life doesn’t pan out as you planned, Carmichael reminds us, approaching big choices in a mindful, self-caring manner allows us to pivot (rather than panic) when reality bites back.
Autophagy: The Real Way to Cleanse Your Body
JULY 4, 2016 |
For the last time, forget juice cleanses and detox diets. They’re fluffy nonsense words. While there’s probably nothing wrong with drinking your weight in liquid kale, it won’t flush out toxins any faster than if you were eating, you know, actual food.
The good news: There’s a little-known way your body does cleanse itself, and it’s a process that you can control.
All you need to do is practice a little self-cannibalism.
Yes, you can actually train your body to eat itself—and believe it or not, you want it to.
It’s a natural process called autophagy (literally “self-eating”), and it’s the body’s system of cleaning house: Your cells create membranes that hunt out scraps of dead, diseased, or worn-out cells; gobble them up; strip ’em for parts; and use the resulting molecules for energy or to make new cell parts.
“Think of it as our body’s innate recycling program,” says Colin Champ, M.D., a board-certified radiation oncologist, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and author of Misguided Medicine. “Autophagy makes us more efficient machines to get rid of faulty parts, stop cancerous growths, and stop metabolic dysfunction like obesity and diabetes.”
There’s also evidence that the process plays a hand in controlling inflammation and immunity. When scientists engineer rats that are incapable of autophagy, they’re fatter, sleepier, and have higher cholesterol and impaired brains.
To sum it up, autophagy is key to slowing the aging process. And you can learn how to do it better.
3 Ways to Self-Destruct
“So how do I eat myself?” is a question you probably haven’t asked before, but we’re about to tell you. First of all, autophagy is a response to stress, so you’re actually going to want to put your body through stress in order to drum up a little extra auto-cannibalism. (We know this article keeps getting weirder, but trust us.)
As is often the case, short-term discomfort can bring long-term benefits. Here are three main ways to boost your autophagy.
In case the sweating, grunting, and post-workout pain didn’t tip you off, here’s a reminder: Exercise puts stress on the body. Working out actually damages your muscles, causing tiny microscopic tears that the body then rushes to heal, making the muscles stronger and more resistant to any further “damage” you might put it through.
Regular exercise is the most popular way that people unintentionally help their body to cleanse. (So there’s actually something to that fresh, renewed feeling you get after working out.)
Regular exercise is the most popular way that people unintentionally help their body to cleanse.
One study looked at autophagosomes, structures that form around the pieces of cells that the body has decided to recycle. After engineering mice to have glowing green autophagosomes (as one does), scientists found that the rate at which the mice were healthily demolishing their own cells drastically increased after they ran for 30 minutes on a treadmill. The rate continued increasing until they’d been running for 80 minutes. (This actually inspired the study’s lead scientist to buy a treadmill.)
What about humans? “Determining the level of exercise needed to stimulate autophagy, and the extent to which the process is upregulated, are hard questions to answer at the moment,” says Daniel Klionsky, Ph.D., a cellular biologist at the University of Michigan who specializes in autophagy. “(But) clearly exercise has many benefits, aside from the possible role of autophagy, so that is probably a good bet in general.” And if you like tough workouts, all the better: Champ recommends relatively intense exercise for maximum benefits.
Ironically for folks who “cleanse” by drinking juice, the act of eating actually works against autophagy. Skipping meals, it turns out, is another stressful act that the body may not immediately love but ultimately benefits from.
It’s also pretty remarkable how much research has focused specifically on the way fasting promotes autophagy in the brain, suggesting that it could be an effective way to lower the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
In some studies, intermittent fasting was shown to improve cognitive function, brain structure, and neuroplasticity, which may help the brain to learn more easily. That said, it wasn’t totally clear if autophagy was the cause; plus, those studies were done on rodents. People aren’t rodents, and we can’t always assume the benefits will be the same for us humans.
In any case, here’s our quick guide to intermittent fasting. Practitioners usually forgo food for anywhere from 12 to 36 hours at a time, making sure to drink plenty of water. (You might also want to limit activity to gentle yoga or stretching.)
3. Lower Your Carb Intake
While Champ fasts for 18 hours per day a couple times per week, he recognizes that for the average Joe, that can be a tough routine to follow. Simply forgoing food on the odd occasion seems to work (one study showed a lower risk of heart disease from just one fast day per month), but there’s another way to get similar benefits without giving up your favorite rib eye (though you’ll probably need to quit candy).
It’s called ketosis, and it’s an increasingly popular diet among bodybuilders and anyone seeking a longer lifespan. The idea is to reduce carbohydrates to such low levels that the body has no choice but to use fat as a fuel source instead.
Ketosis is like an autophagy hack. You get a lot of the same metabolic changes and benefits of fasting without actually fasting.
Ketosis can help people lose body fat while retaining muscle, and there’s some evidence that it helps the body fight cancerous tumors, lowers the risk of diabetes, and protects against some brain disorders, particularly epilepsy. (Research showed that more than half of children with epilepsy who go on the diet have at least a 50 percent reduction in seizures.)
“Ketosis is like an autophagy hack,” Champ says. “You get a lot of the same metabolic changes and benefits of fasting without actually fasting.”
Keto diets are super high fat: Between 60 and 70 percent of one’s overall calories should come from fat. (Lots of steak, bacon, and peanut butter shakes are a definite bonus for the keto crowd.) Protein makes up 20 to 30 percent of calories, while carbs are kept below 50 grams per day.
But if staying in ketosis sounds even harder than not eating at all, take heart. Similar benefits have been noted in people following a diet in which carbs didn’t exceed 30 percent of their overall calories, Champ says.
Is There an Easier Way?
Nah. But there’s a lot money to be made if researchers can distill the benefits of autophagy into a pill, so you can be sure they’re trying.
“Of course people are looking for ways to induce autophagy through chemicals, because it would be easier than dieting,” Klionsky says, but he cautions that we’re a long way off.
Champ notes that anti-epileptic drugs are being developed that mimic the effects of ketosis. If they become available to the broader public, there’s a chance we’ll be able to pop a pill that cranks up autophagy with practically no effort.
Still, don’t get your hopes up: “There are so many metabolic changes that take place during ketosis that mimicking all of them with a pill might not be possible,” Champ says. “The bodily stress that comes with entering ketosis might be necessary for the benefits.”
Just remember: You don’t have to fast, stay in ketosis, or exercise intensely all day every day to experience these benefits—even a few hours of any of these activities can help.
There’s a pretty strong case to be made that stress and self-destruction lengthens your lifespan. “It’s our ancestral and evolutionary response to dealing with feast and famine in times of stress,” Champ says. “Since a lot of these things would kill us, like starvation and exercise, it only makes sense that after millions of years we adapted those mechanisms to make them positive.”
Klionsky notes that there’s still a lot we don’t know about the process, and it’s too early to definitively say that autophagy will cure cancer, make you a genius, and stave off aging for good.
There’s a pretty strong case to be made that stress and self-destruction lengthens your lifespan.
“One fundamental problem is that it is still difficult to monitor autophagy in a living organism, especially a human,” he says.
The bottom line: Regular exercise and occasional carbohydrate restriction carry mountains of benefits in addition to their likely impact on autophagy. The best that could happen is a stronger, leaner, and cleaner body. That’s our kind of detox.