Importance of Mitochondria to Your Health
Have you ever wondered how last night’s salad or this morning’s omelet translates into energy that keeps your heart pumping, your brain processing and your legs moving? Mitochondria are a big part of the process because they’re partly responsible for turning fat, sugar and protein into energy that your cells can use.
These tiny organelles are found in every cell of your body and produce about 90 percent of the energy that those cells need to live. Your longevity is directly tied to the health of your mitochondria, so keeping them plentiful and healthy may help you live longer.
The process that mitochondria use to generate energy is known as oxidative phosphorylation. The energy form that our bodies need to live is called ATP, but food doesn’t enter our system in that form. In order to turn the nutrients consumed into usable energy, an electron transport chain is created within our cells.
Think of this chain as an assembly line set up within your cells. Electrons are quickly passed between donors and receptors, processing through a series of complexes along the way. These complexes contain co-factors that create change within the electron. For instance, the process starts when two electrons are sent to complex I, which contains flavin mononucleotide, otherwise known as FMN, and an iron-sulfur enzyme. Electrons quickly move from one complex to another, generating ATP along the way.
ATP is the primary energy used by your cells, but you can’t produce it without a lot of healthy mitochondria and an ample supply of the co-factors to keep the electron transport chain well supplied. We will soon discuss 19 things that you can do right now to start improving the health of these organelles, but first it’s important to mention that mitochondria do more than just produce energy to power your cells.
They’re also responsible for eliminating waste within your cells, and they play an important role in the death of damaged cells. This is critical because damaged cells need to die off to make room for new, healthy cells. This is essential to disease prevention because damaged cells that hang around too long can encourage the development and spread of cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
You can learn more about how mitochondria work as well as other theories of longevity by reading the HealthTide eBook, “The Science of Longevity.” For now, let’s get to the specifics of what you can do to help your mitochondria, and thus your cells, thrive.
19 Ways to Boost Your Mitochondria
In “The Science of Longevity,” we discuss why exercise is critical for anyone actively working to maximize their life span. Research has revealed proven benefits for every organ in the body, and blood tests taken immediately after exercise have shown positive changes at the cellular level. There are short-term and long-term benefits, ranging from mood enhancement to prevention of heart disease and cancer.
Researchers are also finding that exercise can improve the number and strength of mitochondria in cells as we age. We know that elderly people have fewer of these organelles than younger people, and the mitochondria that they do have are more likely to show signs of damage. Research published in Cell Metabolism in 2017 found that exercise can slow the decline of mitochondria in the muscles, but those results were specific to high-intensity interval training, which is also known as HIIT.
This form of exercise stimulates the production of DNA copies that are responsible for the creation of muscle- and mitochondria-building proteins. More gene copying equals more mitochondria, which translates to more energy and greater health for the cells that form your muscles.
HIIT workouts are easy to create on your own at home or in the gym, and there are many exercise classes and workout DVDs based on the general concept. The goal is to rotate between periods of low-intensity movement and periods of high-intensity movement. You should work at your highest capacity during the more intense periods, catching your breath and slowing your heart rate during the rest periods.
The Couch to 5K program is a good example of a HIIT routine based on running. The ultimate goal is to go from walking to running safely, but you do so by rotating between short periods of running and periods of walking. You can do the same thing by substituting any high-intensity movement that pumps up your heart rate and pushes you to your limit during the running periods and then taking short breaks to recover.
The good news is that you don’t have to wait long for your mitochondria to receive the benefit of exercise. One study published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology in 2015 found that research participants showed signs of improved mitochondria functioning after performing HIIT workouts for just two weeks.
2. Quality Sleep
We mentioned above that mitochondria help eliminate waste from cells, and much of that work is accomplished while you sleep. Your mitochondria also use this time to repair damaged cells when possible. If you aren’t sleeping properly, they don’t have enough time to properly maintain your cells. This can leave you vulnerable to disease and may shorten your life span.
