Imagine you’re running a bakery with no trash cans. Ideally, you’d love for every ingredient to be used and for every crumb of every pastry purchased in house to be eaten. Unfortunately, that’s unrealistic. In other words, you need a way to dispose of the waste. Because you have no trash can, you have two options. First, you can grind up all the excess and try to flush it down the toilet. This could work for a bit, but it may not work forever; plus; it’s pretty wasteful. Your second option is to get creative with the leftovers! Rather than flushing the old bananas you meant to use for your elegant banana foster pudding, mash them up and bake them into banana bread. Rather than throwing out the semi-stale sourdough, make croutons. Rather than chucking the old date cake, make a date cake bread pudding!
These two options (flush or recreate) are akin to the options your brain (the bakery) has for dealing with its waste. It can try to flush excess down the toilet via the “glymphatic system” (or via other mechanisms), but this will only get it so far. To work its best, your brain needs to go for option #2, “get creative,” and recycle the excess to make new and useful proteins and organelles, like mitochondria! You guessed it; option #2 is “autophagy!” Autophagy is a cellular recycling process in which cellular “waste” – the old bananas, stale sourdough, and old date cake – are engulfed by a double-membrane organelle called an “autophagosome.” The autophagosome fuses with an organelle called the lysosome and the “waste” is broken down into useful ingredients so that you can make your banana bread, croutons, and date cake bread pudding. YUMMY!
The sad irony of this analogy is that the science shows you actually activate autophagy through fasting, ketogenic diets, and exercise. Darn! If only we could have our cake and eat it too. Sorry to tease…
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