We’re going to discuss mitochondria; what they are, why they are important, and how we can affect them through lifestyle (diet, exercise, and supplementation). While this will flirt with being very geeky, it’s important to understand just how vital these tiny little things are. Knowledge is power, and if you can influence such key players in your bodies, in this instance, knowledge is also optimal health. Let’s dive in.
Mitochondria produce energy in our bodies by extracting nutrients from our food and producing adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which our bodies then use to create energy for all the things it needs to do (cellular processes).
Mitochondria are the power plants in our cells. Simply put, they burn fuels to produce energy that drives everything we do. Without mitochondria we wouldn’t be able to do anything.
Mitochondria produce energy in our bodies by extracting nutrients from our food and producing adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which our bodies then use to create energy for all the things it needs to do (cellular processes). Imagine a dam – it builds up water, letting it pass through in a controlled manner, turning turbines that generate electricity. Mitochondria are the dam, the fuels extracted from food (glucose from carbohydrates or ketones from fats) are the water, and electrons and ATP generated are the electricity.
We use ATP for everything: walking, running, breathing, thinking, pumping blood … the list goes on. More ATP means more capacity to do things; less means an impaired capacity to function. Mitochondria are also involved in hormone production (like testosterone), fat-burning (lipid metabolism), and weight regulation (insulin/glucose regulation).
But Where Did Mitochondria Come From?
They are fascinating players in our cells. All of our cells contain their own DNA (which are the blueprints used to build new parts of us), but mitochondria are the only organelle that have their own DNA. This fact, along with the mitochondria’s similarity to prokaryotic organisms (for those non-biology geeks, prokaryotes are organisms without a nucleus), has led scientists to believe that mitochondria are descendants from bacteria that fused with our cells, then carried on living in a mutually beneficial fused state (this is called an endosymbiotic relationship). In short, billions of years ago, a bacteria was engulfed by the cells that were our ancestors; it worked out for them, they lived happily together, and over time passed this evolutionary advantage to us (and nearly every cell in every organism in the world).
Hangover From Energy (ATP) Production
In nuclear power plants, nuclear waste is produced and needs to be disposed of safely without damaging the environment; in mitochondria, free radicals are created as a waste product when ATP is produced from glucose or fatty acids. This sounds a bit scary, but healthy mitochondria have their own filtering and cleaning systems (endogenous antioxidants, the most potent being glutathione) that clean up the free radicals before they do too much damage.
[As a side note- antioxidants are a bona fide scientific term that refers to little biological machines in our bodies (and from our food) that neutralise toxic molecules that have a tendency to damage our bodies (an oxidising tendency). They are not just a fad-term used by health nuts to describe green smoothies!]
If the free radical load is too much, some will escape, and will damage the first thing they come in contact with (by stealing electrons). This happens if you have too few mitochondria, or the mitochondria you have are not working properly. Free radical damage can be really bad. Free radicals can:
- Damage mitochondrial DNA (leading to mutations, which stop things working).
- Deplete telomerase stores (fewer telomeres means less cell repair means faster ageing).
- Oxidise proteins, most notably LDL cholesterol, which when oxidised can lead to atherosclerotic plaques in your veins.
- Speed up the ageing process as a result of increased oxidative stress.
How Do We Avoid This?
- Have enough mitochondria (the more you have the more efficient they work and the more spread out the workload).
- Make sure they’re in working order.
- Ensure there are ample stores of antioxidant cleaning machines like glutathione.
Right, now we know:
- What mitochondria do.
- That for optimal health we should aim to give our mitochondria the right materials to work optimally.
- That we should build more mitochondria (mitochondrial biogenesis).1
…but what can we actually do?! It comes down to dietary strategy, physical activities, and supplementation.
The best way to improve mitochondrial function is to upgrade the source of fuel that is fed to them. Stop feeding them sugar and start feeding them fat (ketones). This means changing yourself from a sugar-burner (reliant on carbs) to a fat-burning machine (fat-adapted).