Research has proven that there is a surge in ATP energy in the brain during the initial hours of sleep. Think of it as your battery running low after a long, productive day. You need sleep to clear the debris of a life well lived and recharge the battery so that you’re fresh for a new day.
There is also a connection between sleep disorders and many diseases. In one study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine in 2014, researchers found that many people suffering from mitochondrial diseases also suffer from sleep disorders like sleep apnea.
Other studies have shown that sleeping fewer than seven hours each night leads to fewer DNA copies for the production of mitochondria. Here we go back to the reality that fewer DNA copies means fewer mitochondria which means less energy for your cells. In this case, we’re talking about energy that fuels the cells in your brain. The fact that we struggle to function mentally and physically when we’re deprived of sleep may make a bit more sense now. It’s just like your cellphone slowly losing more and more functionality as its battery dies.
The best way to improve your quality of sleep is to stick to a routine sleep schedule and avoid napping if possible. Try not to consume caffeine in the late afternoon and evening and consider monitor your intake of these 15 foods that may keep you awake at night. Lastly, it is advised to shut off all electronic screens at least one hour before bedtime and using room-darkening curtains to block light from your bedroom.
Research published in the Journal of Cell Science & Therapy in 2014 found that l-arginine supplementation can reduce the level of free radicals present during a myocardium ischemia reperfusion event, improving the functioning of mitochondria in the heart. Other studies have shown that poor arginine uptake contributes to mitochondrial dysfunction and can contribute to inflammation and asthma. The administration of this supplement can reduce injury to the airway and repair dysfunction in the mitochondria, leading to improvements in airway inflammatory disease.
It’s likely that l-arginine helps repair damaged mitochondria while enhancing their performance throughout the body. It can help with everything from chest pain and high blood pressure to erectile dysfunction. This amino acid is found in many high-protein foods, including red meat, poultry, beans and dairy products.
Between dietary intake and the arginine naturally produced by the human body, most people receive what they need without supplementation. Since it helps the body build muscle, it is common for bodybuilders and athletes to supplement with arginine and other amino acids.
4. Nicotinamide Riboside
Nicotinamide Riboside, also known as Niagen, is a B3 vitamin that was recently discovered. Research has proven that it’s safe for human supplementation, and it plays a critical role in the process of creating energy within our cells. Supplementation can boost the amount of NAD+ metabolites in the body, which contributes to stronger mitochondria and more energy surging through the cells. The result is improved longevity, cholesterol and blood sugar control, and resistance to weight gain.
Most of the research into the use of nicotinamide riboside supplementation has been in animals, but human trials are on the horizon. One scientist conducted a study on himself and discovered that there are virtually no side effects. This vitamin is found naturally in milk products, but you can also take supplements to increase your consumption without overeating dairy. Most of the supplements available today are marketed under the name Niagen.
5. CoQ10 – Ubiquinol
CoQ10 is one of the co-factors used in the electron transport chain that mitochondria use to generate energy within your cells. Without an adequate supply of this coenzyme, you will suffer from mitochondrial dysfunction that leaves your cells vulnerable to disease.
The list of potential benefits of CoQ10 supplementation continues to grow as more research is conducted, but so far this coenzyme has been connected to everything from heart health to headaches and fertility. The body produces this coenzyme naturally, but production gradually slows as you age. Taking a supplement in ubiquinol form will help increase your coenzyme counts so that you aren’t vulnerable to the illnesses that often come with getting older. It may even slow the signs of aging on your skin so you look younger.
Ubiquinol is a form of CoQ10 that is most readily available for use in the human body. Taking a ubiquinol supplement will deliver more of the coenzyme than a supplement in ubiquinone form. Take the supplement with some form of dietary fat to improve absorption into the system.
There is a growing body of animal research that proves supplementation with pyrroloquinoline quinone, also known as PQQ, can improve the amount of mitochondria in the body while enhancing their functionality. This research also suggests that effective treatment for many diseases caused by mitochondrial dysfunction may rest at least partly in this coenzyme.
