Functional foods help fight disease on a cellular level, thanks to bioactive ingredients
12/10/2019 // Grace Olson // Views

Functional foods contain bioactive compounds that can help fight diseases. Researchers from Wuhan Sports University examined how some of the most widely used bioactive ingredients enhance autophagy, which can help in the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases. The study was published in the journal Food Science and Human Wellness.

What is autophagy?

Autophagy is the body's way of cleansing itself. It is an evolutionary conserved cellular process of removing aberrant components in eukaryotic cells. This includes old tissues, mis-folded proteins, and damaged cellular organelles. As a way of maintenance ensuring the body's functions, it is necessary to get rid of these components and introduce new ones which will take their place.

A lot of chronic diseases are connected to problems in metabolic processes, wherein autophagy plays a vital role. One characteristic of chronic disease is the accumulation of harmful components within the body, such as damaged organelles and protein aggregates. A problem in the process of autophagy means problems for the whole body. Conversely, an enhanced status of autophagy can be beneficial for treating chronic diseases.

Here is how autophagy correlates with various conditions:

  • Diabetes -- Autophagy prevents this condition through protecting the liver, adipose tissue and skeletal muscles from oxidative stress.
  • Obesity -- It is the result of the accumulation of lipid droplets, protein aggregates and damaged mitochondria, which autophagy can help regulate.
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  • Metabolic cardiovascular disease -- Autophagy is essential in cardiovascular function and help prevent diseases like cardiac hypotherapy and heart failure.
  • Neurodegenerative disease. -- Without autophagy to cleanse aggregated proteins, they become problems within neurons and can lead to conditions like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

Bioactive compounds that help fight disease

Functional foods are natural foods that offer health benefits beyond basic nutrition. Some examples of functional foods include conventional foods (i.e., grains, fruits and vegetables) and modified foods (i.e., yogurt, cereals and orange juice). As functional foods have become more and more popular, the Food and Drug Administration has  made guidelines and regulations for manufacturers to follow. To ensure the quality of the foods you eat, do your research and purchase only from trusted sources.

One of the key characteristics of functional foods is the presence of bioactive compounds. Bioactive compounds are extranutritional components found in plants and certain foods, albeit in small quantities. They are believed to offer a number of health benefits for consumers. One of these is enhancing autophagy in the human body. Check out the list of bioactive compounds below:

Resveratrol (RSV)

It is usually found in berries, nuts, grapes and other plants. RSV is a polyphenol, a plant compound with pleiotropic qualities. RSV exhibits antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties. Today, it is well-known for its positive effects against diabetes, which include the suppression of inflammation and the improvement ofinsulin sensitivity. (Related: Top 10 functional foods for relieving inflammation.)

Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG)

It is a compound usually found in green tea. It is also well-known for its antioxidant properties. EGCG not only regulates insulin sensitivity, lipid metabolism and inflammatory responses, it also confers neuroprotection. Scientists are currently investigating the therapeutic potential of EGCG in treating obesity and obesity-related metabolic diseases.


This compound is commonly found in turmeric. Aside from its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, curcumin is also known to help in autophagy and protect human endothelial cells from oxidative damage. Several studies have demonstrated curcumin's potential in treating metabolic diseases.


This is usually found in fungi, yeasts and similar microorganisms. Trehalose helps maintain cell integrity by preventing protein denaturation (the disruption of protein structures). As trehalose is harmless even at high concentrations, scientists are eyeing it as a potential treatment for chronic diseases.

Based on the evidence presented by numerous studies, the researchers believe that the use of functional foods is a promising strategy for the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases.

Sources include: 1 2 3 4

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