Autophagy: A Key to Optimal Health and Energy

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“Our bodies are a beautiful, complex, interwoven tapestry of systems that work collectively and cooperatively. Most importantly, none work independently.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the process of autophagy.

Known as the body’s recycling system, these days autophagy is primarily associated with its positive benefits triggered by fasting. However, recent studies have clearly demonstrated that autophagy has a greater variety of roles than once believed.

Although there is still much to be learned about this complex, synergistic process, science is gradually revealing how critical it is to overall health.

 

Non-selective Autophagy

Two components the body must have to sustain life are protein synthesis and energy. 

Without proteins in usable forms, cells would not be able to repair cellular damage or even maintain their structure. Without energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), cells would not have the ability to perform the many processes critical to sustaining life.

During times of starvation, when the body senses there is not enough nutrition being provided to sustain either of these critical processes, cells activate autophagy in order to rapidly break down the old or burned-out cells and cell components to get what is needed for cell metabolism.

This is also considered non-selective autophagy because entire cells are consumed in bulk to support metabolism.

 

Basal Autophagy

Basal autophagy is the type of autophagy that takes place on an ongoing basis, acting as the cells’ garbage disposal, eliminating damaged components that would otherwise become toxic such as intracellular proteins and organelles.

It preserves the health of cells and tissues by replacing old and damaged cellular components with fresh ones. In this way it promotes metabolic homeostasis and prevents degenerative disease.

This type of autophagy is also considered “selective autophagy” as specific cell components are targeted for disposal as opposed to an entire cell. 

This involves complicated signaling pathways triggered by enzymes that mark the specific component for removal. An example of this would be mitophagy which is mitochondrial autophagy.

 

Mitophagy

Mitochondria are essential organelles that regulate cellular metabolism, homeostasis, and stress responses. Properly functioning mitochondria are also key to energy generation.  In my article,  The Mitochondrial Genome – Your second set of DNA, I go into more detail as to why the health of mitochondria is so important.

Mitophagy is the main mechanism of mitochondrial quality and quantity control.

When a mitochondrion is damaged, certain enzymes (PINK1 and Parkin) attach themselves to its outer membrane. Molecule chains are then created which signal the cell's autophagic machinery. The damaged mitochondrion is then encapsulated and transported to a cell’s lysosome where it is broken down. This in turn signals the cell to make more mitochondria.

Studies have discovered that mitophagy impairment can lead to tissue damage, developmental issues, and inflammation. In addition, it contributes to aging and age-related diseases such as cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, and cardiovascular disease.

Recent studies have also found that impeded mitophagy may play a key role in renal diseases.

 

More Discoveries

Mitophagy is just one example of what science is discovering about autophagy.

It is now known autophagy plays a key role in the immune system’s ability to eliminate pathogens and present antigens. It feeds a developing embryo before it gains access to the maternal blood supply and influences lifelong development.  It impacts aging, can trigger cell death, and both suppress or support tumor growth.  

Science rooted in reductionism, which I cover in Believing Isn’t Always Seeing! The Power of Functional Food may never lead to a complete understanding of autophagy or the far-reaching influence this dynamic, synergistic, and highly complicated process has on the overall health of the body.  

But what IS known is foundational health supports optimal health and optimized autophagy equals optimized energy.

As a functional healthcare provider, when we can empower clients to check the boxes on the basics, they are well on their way to finding the health they believed to be irretrievable. And although diet, exercise, and fasting can kick-start autophagy, finding the right balance can be tricky. But there is help.

If you are fed up with the broken healthcare system and looking for a better, more effective way to support your clients, you can find it in my Nutritional Endocrinology Practitioner Training program (NEPT). It’s your way out of the frustrating, disease-focused system so many of us once felt trapped in.

If you are searching for answers to health issues you’ve been led to believe are non-existent and feeling trapped in the same broken system, don’t be discouraged. There are answers and a supportive community waiting for you in my Empowered Self-Care Lab.

Regardless of where you are at in your journey, no matter how depleted or discouraged you may be feeling, there is help.

You have myself, an energized community, and answers waiting for you! 

 

References
Autophagy and Metabolism – PMC
An Overview of Autophagy: Morphology, Mechanism, and Regulation – PMC
Frontiers | Mechanisms and Functions of Mitophagy and Potential Roles in Renal Disease
Autophagy and mitophagy in cellular damage control – PMC
Diversity in the Regulation of Autophagy and Mitophagy: Lessons from Parkinson's Disease

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