Can controlling autophagy with certain foods reduce gut diseases and cancers?

By Robyn Boyle, RPh
Published November 10, 2017

Key Takeaways

Researchers in the UK have discovered a link between inflammation and a common cellular process that may lead to improved therapy or possibly prevention of colon cancer, ulcerative colitis, and other diseases of the gut. Eating certain foods—pomegranates, red grapes, and green peas, to name a few—could boost autophagy and reduce inflammation and the risk of gut diseases, researchers recommended.

Reporting their findings in Nature Communications, scientists led by cell biologist Ioannis Nezis, BSc, PhD, of the University of Warwick, Coventry, UK, discovered that the cellular process of autophagy can go haywire and cause tissue inflammation, which can lead to diseases and even cancer, particularly in the gut.

Autophagy is an important process for responding to stress and balancing energy sources, as well as acting as a cellular “recycling center” by breaking down and removing damaged cells and eliminating intracellular pathogens. Natural immunity is the first defense against pathogen invasion, but improper activation of inflammatory response pathways can cause pathologies such as inflammation and cancer.

Understanding the link between autophagy and inflammation could lead to more effective treatments for gastrointestinal diseases including colon cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis. Some foods contain natural compounds that can activate autophagy, helping to prevent inflammation and disease.

In this study, Dr. Nezis and colleagues identified a protein in fruit flies regulated by autophagy. The protein, named Kenny, contains  amino acids in a pattern that degrades by autophagy. When the autophagy process is dysfunctional, Kenny accumulates and causes inflammation.

To visualize the process in the fruit flies, the investigators made Kenny fluorescent and observed at a microscopic level the protein in the cell during autophagy. The flies with dysfunctional autophagy had significant inflammation, especially in the gut, which led to disease and a lifespan half of that of other flies.

Humans lack the amino acid pattern that Kenny uses in fruit flies; so regulating breakdown by autophagy is more difficult. The authors state that it is necessary to find ways to regulate and control autophagy in humans because we are more susceptible to the link between autophagy, inflammation, and disease.

“Understanding the molecular mechanisms of selective autophagy and inflammation will help to use interventions to activate the autophagic pathway to prevent inflammation and promote healthy well-being during the life course,” Dr. Nezis concluded. “Natural compounds contained in fruits and vegetables like pomegranates, red grapes, pears, mushrooms, lentils, soybeans, and green peas have been shown to activate autophagy, therefore inclusion of the above in our diet would help to prevent inflammation and alleviate the symptoms of gut diseases.”

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