by Nils Osmar – Nov. 27, 2022 – Medical Disclaimer
We’ve all heard the saying that “Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell.” They’re literally living batteries, whose energy currency is called ATP (adenosine triphosphate). They power every key biological function that takes place within our cells; we’d die in a few seconds if our mitochondria ever stopped working.
Some cells have hundreds of mitochondria, others have thousands. There are over one hundred trillion mitochondria in the human body, all told.
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Mitochondria not “us,” they’re visitors. They have their own DNA. They actually moved into our cells (and the cells of all other complex life forms on Earth) and set up a symbiotic working relationship with us billions of years ago, early in the evolution of life.
I like thinking of mitochondria as tiny (living) batteries that need to be taken care of and tended to as the years go by. If you’re tired, easily fatigued, and have no energy to do what you want –– if you have brain fog, if your organs are wearing out, if your muscles aren’t functioning properly –– it’s may be because your mitochondria are developing problems.
Using the battery analogy again, mitochondria are rechargeable.
Like the batteries you might buy for use in an electronic device, they can be recharged many times. But eventually they wear out. They become old and senescent in the same way that our brain and body cells do. When that happens, it’s time to stop recharging them, deactivate and disassemble them, and replace them.
Luckily, our bodies are skilled at cleaning out senescent mitochondria, when that time comes, and creating new “young” mitochondria when they’re needed. We just need to provide the right impetus. When white fat turns into brown or beige fat, it’s because it’s becoming populated with thousands or millions of new mitochondria.
Let’s look at some of the ways we can increase the number of healthy mitochondria in our bodies.
Step One: Eating a High-Nutrient Diet
- Mitochondria need a rich supply of high quality nutrients to function properly. But they can’t go out and forage for themselves; they depend on the food we’re eating for their own survival. So the first step is feeding them well by eating a diet rich in the specific nutrients they need.
- One person who has researched this topic and has specific dietary recommendations is Dr. Terry Wahls. In her book, “Minding My Mitochondria.” Wahls identifies creatine, B-vitamins, high-quality protein, PQQ, CoQ10, and several other nutrients as key compounds for supporting mitochondrial health. (See the video at the bottom of this page.)
- To support our mitochondria, we need to eat foods rich in B vitamins. If your diet includes animal-based products, some of the richest sources include organ meats, including heart and liver. Choose from animals fed a high-nutrient, organic, grass-based, not grain-based, diet. Buffalo and wild game are highly nourishing choices.
- Foods from the sea, such as sardines, wild (un-farmed) Pacific salmon, mackerel, and salmon roe, are rich in the nucleic acids that support mitochondrial health. Unsweetened fermented foods such as natto, which is rich in PQQ also support the creation of new mitochondria.
- If you eat dairy products, make your own kefir and home-made yogurt. Eat butter from pastured animals, and avoid oils like soy oil, canola oil and most types of sunflower oil.
- Spinach, kale, broccoli, cabbage have nutrients mitochondria need to function well. Avocados and olives are rich in oleic acid, which supports mitochondrial biogenesis. Foods like lentils and mushrooms, organic pastured eggs, garlic, and onions, as well as blueberries, pomegranate arils, and blackberries, are rich in the nutrients that are key to mitochondrial health.
- Creatine (found in ample quantities in red meat and also available as a supplement) is also highly beneficial. Article: Creatine Prevents the Structural and Functional Damage to Mitochondria
Step Two: Taking Supplements
- Step 2 is supplementing. Supplements which have been found to support mitochondrial health include: NMN – Nicotinamide Mononucleotide; NR – Nicotinamide Riboside; Resveratrol and Pterostilbene; Alpha Lipoic Acid; Alpha ketoglutarate; glutathione and glutathione boosters such as NAC and glycine; CoQ10 and PQQ. All of the B vitamins. Magnesium. L Carnitine. Zinc and selenium or selenomethionine.
- Sunlight is good for the mitochondria in small doses, though it can be harmful if we get too much. Try to get full skin exposure to a little sunshine every day –– just enough to turn your skin a very light pink. If you’re worried about skin cancer, do some research into non-carcinogenic sunscreens and the supplement astaxanthin, which (taken internally) provides natural protection against UV radiation.
- Red light exposure is also beneficial. Red and near infrared wavelengths have been found to specifically support mitochondrial health. The mitochondrial electron transport chain has been found to be photosensitive to red light wavelengths.Stand in front of banks of red lights and bathe your entire body in their wavelengths, every inch of it.
- Blue light isn’t as toxic as some people imagine, but we don’t benefit from constant exposure to it. We all get blue light from our computers and TV screens. An excess of it is associated with oxidative stress and a decrease in cell survival.
- Hormesis is beneficial to the mitochondria. Hormesis is the body’s reaction to a small and measured amount of stress: not enough to maim or kill us, but enough to make us uncomfortable once in while. (I just took a cold shower before typing this, to trigger a beneficial hormetic reaction.
- Hormesis has been found to support mitochondrial biogenesis. The mechanism is that hormetic stressors activate a regulatory gene called PGC1-Alpha. This gene then helps new mitochondria come into existence. It also activates an enzymatic reaction called AMPK – which is great, because activation of AMPK is one of our major pathways toward longevity.
- Most of us have AMPK turned off much of the time because a different enzymatic process called mTOR is turned on — mainly because we’re shoveling food into our mouths full time.
