Autophagy and why it is important

What is autophagy?  To many it sounds like a distant memory of biology high school class.  It's time to dust off those brain cells, and bring it back to the forefront.  There has been a lot of buzz about autophagy in the last couple of years, and for good reason.  There have been many developments and research on the anti-aging/longevity front.  And to many, autophagy is taking one of the main stages.  Autophagy is a preservation process that catabolizes components within our cells to maintain energy equilibrium and to protect cells against stress. Autophagy has critical roles during development and disease, and evidence has been mounting over the past decade indicates that autophagy also has a direct role in regulating the aging process.

You can think of autophagy as our own personal cleaning process.  As cells age, they begin to accumulate damaged proteins and organelles.  These damaged cellular components can cause cellular toxicity and death.  Do you remember that thing called a lysosome from high school biology?  (You know, the round pieces suspended in the cell that you had to either draw, make with Styrofoam, or shape out of playdoh?).  These are important membrane bound pieces (organelles) of the cell that are filled with digestive enzymes.  Autophagy is the process that our inherently intelligent human bodies have developed to gather these damaged (or excess) cellular (dare I say, cytoplasmic) components and deliver them to the lysosome.  The lysosome can then degrade these substances.

If this process (autophagy) slows, it is linked to an increased rate of aging, and age related diseases (think neurodegeneration, cancer, metabolic diseases).  This is due to the damaged proteins and organelles accumulating faster than they can be removed.  This accumulation occurs more quickly in times of significant stress.  Ever heard someone say "the stress will kill you?", it turns out that while it may directly kill you, it will expedite your aging.

Research is now pointing to the fact we can modulate autophagy to promote longevity, healthspan and decrease the risk of age related diseases.  How?  That's coming in future posts.  Stay tuned and stay safe.