Spring is here! As we all prepare for spring cleaning, it’s important to remember to start with ourselves. Exercise is an important part of preventive medicine, but do we really know how exercise detoxifies our bodies?
It's commonly thought that as you exercise, toxins are released through sweat but this isn’t true! Sweating is triggered by the brain. The hypothalamus regulates temperature in the body. When the body heats up, it stimulates the eccrine glands, which produce moisture on the skin’s surface to cool the body. Sweat itself only contains water, sodium, potassium, chloride, and very tiny amounts of toxins.
Interestingly enough, one study recently published in Nature found that exercise does push waste and toxins out of the body - just not with sweat. Exercise accelerates natural processes that remove junk from inside the body’s cells. Our cells accumulate this junk, officially called “flotsam,” from misshapen proteins and debris from cellular membranes, viruses and bacteria broken down as part of the everyday wear on our cells.
Autophagy, or “self-eating”, helps to keep us healthy by breaking down the flotsam and converting it into energy. This process works by creating specialized membranes that trap and carry the junk to a part of the cell called the lysosome, where the junk is broken apart and burned as energy. Without this process cells could malfunction or die. Difficulties with autophagy have been associated diabetes, muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer’s, and cancer. This process affects our metabolisms and our health in much the same way as exercise. Until recently, it wasn’t clear how the two interacted. The question was whether exercise might affect this cleansing process and, if so, how does that affect our health?
Researchers at the University Of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas studied this question. They had several mice medically treated so that the membranes that engulf flotsam waste would glow. The mice then ran for 30 minutes, and scientists observed significantly more membranes in their cells, revealing that the mice were experiencing increased rates of autophagy - but what did this mean for the subject’s overall health?
Scientists then developed a new strain of mouse that had normal autophagy levels but could not increase its response due to stress so that levels remained the same even when the mice were exercised. The scientists then fed these mice, as well as a group of normal functioning mice, a high-fat diet for several weeks until they developed a version of diabetes. The normal mice were able to reverse their diabetes by exercising, even as they continued the same diet. The autophagy-resistant mice, however, remained diabetic and had higher levels of cholesterol in their blood than the other mice. Increased exercise alone had not been enough to improve their health.
Overall, this study showed that exercise aids the autophagy process and forces cellular waste out of the body and stimulating this process even helped to reverse diabetes by removing toxins from the body. We have learned that an increase in autophagy, prompted by exercise is important to achieve the health benefits of exercise and it is possible that people who don’t respond as efficiently to aerobic exercise may have difficulties with this process. Perhaps someday we will have autophagy-prompting medical alternatives that might help everyone benefit more from exercise but for now all that we can be sure of is, given normal cell functions, exercise plays an important role in removing harmful toxins from our bodies.