Energy is the stuff of life. Every cell in your body depends on energy, which is produced in the mitochondria, the powerhouses of your cells, and stored in the form of ATP.
AMPK (AMP-activated protein kinase) is an enzyme present in all cells. Referred to as the “master energy regulator,” its primary function is to sense and regulate energy levels.
When ATP runs low, AMPK is activated, triggering metabolic processes such as moving glucose into the cells and burning fat to restore energy balance. AMPK also promotes cell survival by signaling the production of new mitochondria and reducing inflammation.
Declines in AMPK are associated with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, heart problems, and other degenerative diseases. Boosting AMPK activity—which you can do with natural therapies—has positive effects on blood sugar, insulin sensitivity, cardiovascular risk factors, and weight. It may even slow aging.
AMPK & Diabetes
Diabetes is characterized by elevated levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood. The problem in type 2 diabetes, the most common type, is insulin resistance. The pancreas produces plenty of insulin, the hormone that lets glucose into the cells, but the cells are resistant to its signals.
So, glucose stays in the blood rather than entering the cells where it is needed, and cellular energy levels remain low. Sensing an energy deficit, AMPK is activated.
Boosting AMPK lowers blood sugar by promoting the transport of glucose out of the blood and into the cells. It improves insulin resistance by increasing the number and activity of insulin receptors on the cells. It also reduces the production of glucose in the liver, which is on overdrive in diabetes and contributes to chronically elevated blood sugar.
AMPK & Metabolic Syndrome
Insulin resistance does more than cause type 2 diabetes. It is also the underlying factor in metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that includes abdominal fat, high triglycerides, low protective HDL cholesterol, and elevated blood pressure and blood sugar. Metabolic syndrome affects one in three US adults and is a significant risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
AMPK activation has positive effects on virtually all risk factors associated with metabolic syndrome:
- Fat burning: Fat is your body’s secondary energy source. When cellular energy levels are low and glucose is unavailable, AMPK triggers the mobilization and burning of stored fat. In addition to supplying cells with needed energy, AMPK helps prevent weight gain.
- Triglyceride & cholesterol levels: AMPK inhibits the synthesis of triglycerides and cholesterol and promotes a healthier HDL/total cholesterol balance.
- Hypertension & other cardiovascular risk factors: By reducing insulin resistance, lipid levels, and inflammation, AMPK protects the endothelial cells lining the arteries, which play a key role in blood pressure, plaque formation, and heart disease.
AMPK & Aging
AMPK activity declines with age. This is no surprise since everything we’ve discussed so far—diabetes, insulin resistance, weight gain, inflammation, hypertension, and other cardiovascular risk factors—are more common as we get older. But there’s more.
Gerontology researchers, who study the science of aging, have identified AMPK as one of the basic cellular mechanisms related to aging. In addition to regulating energy, a critical function in and of itself, AMPK also promotes autophagy.
Autophagy is the body’s process for clearing out worn-out, dysfunctional cells. Think of it as cellular housekeeping. Removing damaged cell components and recycling reusable proteins is essential for maintaining cell health. If autophagy is not up to snuff, cellular debris and toxins build up and impair function.
A slowdown in autophagy contributes to age-related degeneration. By promoting autophagy, AMPK supports healthy aging.
Natural AMPK Activators
AMPK activity is particularly robust in young, lean, active individuals—and lowest in those who are older, overweight, and sedentary. The good news is that there are proven ways to increase AMPK, regardless of your age and state of health.
AMPK & Exercise
Physical activity is an exceptionally effective AMPK activator. Your muscle cells use a lot of energy when you exercise. Once energy stores run low, AMPK kicks in to increase glucose and fat utilization and boost the production of ATP in the mitochondria.
Exercise is a gift that keeps on giving since the benefits of AMPK endure after your workouts end. Regular physical activity helps prevent and treat dozens of chronic diseases, ranging from diabetes and heart disease to obesity and depression. Studies reveal that exercise also increases healthspan—your years of good health, free from age-related disease and disability.
Fewer than a quarter of US adults meet the minimum recommended aerobic and strengthening activity goals. Be the exception.
Intermittent Fasting & AMPK Activation
Animal studies reveal that when daily caloric intake is reduced by 20%–40%, lifespan increases dramatically. That’s because a reduction in food means less available energy, which triggers the activity of AMPK and other protective, health-enhancing mechanisms.
Sticking with a very low-calorie diet is hard, as you may know if you have ever tried it. Yet, eating less often—intermittent fasting—also activates AMPK. Intermittent fasting simply requires going for longer periods without eating. You will probably cut calories to some degree, which is great, but the main point is to deprive your cells of energy long enough to activate AMPK.
One popular version of intermittent fasting is time-restricted eating. Let’s say you skip breakfast, have your first meal around noon, and finish dinner by 7:00–8:00 pm. This compresses your daily food intake into a seven-to-eight-hour window with 16–17 hours of fasting, including the time you are sleeping. The rest of the time you stick with water, black coffee, and tea (sweetened with stevia, if desired), but no solid food, juice, milk, etc.
Intermittent fasting is more powerful than you might think. Harvard professor and aging expert David Sinclair, Ph.D., wrote in his book Lifespan: Why We Age—And Why We Don’t Have To:
“After 25 years of researching aging and having read thousands of scientific papers, if there is one piece of advice I can offer, one surefire way to stay healthy longer, one thing you can do to maximize your lifespan right now, it’s this: eat less often.”
Boost AMPK with Berberine
Berberine is an alkaloid, a class of phytonutrients abundant in goldenseal, Oregon grape, barberry, and other plants. It has a long history in the traditional medicine of China and India as a treatment for a variety of health challenges.
In the 1980s, researchers began conducting clinical trials and discovered that, among its many uses, berberine effectively lowers blood sugar and cardiovascular risk factors. It wasn’t until the early 2000s when they understood that berberine’s broad range of benefits was due to its ability to activate AMPK.
Today, berberine is recognized as an effective supplement for improving blood sugar, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, blood pressure, and lipid levels. Less well known are berberine’s other benefits. Studies reveal that it also supports intestinal, immune, heart, liver, and kidney health as well as weight control.
Berberine isn’t the only AMPK activator out there, but it is one of the best, especially for anyone looking for a natural compound to support blood sugar, insulin sensitivity, and healthy aging. The suggested dose of berberine is 500 mg three times a day, taken with meals.
AMPK activation has been established as a key factor in disease prevention and healthy aging. Researchers are exploring AMPK as a target for treating age-related diseases and extending longevity, and drug companies will likely come up with new prescription AMPK activators in the future.
The future is already here. Regular exercise, cutting back on calories, intermittent fasting, and berberine are safe, natural, proven interventions for boosting AMPK activity and improving your health and your healthspan.