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All about deregulated nutrient sensing and how it affects aging

Our cells rely on proteins to tell them what to do. Some proteins activate when they sense particular nutrients in our systems. Deregulated nutrient sensing is when proteins stop being able to detect the nutrients that activate them. It means the proteins stop working, and this prevents cells from functioning properly, leading to mutations and cell death. This causes common signs of aging such as wrinkles and uneven skin tone.

What are proteins, and what do they do for our cells?

amino acids chart
The amino acids that make up our proteins.

Proteins are long chains of amino acids that carry out most of the functions of our cells. Antibody proteins protect us against diseases, enzyme proteins carry out chemical reactions, and messenger proteins carry signals between cells. All proteins are made from just twenty different amino acids. The code for making them lies in our DNA.

What triggers protein production and activation

We are always producing new proteins to replace those that get damaged or die. Some proteins are more important than others and we produce those constantly, while others are only produced as needed. These proteins respond to triggers such as the presence of a particular nutrient in our systems. For example our cells can only grow when there’s enough fuel to sustain them, so the hormone insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) only activates when it senses glucose in our bodies. (That’s why it’s called insulin-like, it responds to the same trigger.)

This process helps to regulate our metabolism, which is all the chemical processes that go into keeping our bodies running. Our metabolism shifts between anabolic (building) and catabolic (breaking down) states. Think of our bodies like complex cities, always undertaking growth and renewal.

What is deregulated nutrient sensing

Sometimes proteins stop responding to their nutrient triggers. This is called deregulated nutrient sensing, and it's associated with the aging process. As we get older, our proteins' ability to sense and respond to nutrients starts to break down. This is a result of the damage we accumulate over our lifetimes. Oxidative stress, natural mutations, and metabolic byproducts all contribute to this process.

When we get too many nutrients we can enter metabolic stress. This is a result of our bodies having to perform extra chemical reactions to synthesize the food we've eaten. It can speed up deregulated nutrient sensing by adding to the damage our proteins sustain. And when deregulated nutrient sensing occurs, it can cause a chain reaction of damage to our cells.

The signals our proteins rely on become confused, and can send the wrong messages to different parts of our bodies. Proteins failing to recognize glucose, for example, send signals that we need to eat more to get the fuel they think they’re lacking. This can result in us thinking we’re hungry when we’re not and overeating, which increases metabolic stress even further.

What proteins are affected by deregulated nutrient sensing

There are four main groups of proteins that rely on nutrient sensing. They are IGF-1, mTOR, sirtuins, and AMPK.

IGF-1 — Insulin-like growth factor tells our body when to build new cells. It does this when it senses glucose (a good source of energy) in our bodies. Building new cells costs a lot of energy, so our bodies only do this when we know we have plenty to spare. Our levels of IGF-1 peak during puberty, and it is the protein behind the dramatic growth spurts that teenagers go through. 

mTOR — mechanistic target of rapamycin is a signaling pathway that promotes cell growth by sensing a variety of nutrients in our systems, including oxygen, glucose, amino acids, and lipids. These proteins signal when it’s time to switch between anabolic and catabolic states.

Sirtuins — almost every kind of animal has this kind of protein, and the more complex the animal, the more they have. Bacteria only have one or two, while mammals have seven different types of sirtuin. They detect acetyl groups on molecules and remove them, which activates the molecules. Sirtuins play an important role in regulating our metabolism and repairing DNA.

AMPK — adenosine monophosphate-activated kinase senses two molecules, AMP and ADP (adenosine diphosphate). Both molecules are inhibited by ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the molecule that cells use for energy. That means AMP and ADP only appear when cells have run out of energy. They signal AMPK to switch our metabolism from building new cells to breaking down old ones. It’s AMPK that recognizes when we’re fasting (or starving). High levels of AMPK activity have been associated with longevity.

How we can avoid deregulated nutrient sensing

fresh fruit

It’s not possible to completely prevent deregulated nutrient sensing. There are many factors that affect how our proteins perform and even in the healthiest body, damage accumulates with age. That’s why the effects caused by deregulated nutrient sensing are associated with signs of aging. The two often go hand-in-hand. However we can support our proteins and slow down this process, leading to less visible signs of aging and cells that function better for longer.

One of the primary ways of protecting nutrient-sensing proteins is to limit our intake of nutrients. Simply, the less work they have to do, the longer they last. Eating a healthy diet that’s rich in antioxidants can help control our nutrient intake, and avoid harmful byproducts such as reactive oxygen species (ROS). These are molecules with unpaired electrons. They destabilize surrounding molecules to “steal” electrons and fix their imbalance. This can be harmful to our cells.

ROS are formed when our cells break down nutrients into fuel. Some foods can contribute more ROS than others — fried foods, for example, are packed with harmful free radicals, which are a type of ROS. Antioxidants contain “spare” electrons that ROS use instead, protecting our cells. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds all have lots of antioxidants that protect our cells as they nourish us.

We can also use lab-made versions of some key proteins to replenish our supply and help support our cells. At Qyral we use Bio-Placenta in our skincare products for this purpose. Bio-Placenta provides five peptides identical to growth factors found in the human placenta. They support the skin by encouraging the growth of new cells and boosting the production of collagen, elastin, and capillaries. However Bio-Placenta can also be beneficial to our whole bodies, by resupplying key proteins that become less effective as we age.

In conclusion

Our proteins do a lot of complex and vital work for our cells. That work leads to unavoidable damage, and as a result we can't completely prevent deregulated nutrient sensing. What we can do is support our proteins by limiting our nutrient intake and consuming antioxidants. Replenishing nutrient-sensing proteins may also be beneficial. Lab-made versions of key proteins are already available and could help to promote longevity.

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