A Metabolic Process That Maintains Health and Slows Aging
Typical Changes With Aging
The human body is composed of trillions of cells that are specialized and specific to the body’s organ systems. For the organ systems to function normally, the cells of the organ must be healthy and function properly. All cells have an innate life span before they wear out and are replaced by new cells. This process is known as apoptosis and it occurs with varying frequency in different organs. Apoptosis can be thought of as cellular ‘quality control’. Cells can be damaged or die prematurely from environmental toxins, trauma, or infections with microorganisms (bacteria or viruses) and these abnormal cells are replaced by apoptosis.
The normal life span of cells varies from several hours for white blood cells; four months for red blood cells; several weeks for skin cells; and for most people, brain cells survive for decades. (Personally, a daily brain cell turnover would be a blessing!)
Apoptosis becomes progressively unreliable over time due to the time dependent compromise in DNA function within the nucleus of the cell. DNA controls the instructions for all processes and when it begins to function improperly, cellular replication and replacement of old cells is compromised. This causes a decrease in cellular competence in cell regeneration and results in the condition we call aging.
Contained within each cell are tiny structures called organelles that are responsible for various vital metabolic processes that maintain the health of the cell and its organ system. These organelles are susceptible to damage by oxidation, inflammation, and aging. A metabolic process known as autophagy exists that is able to detect these damaged organelles, degrade them, and use the components to form new organelles thus prolonging the life of the cell and prevent cell turnover. It is also able to prevent metabolic waste from accumulating in the cell by degrading proteins and producing energy for cells. So, efficient autophagy lessens the occurrence of apoptosis (cell destruction and turnover). Simply stated, autophagy is a metabolic process that destroys and recycles old cell parts. In a sense, it is a cellular detoxification process and also a source of energy for cells.
Dysregulation of autophagy is associated with a broad range of diseases including cancer, heart disease, neurodegenerative disease (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s), metabolic diseases (diabetes) and aging. People with upregulated autophagy enjoy better health with disease resistance and lower biologic age. In other words, we have a built-in mechanism that can act as a deterrent to the aging process and a longer life span and health span. So, the obvious question is how do we upgrade autophagy?
In order to function, all cells need energy or a fuel source. This energy is first obtained from the foods that we consume. In order for the food to be used by the cells, it must be converted to glucose (a form of sugar). In the fed state, the glucose is immediately obtained from food. If the amount of glucose consumed exceeds the amount used by the cells, the excess is stored in the liver as glycogen or in fat cells as triglycerides. In a fasting state when glucose cannot be obtained from a food source, cells obtain glucose initially from the breakdown of stored glycogen in the liver. When the glycogen source is depleted, fat cells provide energy from stored triglycerides which are broken down into free fatty acids (FFA) and a byproduct called ketones. FFA’s are transported to the liver and converted to glucose and the ketones act directly as an energy source particularly for brain cells. This “metabolic switch”, induced by fasting, escalates autophagy from which cellular energy can be obtained.
The Standard American Diet (appropriately abbreviated SAD) consist of at least three meals per day with frequent snacks. No matter what types of foods are consumed, the Metabolic Switch never occurs, so autophagy remains at minimal baseline levels and fat cells are not mobilized. Current diets are focused on what types of food we eat; however, based on the physiology we have discussed, the focus should be shifted to how often we eat in order to maximize health span and life span.
Finally, numerous clinical studies have proven the health benefits of exercise and more current research has shown that these benefits are the result of autophagy enhancement.
In summary, upgrading autophagy and obtaining the benefits of maintaining health and delaying aging can be accomplished by frequently increasing an energy deficit in the body by decreasing the frequency of eating and participating in regular exercise. Currently, there are no medications available to accomplish this.
Noteworthy is the fact that the 2016 Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to Dr. Y. Ohsumi “for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy”.
Original article composed by James Tippett, MD founder of Comprehensive Quality Healthcare Providers, a concierge internal medicine practice located at 1210 Commerce Dr. Suite 106 Greensboro, Ga. 30642. He can be reached at 706-510-3659. Visit his webpage at www.drtippett.com