- mTOR isn’t “bad”, but an excess of mTOR activation is associated with constant growth, the antithesis of longevity. (The body needs to choose, at any given moment, between using its resources to support either growth or longevity; hormesis can push us in the latter direction.)
- We want to keep the PGC1-Alpha gene and the AMPK enzyme active much of the time — but not all of the time. We do need mTOR on some of the time, to stay strong, have healthy bones and muscles and powerful immune systems.
Things That Switch on Hormesis:
- HIIT exercise – creating a cyclical oxygen deficit — getting seriously out of breath. Being low on oxygen, safely, for a short time, freaks out our survival mechanisms and makes the body start making more mitochondria.
- Strength training, lifting weights or doing bodyweight exercises.
- Ketosis – Eating a ketogenic diet (low in carbs, high in fat, moderate in protein) triggers mitochondrial biogenesis.
- Cold stress (cold thermogenesis): Taking cold showers or baths regularly, every day or every other day. The cold sends your mitochondria a signal that winter and cold weather are here, and they get busy making new power batteries to get you through the hard times they think are coming. (Even 1 minute in the shower (in icy water) will induce hormesis)
- Keeping the house heat low set at 63 instead of 67 is an alternative way of getting some cold stress into your life. So is walking around naked on cold rainy days, though your neighbors may not appreciate it.
- Cold stress causes the release of Norepinephrine (NE), also called noradrenaline (NA), which increases the efficiency of your mitochondria.
- Heat stress: take a Sauna if you have access to one. Or a very hot bath. Close the door, put a heater on, keep the bath hot and stay in it for a half hour or so. Not scalding hot; don’t burn yourself. Let your body temperature go up a couple of degrees. (Obviously don’t do this, or cold showers or baths, if you have a medical reason not to.)
- Intermittent fasting (essentially: starving ourselves) sends the signal that hard times are here. There’s no food to be found. Time to turn on our survival genes.
- To activate AMPK (the longevity pathway) and switch on the very powerful PGC1-Alpha gene, try going to bed hungry… no food after 7 or 8 pm. As a side benefit, your body will start making more NAD at night when you’re hungry. “If you want to live a long time, keep your house cool and go to bed a little hungry.”
- Occasional prolonged fasting has powerful benefits. Try doing an occasional three or four day fast or fasting mimicking diet. This will cause your body to cannibalize your senescent cells and senescent mitochondria and make new, young, perfect, fully functional mitochondria at the end of the fast, when you start eating again.
- Be aware of your diet, and of some possible drawbacks that may be hidden in it. Eating protein, particularly types that are high in leucine, keeps mTOR activated. This is good on one level – we need mTOR to support muscle growth and prevent sarcopenia – but we need to suppress mTOR periodically in order to activate AMPK and autophagy to keep our mitochondria healthy and clean damaged ones out of our cells.
- mTOR and AMPK are like two sides of a teeter totter. When one goes up, the other tends to go down. It’s not bad to eat protein and have your mTOR activated. But you can’t do it full time if you want to live an extended lifespan. You’ll never be able to get into mitochondrial biogenesis if you’re always weighing down the mTOR side of the teeter totter.
- Losing excess body fat if we’re overweight or obese. There is more PGC1-a protein in lean people than obese. Losing weight increases the expression of this gene.
- Metformin is an AMPK activator and a powerful anti-aging drug. It also activates PGC1-Alpha. Metformin appears to slightly poison our mitochondria, but the result is beneficial, because the poisoning sends out alarm signals that trigger mitochondrial biogenesis. Berberine and glucosamine also activates AMPK, which in turn activates PGC1-Alpha.
- Chromium – which I usually take in the form of chromium picolinate – has the advantage of activating AMPK while also raising testosterone levels.
What I’m Doing
- I’m trying to do all of the above. I eat a high nutrient “hunter gatherer diet” similar to the one Terry Wahls recommends — though unlike her diet, mine also includes some eggs and dairy.
- Key ingredients include leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, root vegetables, brightly colored vegetables, sulfur-rich foods, beans and lentils, green peas, mushrooms, blueberries, blackberries, seaweed, sardines, Atlantic mackerel, wild Pacific salmon, shrimp, anchovies, meat from grass-fed animals, organ meats including liver and thymus powders, poultry and eggs.
- I take a high quality greens powder to make sure I’m getting enough greens every day, and take sea buckthorn berry powder to support stem cell differentiation and mitochondrial health.
- Diets rich in protein and leucine, like the one I’m eating, activate mTOR. As I mentioned above, mTOR activation is good for muscle growth and immunity. But it can be pro-aging and actually shorten the lifespan if we don’t balance it with some AMPK activation. To suppress mTOR periodically and make sure AMPK has a chance to become activated, I do two 36 hour fasts per week. (I don’t eat any calories on Saturday or Tuesday). I’m thinking of adding a third fasting day.
- I take cold showers, or contrast showers ending with three minutes of cold. I also take hot baths and saunas. I do resistance training three times a week. All of these are supportive of mitochondrial health.
Not medical advice
This article is not intended as, and should not be taken as, medical advice. I’m not advising that people eat any particular diet or take any particular supplements, just reporting on what I’m doing. All supplements can have side effects; I would encourage people to research both possible benefits and side effects before starting on any supplementation regimen. See full Medical Disclaimer
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