By Peter D’Adamo
A few years back, upon purchasing a new textbook, Protein Misfolding Diseases: Current and Emerging Principles and Therapies. I began my exploration by doing what any self-respecting academic would do when presented with a 900+ page reference work: I leafed thru the Index, hoping to recognize something that interested me. Here I came upon a reference to something called ‘trehalose,’ along with a link to a single mention on one page. Since I study sugars (and blood types are sugars of a sort) this intrigued me, so off I went to study trehalose.
The textbook description of trehalose was quite fascinating, as it mentioned a biological process that I had only recently become aware of, called autophagy. Autophagy is a process that happens inside our bodies that helps us get rid of old or damaged parts of our cells. The name ‘autophagy’ comes from the Greek words auto (self) and phagy (eating). If we think of the cell as a tiny factory, autophagy is like a cleaning crew that comes in after hours, cleans up the shop floor, and empties the waste baskets.
Autophagy is a critical function. It is universally linked with the process of aging, and with many degenerative diseases, such as dementia. Trehalose enhances autophagy, helping to maintain cellular health and function. It does this via the ability to modulate the mTOR signaling pathway, which is a key regulator of cell growth and metabolism. By the way, optimizing mTOR signaling is also thought to be the mechanism by which intermittent fasting may have anti-aging effects. Studies have also suggested that trehalose may have neuroprotective effects, help to reduce inflammation, and even potentially improve insulin sensitivity.
In addition to its service in the cellular department of sanitation, trehalose also acts as a ‘cellular chaperone,’ ensuring that our proteins maintain their proper shape. Like a Japanese paper origami figure, our proteins assume certain shapes depending on their amino acid formula. It is this three-dimensional shape that determines their ultimate role in life, be it an enzyme, hormone, part of a blood vessel, etc. Most metabolic disorders result from processes that cause the cell to manufacture proteins that are not folded correctly; proteins that are ‘misfolded.’
And just like your old trigonometry teacher at a high school dance, trehalose acts to chaperone these misbehaving proteins back to their proper shape and behavior. If that can’t be done, it instead sends these poor miscreants over to a waste disposal site known as a proteasome, where they are dispatched to the happy hunting ground.
So what exactly is this miracle sugar?
Believe it or not, trehalose is simply two molecules of glucose (a simple sugar) stuck together. However, unlike the glucose on a jelly donut, this binding is not easy to break, so trehalose tends to stay as trehalose in the body. However, like many sugars, trehalose appears as a fine powder, that is slightly sweetish tasting and mixes well with water. Because of this, trehalose is an excellent agent for those who have trouble swallowing pills and capsules.
Many of us are not getting enough restful sleep. This can be due to a number of reasons, including stress, light pollution, aging, and circadian rhythm imbalances. Restful sleep is characterized by feelings of well-being, regeneration, and high energy upon awakening. This is because sleep is when our brain goes through its autophagy ‘cleaning cycle.’ I typically recommend that my patients take trehalose before bed to give the brain that extra burst of autophagy when it needs it most.
There is something very poetic about trehalose. You may already know that there are certain species of fish and amphibians that can be frozen over the winter and thaw out with the warmer temperatures, thus returning to life as if from suspended animation. Unlike we poor humans, who just freeze up, these animals produce large amounts of trehalose and pump it through their body tissues. Here the trehalose literally ‘splints’ their cell proteins in place, preventing damage by ice crystals (a very good example of trehalose’s amazing chaperone function).
If you’re in need of more restful sleep, a rational approach to longevity, and a powerful aid to nerve and metabolic regeneration, think about adding some trehalose into your health practice.