Researchers and self-hackers are constantly searching for answers to an important question: How can humans combat the dreaded aging process and increase longevity? Surprisingly, they are discovering that one answer lies within an energy balancing enzyme that already exists in each and every one of your trillions of cells — the AMPK enzyme.
AMPK: What It Is And Why It’s Important
AMPK, short for adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase, is an important fuel-sensing enzyme that plays a key role in stimulating energy processes like fatty acid oxidation and glucose uptake. When the energy in cells decreases, they can break down and ultimately cause cellular fatigue or allow harmful free radicals to cross your cell membranes.
But when the AMPK is activated, cell energy stays up, making it easier to burn stored fat and rid your cells of the “junk” that toxifies you and makes it harder to stay healthy. The AMPK enzyme is often compared to a master switch: When turned on, AMPK signals cells to store and generate molecules that contain energy. It can also provide a plethora of other benefits, such as increased metabolism, reduced inflammation, and protection against oxidative stress. Without AMPK, we are at risk for several health issues, including but not limited to:
- Weight gain (belly fat)
Unfortunately, AMPK declines as we age. Some research suggests it does so because of an increase in age-related chronic inflammation levels. For instance, a 2011 study concluded that an increase in chronic inflammation can suppress AMPK activity, which could disrupt processes related to age-associated metabolic diseases and neurodegeneration. Simply put, the AMPK enzyme is a crucial mediator between energy distribution and longevity.
And the problems mentioned above can speed up the aging process. That is why activating AMPK is important.
How To Activate AMPK
AMPK regulates and balances energy at a cellular and whole-body level, so it “switches on and off” naturally. Research shows that the AMPK enzyme contains “sites that reversibly bind AMP or ATP with an increase in cellular AMP:ATP ratio,” which signals a fall in cell energy, switching on the kinase. And once it’s activated, AMPK turns on processes that generate ATP and turns off non-essential processes that require a lot of energy.
Several functions trigger AMPK activation, such as a sustained muscle contraction, or “DNA-damage” events like smoking or excessive sun exposure, according to Lukas Peintner, a researcher at the University of Freiburg Institute of Molecular Medicine and Cell Research. Peintner explains that your blood glucose level also triggers AMPK to switch on and off.
In the morning when you wake up, your AMPK is probably most active. Then you have breakfast and AMPK is inactivated within a few minutes. Now you have to go to work, you’re stressed and forget about lunch, and your AMPK slowly activates again.
AMPK responds in this way because “when your blood glucose level falls, your cells need to be more cautious about their energy metabolism,” Peintner says.
Low glucose levels in the blood indicate possible hard times ahead, so the cell activates its recycling system. Everything within the cell that is broken or unneeded gets collected and degraded and can be reused, and AMPK is the pacemaker for this process.
As you can see, the AMPK enzyme naturally activates to balance energy. But remember, AMPK can decline with age, increasing the risk of health issues mentioned earlier. So researchers have worked to discover other ways to switch it on. For example, they have found that metformin, a drug prescribed to type 2 diabetes patients and off-script for anti-aging, intense exercise, such as HIIT circuits, and calorie restriction can activate AMPK.
Both animal and human studies have concluded that Gynostemma pentaphyllum (a Vietnamese herb distantly related to the cucumber), can also boost AMPK activity. Dr. Greg Maguire, author of Adult Stem Cell Released Molecules: A Paradigm Shift to Systems Therapeutics, says that monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), α linoleic acid (ALA), berberine, curcumin, and flavonoids can also activate AMPK, and adding that they all “downstream positive effects related to improved mitochondrial metabolism, improved liver function, and reduced inflammation.”
In addition, incorporating more dietary fiber, resveratrol (found in red wine), or supplements like green coffee bean extract in your diet can activate the AMPK enzyme and address belly fat, cholesterol, blood sugar, and insulin level problems. Even botanicals, which can be consumed as supplements, can reportedly boost AMPK. For instance, mulberry leaf extract, due to its ability to stimulate glucose uptake, and rhodiola rosea, due to its high levels of salidroside, are associated with AMPK activation.
When AMPK is activated, it can impact your longevity by serving as a link between metabolic diseases and inflammation. Research has even shown how AMPK activation can directly affect longevity. A 2014 review found that AMPK activation extended the lifespan of worms by as much as 15 percent and extended rodent lifespans by mimicking calorie restriction. Other research has revealed that AMPK can integrate with several signaling pathways known to increase longevity. Furthermore, it can provide many amazing benefits that contribute to healthy aging and overall good health. Here are seven benefits of AMPK and the science behind them
7 Benefits Of The AMPK Enzyme
1. Burns Abdominal Fat
Abdominal, or visceral fat, is not just often perceived to be unattractive — it can also pose a serious threat to your health. So it is important to keep that fat to a minimum. This is where AMPK comes in.
Activated AMPK burns extra fats and glucose for energy instead of storing them in your belly. Previous animal studies back this up, and more recent studies show the correlation between abdominal fat reduction and AMPK in humans. A 2014 clinical trial found that when AMPK was activated, participants’ abdominal fat deposits decreased by 11 percent. And a separate trial found that AMPK activation significantly decreased inflammation related to weight gain.
