Why and How to Shore Up the Body’s Nutrient Sensing Processes

Nutrient sensing is a mechanism in which our cells recognize and react to useful fuel substrates such as proteins, glucose and Vitamin B. The EMD Millipore team explains that we depend on multiple nutrient sensing pathways to ensure that our bodies take in just the right amount of nutrition—not too much, not too little.

By taking in just the right amount of a specific nutrient, our bodies are able to produce the molecules they need at the time while conserving resources. The process affects our bodies in various ways, including:

  • Day-to-day functioning and survival. A study performed by the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology at the University of Toronto, headed by Jessica Tsalikis, speaks on the necessity of nutrient sensing. She says that monitoring the environment’s supply of nutrients in this manner is vital to the survival and growth of all living organisms.  
  • Adaption. In the Journal of Biological Chemistry, researchers Nick Zagorski and Gerald Hart point out that the ability of our cells to sense nutrient concentrations is what allows us to efficiently regulate gene expression and protein modification to respond to any changes.
  • Longevity. A study titled “Immunity & Aging in BioMed Central”—from a group of researchers headed by Sergio Davinelli at the University of Molise in Italy—also found that nutrient sensors modulate lifespan extensions and that nutrient sensing pathways are essential to the aging process because several nutrients can activate different pathways directly or indirectly. Davinelli adds that key regulators of lifespan also have known functions in nutrient sensing and are appropriately named “nutrient sensing longevity genes.”

It’s easy to see just how critical nutrient sensing is to our health and wellbeing.

Unfortunately, the mechanism has its limitations; when we’re young, the body is very adept in its ability to recognize nutrients and direct the flow of traffic, but as we age, the body gets worse at performing this role.

Deregulated Nutrient Sensing

The EMD Millipore team also points out that things like oxidative stress, endoplasmic reticulum stress and mitochondrial dysfunction gradually damage cells over time. One of the side effects of these damaging events is the deregulation of nutrient-sensing molecules. In fact, this is one of the ways the body begins to break down at the cellular level and starts to age.

Deregulated nutrient sensing leads to nutrient scarcity, which can create a host of adverse consequences that include the development of diabetes and obesity. What’s worse, this can actually intensify other factors that contribute to aging such as chronic inflammation, in turn leading to even more deregulated nutrient sensing. In this scenario, the problem only continues to compound.  

In the Nature International Journal of Science, a study on nutrient sensing mechanisms and pathways led by Alejo Efeyan also found that nutrient sensing pathways are commonly deregulated in metabolic syndromes. According to The Mayo Clinic, this can bring about issues such as high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol and excess body fat.

The bottom line is that nutrient sensing plays a vital role in our body’s ability to recognize useful nutrients. But as this becomes deregulated, the body begins to break down at the cellular level. In turn, this is a catalyst for aging and can create a cluster of associated health problems.

What Can You Do to Ward Off This Aspect of Aging?

Research has found that there are a couple of ways to minimize the deregulation of nutrient sensing. These mainly boil down to diet.

One study called “NutrimiRAging: Micromanaging Nutrient Sensing Pathways through Nutrition to Promote Healthy Aging,” led by Victor Mico at the Madrid Institute of Advanced Studies, found a correlation between a healthy diet and an improvement in the performance of nutrient sensing pathways.

It mentions that the number of centenarians—people 100 years or older—in Okinawa, Japan, is significantly higher than the rest of Japan and much of the world. To provide some perspective, the Okinawa Centenarian Study states that there are roughly 10 to 20 centenarians per 100,000 population in the US. But in Okinawa, that number is 50 per 100,000 population.

Mico and his colleagues suspect that the higher-than-average life expectancy in Okinawa is likely due to the type of diet of its inhabitants, which is low in proteins and rich in vegetables, fruits and fish. The study also points out that the Okinawan diet is rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids—also abundant in the Mediterranean Diet.