It’s even possible that PQQ will one day help with cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s by supporting mitochondria in the process of healthy cell turnover. One study completed in 2016 found that this supplement can extend the life of roundworms, and there’s great hope that it can do the same for humans.
What could a PQQ supplement do for you today? A lot more research is needed to clearly understand all the potential health benefits, but it’s likely that this small molecule will increase the amount of mitochondria in your cells, which benefits every organ and metabolic function as you get older. It may also support the functioning of your mitochondria so that they’re more effective at producing energy, repairing damaged cells and contributing to the death of old cells and the birth of new cells.
PQQ is readily found in the soil, so it makes sense that the best dietary sources are fruits and vegetables grown in that soil. Fermented foods are rich in these molecules, but you may also want to incorporate more of the following foods into your diet:
- Raw cacao
- Green and red peppers
- Green tea
Fruits and vegetables in general will give you a good amount of PQQ. Supplements are also available if you don’t think your diet includes enough fresh produce to maximize benefits.
L-Carnitine is a derivative of the amino acid lysine that is synthesized by the human body. Most people have enough natural carnitine that they don’t need a supplement, but there are some medical conditions that benefit from supplementation. There is a growing body of medical research that shows supplementation can help prevent the decline of mitochondrial functioning in various parts of the body, including the liver, brain and heart.
Research is also showing that l-carnitine supplementation can help fight against oxidative stress while supporting memory and other cognitive functions. Most of the studies completed to date used animal subjects, but human experiments are planned for the future.
L-Carnitine is still a popular supplement for many people interested in stimulating mitochondrial functioning for improved health and potential anti-aging benefits. Some people also use it as a weight loss supplement because it’s believed to help burn fat for energy rather than storing it for later use.
8. Alpha Lipoic Acid
Alpha Lipoic Acid, also known as ALA, is a powerful antioxidant that protects the electron transport chain from damage caused by free radicals. It also helps mitochondria break down certain acids as foods are processed into usable energy. It’s known as one of the “mitochondrial nutrients” that have a protective relationship with mitochondria, and researchers are exploring ways to use it as a treatment for neurodegenerative disease. It may also help treat hypertension.
ALA supplements are inexpensive today, but you may also increase your consumption of these short-chain fatty acids by eating more of the following foods:
- Flaxseeds or flaxseed oil
- Pumpkin seeds
9. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are also known as PUFAs or omega-3 fatty acids. These are the fatty acids that lead people all over the world to consume salmon several times a week or take fish oil supplements.
Research has shown that omega-3s have a protective relationship with mitochondria in the brain and elsewhere in the body. Without supplementation, mitochondria production starts to decrease with age while the impact of free radicals and oxidative damage increase. With an adequate consumption of omega-3s, you can actually boost your mitochondria count and slow the impact of free radicals. More mitochondria leads to more energy and greater cognitive abilities as the impact of aging is slowed at the cellular level.
This is one of the simplest nutrients to add into your diet. Fatty fish like salmon and sardines are a rich source, but you can also get PUFAs from grass-fed meat, egg yolks and fish oil supplements.
Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle, and it’s commonly used as a sleep aid. There is now some evidence that it also protects omega-3 fatty acids from lipid peroxidation, which damages the omega-3 molecules and produces harmful byproducts that may contribute to a variety of life-threatening diseases, including kidney damage and atherosclerosis. Since omega-3s are present in the pineal gland where melatonin is produced, it’s likely that they help stimulate the production of melatonin in return.
Since omega-3s are protective of mitochondria, supplementing with melatonin is a good way to add another layer of mitochondrial support. Melatonin supplements may also help improve your sleep, especially if you struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep all night. Just keep in mind that melatonin can interact with some medications, including birth control pills and some diabetic medications.
11. B Vitamins
Do you remember our earlier discussion of the electron transport chain? We talked about the beginning of the process when two electrons enter complex I, which contains the co-factors FMN and an iron-sulfur enzyme. That begins the process of energy production that sustains life in most cells throughout the human body. B vitamins are critical to this process because they create the FMN utilized in complex I.
