Throughout human evolution, our ancestors routinely experienced periods of food scarcity. You could say it’s in our DNA. When meat and animal fat were in short supply, early humans turned to “fallback foods.” (1) These tended to be fibrous edible plants, rich in what we now call phytochemicals.
If plants were also scarce, hunter-gatherers were forced to fast. Amazingly, the ancestral nutritional decisions shaped the evolution of biology, which we live with to this day. (2) The AMPK pathway, a crucial signaling channel involved in energy production and metabolism, may have risen out of these periodic food scarcities, helping our predecessors adapt and thrive.
Today, we know that AMPK is an essential pathway for supporting metabolic health and energy levels. So why not take advantage of advanced nutrition interventions to support positive AMPK activity? Read on to learn what AMPK is, the powerful health benefits of AMPK activation, and how we can trigger AMPK through advanced nutrition choices.
What is AMPK?
A central regulator of metabolism, growth, and cellular energy production, the AMP-activated protein kinase pathway (AMPK for short) is a metabolic pathway present in all complex life forms, from mice to humans. It’s also an intelligent nutrient sensor that detects when intracellular energy (in the form of ATP) is low and activates biochemical processes that generate ATP, restoring energetic balance to cells. (3).
AMPK activation is associated with numerous health benefits:
- Improved blood sugar regulation and insulin balance
- Increased fat burning, especially of belly fat
- An improved inflammatory balance
- Optimal function of mitochondria (where cellular energy is made!)
- Boosted autophagy, which help clear “junk” from cells
- More metabolically healthy, graceful aging
Running “opposite” to AMPK is another key pathway called mTOR, known for its role in muscle growth. But when our bodies chronically activate mTOR, we can’t realize all of the metabolic benefits of AMPK, and our bodies tend to store more fat. And no one wants that.
Fed or Fasted: Nutritional Impact on AMPK Activity
AMPK activity and metabolism is heavily influenced by whether you’re in a “fed” or “fasted” state. When you eat, obviously, you’re fed. In reaction insulin rises, but AMPK is inhibited during this process. On the flipside, when you’re fasting (a choice in modern times), insulin drops, allowing healthy AMPK activity to proceed.
You can think of AMPK like a dimmer switch: it’s active sometimes; other times it’s quiet, but it never fully turns off. What and when you eat can “brighten” or “dim” metabolism and related high or low energy production.
In many ways, you’re in control. You can dial up certain aspects of your nutrition to activate AMPK. However, just as you don’t want your lights turned on all the time, you don’t want AMPK to be active constantly. So it’s best to use nutrition to help your body cycle between periods of AMPK activation and inactivation. So, what sorts of nutritional factors dial AMPK up or down? Read on.
Nutritional States That Dim AMPK Activity
There are two primary dimmers of AMPK activity: overnutrition and high-carbohydrate diets.
A form of malnutrition, overnutrition or “overeating” means your macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) are too abundant, exceeding amounts required by the body. Overnutrition rewires biochemical pathways, shifting the body away from AMPK and toward mTOR signaling, triggering unhealthy blood-sugar ratios and body fat accumulation. (4).
A second common AMPK dimmer is a high-carb diet, which can be problematic even if you’re not overeating. The scientific community calls this phenomenon “carbotoxicity.” (5) Consuming lots of carbohydrates, which your body breaks down into monosaccharides like glucose, leads to chronically elevated glucose levels in the blood.
That stimulates the release of insulin, the protein that shuttles glucose into cells; however, when chronically elevated by a high carbohydrate intake, AMPK activity is shut down while mTOR is boosted. Not ideal.
Strategies for Brightening AMPK
There are two ways to kick up or “brighten” AMPK expression: fasting and ketosis. Fasting is one of the most powerful. By taking periodic breaks from eating, we can experience the powerful metabolic health benefits of AMPK activation.
New studies may reveal the best way to fast for AMPK activation, but we suggest starting with intermittent fasting. IF means you eat your meals during a limited time window each day and fast for the remainder of the day. Many people find a 16/8 — fasting for 16 hours (overnight) and eating within an 8-hour window — is most feasible for their lifestyle.
Another AMPK activator is nutritional ketosis, when you intentionally restrict carbohydrates. This approach changes what the body uses for fuel, shifting from glucose to preferrable fatty acids and ketones (water-soluble molecules made in the liver). When ketones are released into the bloodstream, other organs use them to produce cellular energy. Interestingly, ketones also act as biochemical signaling molecules, impacting many pathways, including AMPK! (6).
Natural Phytochemicals = AMPK Activation
We discussed earlier how in times of food scarcity our ancestors turned to plant foods for the bulk of their diet. Many of these gathered foods were rich in phytochemicals, some of which we know to be potent activators of AMPK. When consumed as a supplement or part of a healthy diet, phytochemicals can give your AMPK machinery an added boost. There are four that you should know about:
Resveratrol is a phytochemical found in red grapes, red wine, peanuts, and blueberries. It modulates AMPK, supporting healthy metabolic function and energy production in the brain and muscles. These changes in AMPK activity may, in turn, support healthy cognitive function and exercise performance. (7,8)
Berberine is a bitter compound found in plants from the Berberis genus, including Oregon Grape and Barberry. By supporting AMPK activity, berberine promotes normal glucose levels and insulin activity. (9,10)
Milk thistle is a time-honored herb traditionally used to support liver health. A group of phytochemicals found in milk thistle activate AMPK to support the liver, a hub for metabolic health, as well as protect levels of glutathione, your body’s master antioxidant. (13)
It’s clear: You have the nutritional tools to help activate your internal AMPK system. These changes can help you clean up your metabolism, enhance fat burning and energy levels, balance your inflammatory response, and stay vibrant — no matter your age.