And there’s definitely something to this. James Hamblin writes in The Atlantic that the Mediterranean Diet has favorable effects on heart disease, cancer, obesity and metabolic syndrome. He also adds that it’s potentially associated with defense against neurodegenerative disease as well as the preservation of cognitive function and reduced inflammation—all factors that contribute to healthy aging.

Mico concurs and points out that both the Okinawan and Mediterranean diets have been associated with better cognitive performance and lower cognitive decline. It stands to reason that recreating these diets would assist in activating nutrient sensing and be advantageous to slowing down the aging process.

Eating Healthy

Karen Reed writes about the Okinawan diet at Positive Health Wellness, saying that “it’s all about getting back to basics” and focusing on natural and local produce.

Okinawans eat a lot of vegetables—green, orange and yellows vegetables in particular. Some of their favorites include kale, spinach, cucumber and bell peppers. For carbs, they prefer the purple sweet potato and actually avoid eating a surplus of rice. In terms of protein, the Okinawan diet does include some meat, such as pork eaten in small amounts. But the primary focus is on legumes and soy.

As for the Mediterranean diet, Jessica Migala outlines some of the staples in EatingWell, which include the following:

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines
  • Plenty of vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts like pistachios, cashews and almonds

There’s cleary an overlap between these two diets. Also, note that both focus on seafood as a primary source of protein rather than other forms of meat and poultry. As the American Heart Association points out, fish is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce the chance of cardiovascular disease.

Intermittent Caloric Restriction

In a study called “Nutrient Sensing: How the Brain and Gut Regulate Food Intake,” Alan Dove at the New York Academy of Sciences discusses the importance of striking the right balance between stored energy and caloric intake. Doing so ensures that the body has adequate energy to maintain itself, grow and engage in activity. But when there’s an imbalance, obesity and other issues can arise.

He also adds that a spike in obesity and diabetes worldwide suggests that humans are collectively becoming less and less able to maintain proper levels of intake and expenditure. In fact, the World Health Organization reports 1.9 billion adults were overweight in 2016, among whom 650 million were obese—a number that has nearly tripled since 1975. That’s why some people refer to it as an obesity epidemic.

One solution presented by many experts to minimize deregulated nutrient sensing is intermittent caloric restriction, otherwise known as fasting. Mico’s study found that fasting therapy offered several benefits and resulted in a four-percent weight reduction, a decrease in fasting insulin levels and an increase in fatty acid oxidation.

A separate study, led by Marjolein A. Wijngaarden at Leiden University Medical Center, found that fasting induces “rapid metabolic adaptations” that repress certain genes and activate nutrient sensing mechanisms.

Mitch Leslie at Science Magazine says intermittent fasting can actually slow down the aging process. He references a study performed at UCLA under the guidance of biochemist Valter Longo that found mice that fasted lived longer and showed other positive health effects, including lowered blood sugar and fewer tumors. Longo also generated preliminary data suggesting that there were similar health benefits for humans.

Leslie dives a bit deeper into the specifics of the particular form of fasting mentioned by Longo, which is known as the 5:2 diet. This involves eating normally for five days a week. On the other two days, you limit yourself to just 500 to 600 calories—approximately one fourth of what an average American consumes within a day.

He also provides a quote from Longo that explains the underlying logic behind this technique. “This diet ‘treats’ aging, and it looks like you can go at the underlying problem rather than just putting a Band-Aid on it.”

Kris Gunnars at Healthline elaborates further on the benefits of intermittent fasting. Gunnars says it changes the functions of cells, genes and hormones. In turn, this helps aid in cellular repair, reduces oxidative stress and inflammation, and may even help prevent cancer.

Healthy Diet, Healthy You

It is remarkable how many aspects of aging are influenced by the foods we eat. Just at the cellular level, a healthier diet can reduce oxidative stress caused by the burning of glycogen, relieve chronic inflammation and shore up the body’s ability to sense and regulate nutrients.

Of course, not all of us live in Okinawa or along the Mediterranean. For those of us who don’t, we have to be a little more mindful of how we eat. This involves a combination of making smart choices for each meal and remembering to take supplements every day to support our cell’s natural self-defense mechanisms.