Without an adequate intake of B vitamins, your body could run low on FMN. This interferes with the electron transport chain and can result in less energy produced for your cells, leaving your body vulnerable to disease. Research has shown that select B vitamins support mitochondrial functioning in a variety of ways and can help energize damaged mitochondria. This suggests that it may serve as an effective treatment for diseases that involve mitochondrial muscle dysfunction.
If you eat a well-balanced diet that includes whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, eggs, meat and green leafy vegetables, you likely get enough vitamin B to sustain the health of your mitochondria. Some of the most potent foods for these vitamins are lamb, sardines and liver. Even if you’re a vegetarian, you can get your B vitamins through grains, nuts and seeds.
Magnesium is a chemical element that plays a critical role in the production of ATP and the generation of new, healthy mitochondria. Magnesium deficiency contributes to heart disease and many other life-threatening diseases, and it often goes undiagnosed for years if not a lifetime. There’s less magnesium in the soil in which most crops are grown today, and many people don’t consume enough magnesium-rich foods to support the healthy production of ATP.
Use this list to ensure that your diet isn’t lacking in magnesium:
- Dark chocolate
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sunflower seeds
You can also take magnesium supplements to boost your consumption. It’s best to take it before bed because it can lead to a relaxing sensation that favors sleep.
13. Sulfur-Rich Vegetables
Have you heard of the mitochondrial permeability transition pore? Probably not, but it has been the topic of some interesting medical research over the past decade. When this pore is opened, it leads to cellular changes that often ends in premature death of the cell. The opening of the pore is often triggered by oxidative stress, but research has shown that supplementing with sulforaphane can reduce oxidative stress, increase the antioxidant power of mitochondria and inhibit the opening of the pore.
This organosulfur compound is found naturally in many Sulphur-rich vegetables, including cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and brussel sprouts. It’s best to steam your sulfur-rich vegetables to maximize bioavailability of organosulfur compounds.
14. Reduce Inflammation
Medical science has uncovered a vicious cycle that takes place between systemic inflammation and mitochondrial dysfunction. Inflammation interferes with mitochondrial functioning and can lead to less productivity in the generation of energy and greater permeability of the mitochondrial lining. This permeability can lead to severe cell damage and may eventually lead to premature cell death.
This interference with the functioning of mitochondria can lead to damaged cells remaining in the body without repairs. Those damaged cells increase inflammation in the body. Increased inflammation further impairs functioning of the mitochondria, and the cycle continues.
It’s also worth mentioning that inflammation and mitochondrial damage are both leading factors in Parkinson’s Disease and many other life-altering diseases. The fact that the damage is amplified through this devastating cycle is all the proof that most people need to start fighting inflammation to limit interference with mitochondrial functioning.
For many people, fighting inflammation is as simple as adding more of the following foods into their daily diet:
- Coffee and tea for polyphenols
- Green leafy vegetables
- Olive oil
- Salmon, sardines and other fatty fish for omega-3s
- Nuts, including almonds and walnuts
You can also fight inflammation by getting more quality sleep, exercising regularly and reducing stress as much as possible. Many of the nutrients and lifestyle strategies that contribute to healthy mitochondria also reduce inflammation, so following the suggestions on this list will help combat both problems simultaneously.
Have you heard about athletes standing in cryotherapy tanks to expose their naked bodies to extremely cold temperatures? It sounds extreme, but there is some medical research suggesting that exposure to extreme cold has some benefits for the body. It’s similar to putting an ice pack on a sprained ankle to reduce inflammation, but you’re applying the ice pack to your entire body.
Athletes have taken ice baths for many years in order to reduce inflammation and help muscles heal after intense training sessions. Cryotherapy is now an alternative for those who want the same results without sitting in ice cold water. We’ve already discussed the damage that inflammation can do to mitochondria functioning, so this therapy is attractive to many people who want to extend their lives and enjoy the greatest quality of life possible.