2. Reduces Inflammation
Inflammation is the culprit of several degenerative disorders such as diabetes, some cancers, and dementia. By activating AMPK, your body is working to reduce inflammation, and in turn, restoring healthy aging. Several studies indicate that a decrease in AMPK is closely linked to an increase in inflammation. One particular study concluded that the AMPK enzyme and inflammation are linked because AMPK activation can prevent NF-κB, a protein complex and transcription factor that reads and copies DNA and ramps up inflammation.
There’s also a plethora of evidence indicating that AMPK can help regulate the progression of metabolic diseases — many of which are driven by inflammation — and activating AMPK can generally suppress inflammatory responses in the body.
3. Increases Production Of Mitochondria
The production of mitochondria is crucial for cell survival, and it’s one of the most important measures of overall body health. Mitochondria are responsible for converting energy — from the food we eat to energy used for many essential processes such as muscle contraction, digestion, and respiration. The loss of mitochondria can contribute to cell death by cutting off cells’ energy supply.
However, activating the AMPK enzyme can improve mitochondrial activity. Remember, AMPK is like the master switch for energy, so it can control the rate at which mitochondria are produced. Research shows that the loss of AMPK reduces mitochondrial activity and diminishes muscle performance (at least in mice).
According to multiple studies, physical activity increases mitochondria in your muscles. And, as previously mentioned, exercise is a strong AMPK activator. This leads experts to theorize that chronic AMPK activation leads to increased mitochondrial biogenesis, or the production of new mitochondria in muscle tissue. Studies also show that AMPK’s ability to regulate mitochondrial biogenesis has helped to increase exercise capacity, improve muscle regeneration after injuries, and protect muscles from age-related muscle tissue diseases.
4. Mimics As An Antioxidant
Antioxidants are the chemicals that fight harmful free radicals from food, sunlight, and other toxins by breaking them down or stopping them before they form. When the AMPK enzyme is activated, your body increases its antioxidant defense. This is very important when your body is under oxidative stress, an imbalance that can contribute to various neurodegenerative and inflammatory diseases. AMPK activation also boosts the production of several antioxidant proteins (like NRF2), making your body’s defense even stronger.
5. Promotes Fertility
Research shows that AMPK could be important in fighting infertility. For example, a 2015 study concluded that low AMPK activity can lead to reduced fertility in both sexes. While a 2016 study found that AMPK can increase the production of sex hormones in animals. Perhaps most significant, AMPK activation may even restore regulation in GnRH — hormone neurons that play a crucial role in one of the leading causes in infertility in women: polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). One study concluded that AMPK activation improved reproductive function in women with PCOS.
6. Clears Out Cell “Junk”
Cells that are full of debris or damaged proteins and mitochondria have shorter lifespans and are generally inefficient. These junky cells can also contribute to diseases like Parkinson’s and pulmonary fibrosis, and they can eventually stop functioning altogether. AMPK activation helps to keep cells energized and clean. In other words, AMPK promotes the process of recycling cellular components (aka autophagy), making it easier to provide fuel for mitochondrial metabolism and counter cell stress.
7. Improves Metabolism
Metabolism refers to the chemical processes in your body that keep you alive and encapsulates how your body converts the food you eat into energy. AMPK works to balance out your energy production.
AMPK activates when your cellular energy is low, fighting to avoid energy depletion. Studies show that AMPK in the brain, or hypothalamic AMPK, can determine how much energy your body is producing. As a result, it can simultaneously increase energy expenditure (the number of calories you burn for energy), appetite, and glucose production and decrease your energy output. So it’s a key player in balancing food intake and energy and in improving your metabolism.
Although the activation of AMPK can offer your body many benefits, too much activated AMPK can cause problems. For instance, research shows that activated AMPK can suppress PPAR gamma and PPAR alpha, two proteins that contribute to cardiovascular health. Research also shows that high levels of activated AMPK, or mutations in the regulation of ampk are common among obese people. Peintner explains that AMPK is supposed to be tightly regulated: “It’s actually a good thing that it can be turned on and off, since, besides its effect on metabolism, it’s also implicated in several malignancies. As an individual, you definitely do not want to have a constantly active AMPK.” Peintner says that one way to ensure your AMPK is not constantly activated is to focus on regular food intake throughout the day to avoid large sugar spikes. “It is also important to check that there is not too much salt in your diet since hypo-osmolarity induced by a high-salt diet (constantly eating potato chips or salted nuts) can activate AMPK independent of the glucose levels in the blood,” Peintner adds.
Opening Doors For Healthy Aging
The body of research on the benefits of AMPK activation continues to grow, and the benefits mentioned above only scratch the surface of what the enzyme does for your body. However, by reducing fat and inflammation, keeping cellular energy up, and maintaining cell health, AMPK activation puts us steps closer to increasing longevity and overall health.
Meredith Minor is a freelance writer, dance teacher, avid reader and wife from Nashville, TN.
Submit your story or essay to Buzzworthy Blogs