It’s mid-2020 and the world is still in the throes of the global coronavirus pandemic. It seems like every time you flip on the television or hop online, there’s breaking news about COVID-19. And one of the more recent discoveries is that COVID-19 might actually be able to hijack our immune system and use our own defenses against us.
In this article, we’re going to dive into new research speculating that COVID-19 may be able to manipulate a natural immune response known as autophagy – or self-eating cells.
Sounds like it’s right out of a sci-fi movie, I know.
But by the end of this article, you’ll be amazed by the very important immune system process called autophagy. And more importantly, we’ll uncover some simple ways you can protect yourself amidst these challenging times.
What Exactly Is COVID-19?
COVID-19 is the official name of the disease caused by the viral infection, coronavirus. While we’re still in the process of figuring out COVID-19’s exact impact on the human body, here’s what we do know:1
- Step 1: Once the coronavirus infects the body, it binds itself to the epithelial cells that line your lungs, spleen, and other organs and begins replicating itself.
- Step 2: Your body detects an intruder and sounds the alarm – signaling your immune system to deploy an army of immune cells and chemical messengers to neutralize the virus.
- Step 3: Amidst the chaos of attempting to eliminate the virus, your body inadvertently releases an excess amount of these immune cells and chemical messengers and overwhelms your tissues.
- Step 4: This accidental overreaction causes a massive surge of inflammation that spirals out of control and causes oxidative damage to your tissues – particularly in your lungs.
- Step 5: This oxidative damage inhibits your lung’s ability to effectively move mucus out of the lungs and transport air from the lungs to the bloodstream – which can eventually lead to respiratory failure.
But this isn’t the only way COVID-19 results in your immune system going haywire. Research is finding that COVID-19 may also be able to hijack another immune process known as autophagy.
What Is Autophagy?
Think of autophagy as your body's natural clean-up crew. It’s a process that your body uses to destroy pathogens, and recycle old and damaged cells. During autophagy, cells known as autophagosomes, hunt down those worn-out cells or pathogens and engulf them.
Once these autophagosomes “eat” these waste products, they go to work recycling them. They use the leftover molecules from old and damaged cells to make new cell parts or as a source of energy.2 This is a crucial process and in most cases, autophagy is a good thing. Autophagy has been linked to:
- A decrease in inflammation3
- Increased longevity4
- Enhanced immunity and ability to fight off infection
- Protection against neurodegenerative diseases and cancer6
But in some cases, autophagy can backfire and actually end up doing the body more harm than good.
How COVID-19 Uses Autophagy to Replicate
Research is revealing new insights indicating COVID-19 could possibly be manipulating our body’s natural clean up crew to replicate. Viral infections hijacking autophagy isn’t necessarily a new discovery – studies have found that many viruses have the capacity to exploit autophagy and turn against your body.
Rather than be neutralized by the process, a number of viruses have found a way to manipulate autophagy to evade immune detection, replicate, and subsequently spread throughout the body. Some of the ways that viruses can exploit autophagy to benefit themselves include:7
- Using the double membrane of autophagosomes as a platform for viral replication.
- Using autophagosomes to avoid detection by the immune system.
- Using autophagosomes as a container to locally concentrate elements essential for replication.
- Interfering with the completion of autophagy by triggering the induction of autophagosomes to engulf particles but not allowing the process to complete and create new cells.
While we don’t have a definitive answer yet, research is indicating that COVID-19, may in fact, be able to manipulate our immune system in the same way.8,9 This has led researchers to believe that potential treatment options may include inhibiting autophagy.
So, Can We Inhibit Autophagy?
One potential COVID-19 treatment option that has yielded promising results in some clinical trials is the drug chloroquine and its derivative hydroxychloroquine. Chloroquine has long been used as an antimalarial drug because of its ability to inhibit viral replication. But chloroquine is also a potent autophagy inhibitor.
Chloroquine inhibits autophagy by impairing autophagosomes ability to attach to lysosomes – which is the substance needed to degrade and destroy the contents contained in the autophagosome.10 Chloroquine’s ability to pump the brakes on autophagy is one of the reasons this drug is being studied for its potential use in the treatment of COVID-19.11,12
But the truth is, more time and research is needed to know whether inhibiting or activating autophagy would be more effective against COVID-19. Because there’s still so much we don’t know about this virus, it’s more important than ever to prioritize your health and take steps to protect yourself against coronavirus.