One scientific study showed that simply taking cold showers is enough to relieve signs of depression. Not only did this form of therapy reduce mild depressive symptoms, but it also had a pain-relieving effect similar to over-the-counter pain medications.
These benefits are believed to come from the extreme change in temperature that forces the body to quickly heat itself back up. This process is known as thermogenesis, and it’s also a weight loss strategy since the body burns a lot of calories in the heating process.
The good news is you don’t have to invest in cryotherapy to enjoy the benefits of thermogenesis. You can spend more time outdoors in the colder seasons rather than bundling up indoors. Some people even recommend walking bare-chested in the cold. Taking brief cold showers each day is probably the most pleasant option.
You may already know that you need daily exposure to sunlight to produce adequate amounts of vitamin D, but your mitochondria are depending on that sunlight as well. This brings together several recommendations on this list because they all work together to increase the energy produced by mitochondria.
It starts with eating chlorophyll-rich plant foods like spinach, kale, parsley and cilantro. Chlorophyll is what allows plants to soak up sunlight and turn it into energy, and research is showing that it may work the same way in humans. When you have chlorophyll in your body and spend time outdoors, your body absorbs the sunlight better. This is now believed to energize mitochondria through the catalyzation of CoQ10, resulting in greater energy production for the cells.
What does this tell you? It encourages you to energize your mitochondria by eating your leafy green vegetables, supplementing with CoQ10 and spending time outdoors in the sunlight daily.
We can now add estrogen to the list of things that are protective of our mitochondria. Some medical studies have shown that this female hormone naturally suppresses vascular inflammation and improves the efficiency of mitochondria. Further research is needed, but it’s possible that estrogen could protect women from some of the side effects of aging while improving longevity. Working with your doctor to ensure your hormone levels are properly controlled as you age could maximize these benefits.
N-Acetylcysteine is a compound naturally found in the human body that is believed to fight free radicals and prevent DNA damage. It can prevent cellular damage, protecting the body against disease and dysfunction in varies organs. This includes potentially protecting against some forms of cancer, though it isn’t considered an official treatment for cancer today.
There are many medical uses for n-acetylcysteine, including overcoming overdose of certain medications and treating bronchitis. Further research is needed to verify the impact of this compound on mitochondria, so it’s not recommended as a supplement without medical supervision. Supplements can interact with antidepressants.
19. Intermittent Fasting
In 2017, a scientific study conducted at Harvard made a big splash in the news. Researchers found that they could improve the life span of worms through periods of fasting. The worms used typically live for about two weeks, but their lives were extended through fasting. It is believed that the results are achieved by suspending mitochondria in a youthful state for an extended period of time, slowing down the aging process significantly.
Research proving that intermittent fasting slows the aging process isn’t new. What is new about the Harvard study is the insight into why fasting may reduce the risk of many life-threatening diseases and signs of aging. We now know that fasting may lock mitochondria in a youthful state so that they continue to produce tons of energy for a longer period of time. The researchers noted that additional research is needed to fully understand the benefits of intermittent fasting.
Where Should You Start To Improve Mitochondrial Health?
This is a big list with lots of scientific research that you may or may not want to dig deeper into for greater understanding. If you’re excited by the idea of extending your life so that you look and feel younger for many years to come, start with one or two of these suggestions. Pick the two that seem easiest for you to implement in your daily life.
Don’t try to make all of these changes simultaneously because it can easily lead to anxiety, stress and overwhelm. Perhaps start by making some adjustments to your diet to include more leafy green vegetables, whole grains, fatty fish and an assortment of fresh produce. Work some exercise into your daily life, and do your best to get at least seven hours of sleep each night.
When those basic lifestyle adjustments feel natural, you can start focusing on sunlight, thermogenesis and other recommendations on this list. Think of this as a long-term plan to improve your lifestyle for the good of your mitochondrial health. Most people won’t make all of the necessary changes overnight.