The human body is a miracle of engineering. Every day it creates, uses, and replenishes about 80 lbs. of ATP – your body’s main energy source. That ATP powers 37 trillion cells, and those cells form millions of biological systems that work in constant cooperation, making and using the fuel that powers your life. And like any system that creates energy, your body also creates waste. The quadrillions of molecules of ATP you produce come at a price: quadrillions of molecules of free radicals, creating a mess of oxidative damage for your body to deal with. On top of that, your hardworking cells get old and break down from cranking out all that energy, and they have to be replaced. With cellular energy production comes cellular cleanup duty; your system must be good at both.
As you age, your cells get less efficient. You produce less energy and create more waste doing it. And the further the scale tips in favor of damage and waste products, the more your cells get weighed down, and the more susceptible you become to chronic disease. Needless to say, it’s in your best interest to keep your cellular cleanup running strong. There are three major systems involved in cellular cleanup: inflammation, autophagy, and detoxification. Here’s a look at all three.
Inflammation Heals Cellular Damage (As Long as it Doesn’t Get Out of Control) Despite its bad reputation, inflammation is actually a great thing when it’s working well. Inflammation is your body’s response to cell damage and infection, and an essential part of healing – inflamed tissue draws in immune factors, growth factors, white blood cells, and other compounds that remove the source of damage and help your body start to repair. But inflammation also creates free radicals. In small doses, free radicals can be good – they can destroy dangerous bacteria to clear up an infection, for example. Inevitably, though, some free radicals damage your own cells, and if you have chronic inflammation, that cellular damage stacks up quickly.
You want the Goldilocks of inflammatory responses. Not too much, because excessive or chronic inflammation brings lots of free radical damage with it, and not too little, because, without enough inflammation, you’ll struggle to repair cellular damage and fight off infections. Your inflammatory response should be just right: it turns on when you need to clean up cellular damage, and it turns off as soon as that damage is repaired. So how do you make sure your inflammatory response turns on and off at the right times?
The answer lies in cytokines. Cytokines are a special class of proteins that direct and control inflammation. Pro-inflammatory cytokines turn inflammation on, while anti-inflammatory cytokines turn inflammation off. Cytokine proteins engage in a nuanced biological dance with one another. They form intricate signaling networks, turning each other on and off to direct inflammation to the right parts of the body for the right amount of time. It’s when cytokine signaling breaks down that inflammation can start to get out of control. If your anti-inflammatory cytokines stop working, inflammation doesn’t turn off. It becomes chronic, constantly releasing free radicals and causing cellular damage. If your pro-inflammatory cytokines stop working, you won’t fight off infections well and your ability to heal will slow to a crawl. Either way, a faulty inflammation system can lead to lots of cellular damage and, eventually, chronic disease.
Cytokines, like all other proteins, are large, complicated molecules, and in order to work, they have to be able to fold. If proteins can’t fold – because they’ve been damaged by free radicals, or because they’re in need of repair – they can’t function. Encouraging protein folding is one of the best ways to support a healthy, balanced inflammatory response.
Autophagy Replaces Old Cells with New Ones Autophagy is like spring cleaning for your body. When it activates, autophagy cleans out damaged cells and replaces their faulty parts with shiny new versions. Autophagy slows down aging, keeps your brain healthy, and improves cellular function throughout your entire body. The cleaner and newer your cells are, the better you’ll feel. Autophagy turns on in response to mild stress, which makes sense: if you’re under stress or in danger, cleaning up your cells and making them more efficient will increase your odds of surviving the stressor.
Just like with inflammation, the master switch that turns on autophagy is a protein-protein p62, to be specific. Protein p62 keeps a lookout for free radicals; it knows they’re going to try to damage cells, so when it sees them, it responds by turning on cleaning mode to get cells into the best shape possible.
Free radicals come from stress, so the best way to turn on protein p62 and trigger autophagy is by incorporating mild stressors into your life. Fasting and exercise, for example, both trigger strong autophagy. And as was the case with inflammation, protein folding is essential to autophagy. As you age, autophagy decreases, likely because protein folding in general decreases with age. But if you can support protein p62’s folding to help it function better, it has more power to turn on (and keep on) autophagy.
Detox Organs Deal with Pollutants and Toxin Autophagy is like spring cleaning for your body. When it activates, autophagy cleans out damaged cells and replaces their faulty parts with shiny new versions. Autophagy slows down aging, keeps your brain healthy, and improves cellular function throughout your entire body. The cleaner and newer your cells are, the better you’ll feel. Autophagy turns on in response to mild stress, which makes sense: if you’re under stress or in danger, cleaning up your cells and making them more efficient will increase your odds of surviving the stressor.our liver is best at dealing with fat-soluble toxins.
Your kidneys, which filter through 25% of your blood every minute, sweeping for water-soluble toxins. When your kidneys find something dangerous, they send it to your bladder for you to excrete.
Your lymphatic system, a network of clear fluid that acts like your body’s trash collector. Your lymphatic system flows through your entire body; it picks up cellular and metabolic waste and sends it to your lymph nodes, where special cells called lymphocytes destroy the waste or mark it for excretion.
No need to go on a juice cleanse. Your detox organs are well-equipped to handle a huge variety of toxins, pollutants, and waste products. And like your other cellular cleanup systems, your detox organs rely heavily on proteins to run properly. Your liver uses a class of proteins called CYP450 enzymes to break down environmental toxins, carcinogens, and most drugs. They do a great job, although they release a large number of free radicals when they process toxins. That can become a problem as you age (or if you get flooded with toxins), because the free radicals can cause your enzyme proteins to unfold, impairing your ability to process toxins.
Kidneys are much the same. As they sift through toxins in your blood, some of the toxins build up on the filter – much like the Brita water filter in your fridge. Special kidney-filtering proteins are responsible for cleaning the built-up toxins off and keeping your filters clean. If they unfold and stop working (from oxidative stress or age), your kidneys filter will start to get blocked, which can lead to disease.
What Do All Three Cellular Cleanup Systems Have in Common? Proteins! Proteins are essential to all the major aspects of cellular maintenance and cleanup. As you age and oxidative stress builds up, your proteins begin to unfold and don’t function as well, and your cellular cleanup ability declines.