So, How Can I Protect Myself Against COVID-19?
We certainly don’t have all the answers when it comes to protecting yourself. But until we have a better understanding of this virus, here’s what I do know – when it comes to your health, you are your own best advocate. And when it comes to advocating on behalf of the health of you and your loved ones, one of the most powerful tools we have is knowledge.
Staying informed and up to date on this emerging virus is one of the best ways to ensure your safety. I’ve been dedicated to bringing my patients and readers the resources to educate themselves so they can better navigate this pandemic. To get started, I recommend heading over and reading the following articles:
- Worried About Coronavirus? What You Need to Know to Protect Yourself
- Is there a Cure for Coronavirus? The Scoop on Chloroquine and Other Emerging Treatments
- Emerging Theories That May Help Us Solve the COVID-19 Puzzle
- Cytokine Storm: What Happens When Your Immune System Overreacts?
But staying informed doesn’t end there. Now more than ever, it’s important to understand how to create a foundation of overall good health and well-being. Because a foundation of health is always your best weapon in fighting off disease and illness.
Prioritizing Your Health Amidst COVID-19
The key to health is creating a foundation that supports your body's innate ability to maintain balance and fight off infection. There’s no supplement, diet plan, or “health hack” that can do what an overall healthy lifestyle can. My best tips for creating this foundation of health are simple, easy to follow, and take it back to the basics: rest, nutrition, environment, and exercise.
Prioritize Rest and Relaxation
In our increasingly busy world, it can be easy to forget to slow down. Most of us are chronically stressed and sleep-deprived. And this combination is toxic to your health – especially your immune system. Making sure you get plenty of restful, high-quality sleep, and taking time for relaxation is key to your health and well-being.
Focus on Your Nutrition
Ensure you’re getting all of your essential nutrients by focusing on a diet that’s centered on fresh vegetables and fruits, healthy fats, and high-quality protein sources. Since getting all of your daily nutrients from diet alone can be challenging, it can be helpful to get a little extra support. Here are some of the most important basics.
- Probiotics: To promote a healthy gut microbiome that’s essential to nearly every aspect of health from immune function to brain health.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: These are critical fatty acids support healthy cells and normal inflammatory response.
- Multi-Vitamin/Mineral: To provide a complex of essential vitamins and minerals that can be tough to get through diet alone.
Be Mindful of Your Environment
We’re exposed to countless toxins on a daily basis. And over time this repeated exposure can wreak havoc on your health. I’ve written extensively on how your environment can negatively impact your health and exactly how you can keep yourself safe. I recommend starting with the following articles:
- What is Your Total Toxic Burden? How to Reduce it for Better Health
- Is Toxic Mold Exposure the Cause of Your Symptoms?
While it’s impossible to avoid exposure to toxic compounds, following the suggestions laid out in these articles can be monumental in promoting and maintaining a healthy body.
Incorporate Movement You Enjoy
Our bodies are designed to move, so find exercise you enjoy. This doesn’t have to be going to the gym either. Movement can be going on a walk around the neighborhood, doing yoga in your living room, or even playing outside with your kids. Just finding a way to incorporate some movement on a daily basis is incredibly beneficial.
Set Yourself up for Success
While more time and research is needed to truly understand the relationship between COVID-19 and autophagy, each discovery brings us one step closer to finding the answers we need.
This pandemic has caused a massive shift in the world we live in. But rather than focus on the fear and hype surrounding this virus, I encourage you to focus on the silver lining of this situation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to rethink what’s important to us and it has highlighted just how important our health is. And there’s never been a better or more paramount time to start putting your health at the top of your priority list.
It’s my mission to bring you resources backed by reputable research so you can stay informed and take steps to make your health a priority – you can access all of my best resources right here. And if you want to dive a little deeper and get all of my very best and exclusive tips and recommendations, you’re going to want to sign up for my newsletter. All you have to do is enter your name and email address into the form below.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to learn that COVID-19 might be able to hijack autophagy and use it to replicate. What steps are you taking to prioritize your health and the health of your loved ones? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below!
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.