What Is Autophagia?

Gregory Hanson

Autophagia is one name for both the process of eating parts of one’s own body and a term used to describe a psychological condition marked by the desire to do so. This term may also refer to the natural processes that the body uses to consume its own tissues, either as a response to severe hunger or in order to remove old or dead cells from the body. A mild version of this behavior is common in most men and women. No clear single cause has been identified to explain more severe instances of autophagia, but in some cases, the condition is linked to pica, the urge to consume inedible objects, or to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Biting one's lip is a type of autophagia.
Biting one's lip is a type of autophagia.

Most human beings engage in mild forms of autophagia with some regularity. This behavior is typically limited to biting fingernails and chewing on dead skin at the tips of fingers or on the lips. This type of behavior may be indicative of elevated levels of stress, but is not normally cause for concern.

Biting fingernails is a type of autophagia.
Biting fingernails is a type of autophagia.

In more serious cases, the behavior involves self-mutilation, and comes to resemble a form of cannibalism. The behavior often manifests as a more extreme version of the normal sorts of autophagia that are part of everyday human life. A man or woman might inflict serious injury to their own fingers, or even gnaw them off entirely. Instances in which an instrument of some sort is used to cut off a portion of the body are generally classified differently, as varieties of self-cannibalism.

In severe cases of autophagia, the patient may engage in self-harming behaviors.
In severe cases of autophagia, the patient may engage in self-harming behaviors.

The precise reasons for this sort of behavior are not perfectly understood. In some cases, the behavior is thought to be an extension of other, milder symptoms of OCD. Other cases may involve the same underlying impulses that fuel pica. These cases may stem from a combination of actual malnutrition, psychological distress, and abnormal signaling in the portions of the brain responsible for directing appetite.

Certain cases may stem from a desire to experience sensation, perhaps because of a loss of sensory input from other sources. Patients, especially the elderly, who experience sensory loss may seek to compensate for this by seeking stronger stimuli. An additional explanation for this condition posits that this behavior is driven by a desire to inflict pain on the body, perhaps as a result of deep-rooted sexual problems or in an attempt to cope with stress, but this, too, has not been conclusively proved.

Health care workers responsible for treating autophagia must address both the psychological or physiological causes of the behavior and any physical injuries. Treatment typically includes standard wound care to speed healing and prevent infection. Symptoms of OCD, if present, are usually treated with medicine or therapy. Any other pronounced psychological conditions are also addressed, and potential emotional stressors are removed if they can be identified.

Patients, especially the elderly, who experience sensory loss may seek to compensate for this by seeking stronger stimuli.
Patients, especially the elderly, who experience sensory loss may seek to compensate for this by seeking stronger stimuli.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


Dammit, enough hiding. My name's Benjamin and I'm 29 years old. Having had a heart scare two days ago, enough is enough.

I don't have Paranoid Schizophrenia. I don't have OCD, I don't have Pica, I don't have Lesch-Nyhan, and I can't say there's much up with my fingers, bar occasionally biting my nails -- to the sort of degree one does in a coffee-shop.

However, on stressful days -- of which there are an exponential number -- I should admit I chew large chunks off my right arm. We have encountered tendon before. We have seen bone. Not cut off. Chew off. And swallow. And yes, it hurts. Now which is it? Pain or hunger/stimulus/underlying sexual anxiety? You've got two ever branching possibilities there.

If you don't believe me, I've got the photographic evidence. No so underground now are we, lords of insincere death metal?

Call it Autophagy (as they diagnosed it in 2005 -- not that they actually gave me any info on treatment; hence heading online... oh boy), call it self-cannibalism, call it autophagia, call it autosarcophagy, call it a few other names. The majority of journal papers don't seem too sure, to be honest.

I am indeed 'anon341357'. I'd like to point out that Wikipedia has it potentially incorrect, and that has lead to increasing amounts of crap and pseudo-psychological speculation over the years -- god knows, I keep tabs -- as well as the inspiration for a hell of a lot of trashy bands, amateurish student projects, references to the accursed Hopkins, clandestine Flickr albums and vampy fetish models after a bit of a 'dark' kick.

If we like the idea, consider multiple CSA and psychological/physical nastiness. Consider female on male IPV, consider female on male rape, consider never, ever, ever being believed, ever, no matter how much stress turns the situation masticatory. That's quite a handful we've got there. Quite stressful, that.

However, unlike the majority of posters, I'm not hiding behind a screen. Grow a pair please, someone, as it's really not a common diagnosis at all under these circumstances, and if anything, might need someone to be brave enough to let themselves care. I know it's difficult sometimes.

Consider you've potentially messed it all up over this NHS psychiatry with insensitive speculations -- and not really listening to the timid patient with an 'interesting' private-life that is not quite so timid, and indeed, the one in possession of lots of different tones of voice. Actually, I was told there's only one over living case like me in the Western world. The mirth of that. I often hope they're okay, or pray for euthanasia for them.

Okay, it's not quite Truddi Chase, etc. but, beyond that, how on earth would you know? You hardly ever see me in the higher echelons, and CPNs etc. can't quite cut it over the matter.

I'm rather bitter about all that above, as indeed one would be after this many operations and years of chronic pain. I asked Wikipedia about this and they ignored me too. At what point can someone just accept reality? It's not common, but it's there. Yup, I've got my own research, carried out vocationally under conditions that one many well describe as 'utter hell'.

Useful other diagnoses to note: Borderline Personality Disorder and Klinefelter Syndrome. Potential number-line Synaesthesia, plus some other one in that category of neurological confusion. Gawd, what a combo... My wife doesn't like the situation either.

Otherwise, well, you don't seem to read this every day. You might just look at the fake pictures and have a good giggle. Read it now, and think.

P.S. Just because one certainly needs to have a sense of humour to even live this long, and also because I've always wanted to confirm this fact to the world, we do indeed taste a bit like pork.

Also, I do appear to not be a lab rat, although I do have a broken spine around my coccyx. Strange coincidence.


Sorry to be a pain - I've just been diagnosed with this, but therapy is not forthcoming as the local services deem it sufficient to label one with it then bugger off back to their offices to drink tea and twiddle their thumbs.

I'm assuming this page is out of action now, but just on the off-chance, would anyone have any clinical information in more detail?

It's practically impossible to find help online from a psychological/holistic/therapeutic perspective and I'm getting a bit fed up with sensationalist shock websites. Thank you to Gregory for being fair-minded about the whole thing. It sure as hell confuses *me*! I'm sort of hoping my name doesn't come up in this, but it's been one of those days.


It's a scary illness, isn't it?

Post your comments
Forgot password?