Autophagy Problems are A Primary Cause of Human Disease
Byron J. Richards, Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist
A revolution is quietly occurring in the field of health. The new gene science is beginning to unravel the very nature of disease and the unexpected findings are stunning. The dawn of a new era is upon us.
Mapping the human genome at the end of the 20th century was supposed to usher in the next generation of drugs. Each disease would relate to a malfunctioning gene or genes. Drugs would be designed to target the malfunctioning genes and presto—disease would be eliminated.
Instead, virtually every new biotech drug that manipulates genes is a deadly failure or grotesque human experiment. The very same gene signals involved with disease are involved with health. What determines if they are healthy or problematic is the context of their operation in tandem with multiple other genes. Current biotech drugs are like taking a sledgehammer to a system that required delicate coaxing. “Modern medicine” is actually going backwards.
Thankfully, a new picture of health is beginning to emerge. It portrays elaborate systems and strategies for survival. If these systems malfunction, they rapidly and progressively plot a misguided course for the diseases of aging. Central to the regulation of genes as well as to their malfunction is a process called autophagy. Virtually any health problem can be viewed in the lens of malfunctioning autophagy. Not surprisingly, good nutrition is autophagy’s best friend.
Autophagy is a natural process that occurs within every cell of your body. It is part recycling, part trash removal, part defense system, and part energy management. It now appears to be the single most important process within any cell to maintain natural balance or homeostasis. When it is properly functioning, health is assured. As it malfunctions, health declines, free radical damage increases, inflammation runs rampant, trash builds up in cells and clogs their function, and disease of almost any type begins to manifest. Autophagy is a fundamental principle of health and disease.
One of the key roles of autophagy is regulating how your cells degrade and recycle old or damaged cellular parts. In some ways this is similar to the idea of taking out the trash. When a damaged cellular component is tagged for removal, autophagy genes are activated. A membrane called an autophagosome then surrounds that damaged fragment. Enzymes break down the damaged cellular component into basic amino acids and fatty acids, which can be used by the cell or can be released from the cell into the general extracellular fluid so that these nutrients can be used elsewhere.
It has now been discovered that in virtually any condition of poor health there is an accumulation of cell components that have been tagged for removal and not removed—meaning that trash removal has broken down. This is especially true in virtually all states of nervous system malfunction and decline—diabetes type 2, obesity, heart disease, cancer, etc. In other words, this type of a problem is a very big deal.
While other factors can stress your body and produce excess free radicals and inflammation, once autophagy processes can no longer keep up with the demands, free radical damage and inflammation are drastically increased, sending a person on a path of deteriorating health.
Autophagy and Energy
One of the most fascinating discoveries relating to autophagy is its critical interplay with how your body makes energy. Within your cells the engines that combust calories are called mitochondria. Mitochondria are in a dynamic state of flux, changing in number and typically combining in networks to maximize horsepower.
Mitochondria produce high levels of cellular energy known as ATP. Unfortunately, the trade off for superior energy production capability is that the process of energy production is 5 percent inefficient, meaning some free radicals are always produced as energy is made. This is why your cells must have antioxidants to function. If you run low on antioxidants, the mitochondria is damaged.
The new gene science shows that once mitochondria are damaged, they are tagged for removal and unplugged from the cell’s power grid. It is up to the process of autophagy to clear out the damaged mitochondria. If not able to do so, cell damage accumulates and leads to energetic malfunction. This type of autophagy problem is especially noted in nerves, and is central to symptoms of cognitive decline and shaky nerves.
Any problem of progressive or ongoing fatigue or lack of energy is thereby directly predictive of problems in natural balance between mitochondria and autophagy. Furthermore, if energy problems are associated with any type of nerve symptoms that are progressively worsening or not resolving, it is certain that autophagy issues are involved in a causative manner (and there could be other causes as well).
This means that any steps you take to improve your energy level are improving the fitness of your autophagy system at the cellular level and is good for your health.
Autophagy in Response to Starvation
One issue that invariably activates autophagy is nutrient scarcity. This is a general survival strategy. When food is not coming in and fat stores have been depleted, cells are broken down through the process of autophagy to provide nourishment to other cells so that your body can survive.
Calorie restriction activates autophagy in this way, which has the potential to extend lifespan via this mechanism. For example, autophagy directly activates the sirtuin1 genes associated with longevity. This means that eating less tends to activate “autophagy fitness” and overeating tends to shut down autophagy and cause trash to build up in cells, which is why so many health problems are associated with obesity.
Problems with autophagy are highly correlated to insulin resistance, malfunctioning white adipose tissue, leptin resistance, type 2 diabetes and blood pressure. In fact, as trash builds up in your hypothalamus gland due to malfunctioning autophagy, your appetite signal system can get damaged (making you eat too much so as to feel full) and simultaneously your blood pressure regulation control system is injured (the actual main cause of elevating blood pressure for most overweight people).
Following The Five Rules of The Leptin Diet will help restore autophagy fitness. If you are very good at restoring autophagy function over time you can clean up damage anywhere in your body, including your subconscious brain. This means you may be able to solve the source of food cravings as well as blood pressure issues.
Autophagy and Extension of Lifespan
Whenever there is stress in your body, autophagy goes into action both to help supply nutrition and to clean up damage—and actually to do much more including helping to determine whether a cell should live or die. Scientists now recognize that the gene signaling processes of autophagy are directly linked to how long you will live a healthy life.
Some of these decisions controlled by autophagy are utterly amazing. For example, if an infection or cancer is spreading in your body, autophagy will actually induce death signals in healthy cells nearby the infection or cancer, so that the infection or cancer cannot take over those cells and use their nutrition to bolster spreading. This is similar to the idea of a controlled burn to prevent a forest fire from having fuel.
Autophagy processes within cells can actually engulf invading bacteria or viruses as part of your immune response. And when this process falters your immune response is handicapped. In fact, animal experiments with various autophagy knockout mice show that molds and fungus rapidly engulf body organs when autophagy fails.
Autophagy processes enable a baby to grow after being born. The needed rapid growth is fueled by a rapid turnover of cells. Autophagy processes break apart the dying cells and rapidly help feed the new ones. Animal studies show that if this process is interrupted, the baby dies.
The ability of your body to perform appropriate autophagy will determine your health, your ability to maintain natural balance, the prevention of adverse rapid aging, and the prevention and possible reversal of diseases of aging.
Nutrition and Autophagy
In addition to not eating too much food, many nutrients have now been shown to help autophagy work more efficiently. It should be of no surprise to you that many of these nutrients are the same ones that help brain function, cardiovascular health, obesity, cancer risk reduction, etc. While the benefits of these nutrients are typically not described for their benefits to autophagy, they have been busy helping you whether you knew it or not.
Nutrients now showing they can help autophagy function better include tocotrienols, DHA, vitamin D, niacinamide/ nicotinamide (a form of vitamin B3), quercetin, curcumin, green tea (EGCG), resveratrol, fisetin, zinc, melatonin, blueberries, lipoic acid, bromelain, licorice, and silymarin. This list is by no means complete; rather, it represents the first wave of scientific exploration.
Autophagy processes also occur in plants as part of their survival ability and defense system against pathogens. Therefore, many of the flavonoid components/antioxidants of fruits, vegetables and whole grains will help humans to regulate autophagy.
What I have been able to convey to you in this short explanation barely scratches the surface of autophagy. My goal has been to give you an understanding that something very important to your health has been discovered. I will be explaining various aspects of this issue in much greater depth as time moves along. Welcome to nutrition in the 21st century.
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