As we have discussed the ketogenic diet extensively here, here, and here, we won’t go into much detail here. The upshot is that mitochondria burn fatty acids cleaner than they do carbohydrates (i.e. they produce less free radicals when they generate ATP from ketones versus glucose2). Sugar-burning is ‘smokey’, whilst fat-burning is clean.
When in ketosis, the mitochondria have to spend less energy cleaning up free radicals. This makes mitochondrial energy (ATP) production more efficient AND anti-inflammatory (which means less brain fog, disease, metabolic dysfunction, and obesity). Some evidence even suggests that ketosis helps to grow new mitochondria (mitochondrial biogenesis).3
When we talked about adapting to a fat-burning mode, what we were really talking about was our mitochondria adapting to burning fat.
Summary: a high fat, low carb, moderate protein (and sensibly formulated) ketogenic diet leads to increased, and more efficiently produced, energy, with fewer toxic side-effects (through more efficient mitochondrial ATP production and fewer free radical generation).
Various forms of physical activity are great for your mitochondria:
- Resistance training and endurance training both improve mitochondrial function and longevity (increase mitochondrial resistance to degradation).4,5
- Lifting heavy things grows new mitochondria (increases mitochondrial biogenesis).6
- Sprinting grows new mitochondria7 (increases mitochondrial biogenesis). Running, swimming, and cycling. For the most effective mitochondrial growth, maximum output followed by maximum recovery. Sprint hard, then allow yourself ample recovery time. Then do it again.
- HIIT grows new mitochondria (increases mitochondrial biogenesis).6
- Endurance training grows new mitochondria (increases mitochondrial biogenesis).7
Summary: Sprint once a week, lift heavy things a few times a week, and stretch, foam roll, and walk everyday…that’s it.
Supplements can be a powerful tool (read more here). They can provide the raw materials needed for our mitochondria when our diet fails to provide. These supplements are wide ranging and include minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants, including:
- Magnesium (involved in pretty much everything important going on in your body). Eat leafy greens and supplement in the evening (any ending in -ate, e.g. magnesium malate).
- Vitamin C. Just be careful about supplementing during heavy cardio: vitamin C dampens mitochondrial biogenesis by interfering with normal cellular adaptations to endurance exercise.
- N-acetyl cysteine. A building block for glutathione. Also great to take for hangover recovery (combined with Vitamin C and Alpha-Lipoic Acid)!
- Dave Asprey’s Unfair Advantage which has Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) and Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). It’s expensive but combines multiple supplements and effective fat-based delivery (liposomal). You can also get PQQ from eating natto and drinking green tea, both of which are high in PQQ.
- Alpha-lipoic acid Found in heart, liver, kidney, spinach, and broccoli. Also found in supplement form. Helps to recycle glutathione.
- Zinc and iron. Found in animal products and shellfish.
- Manganese. Eat your mussels, raspberries, and dark chocolate.
- Carnosine and Carnitine. Meat eaters get plenty of both, but you can also supplement.
- Vitamin A. Eat your egg yolks, liver, and grass-fed butter.
Summary: the first 4 need to be supplemented, but the last 5 you can get in your food if you eat enough of the right things.
A Few More Tricks…
- Cold exposure grows new mitochondria (increases mitochondrial biogenesis).8
- As you sleep the mitochondria in your brain cells remove waste products.9
- Intermittent fasting cleans up your cells and mitochondria through autophagy.10
If you analyse the most effective and beneficial health practices carefully, at the core they tend to improve mitochondrial function or grow new mitochondria. This is no coincidence … all the things we’ve just discussed show just how important mitochondria are and how the core principles of a well-formulated lifestyle (exercise, diet, supplementation, and more) all act on mitochondria. You don’t really need to understand how it all works, just why these things make you feel and look great and increase your performance.
How many of these tips do you already do? Which will you take on board? Have you noticed a difference in energy levels since starting a Paleo lifestyle? Comment below with your thoughts!
- López-Lluch, G., Irusta, P. M., Navas, P., and de Cabo, R. (2008). Mitochondrial Biogenesis and Healthy Aging. Experimental Gerontology, 43(9), 813–819.
- Seyfried, T. N. and Mukherjee, P. (2005). Targeting Energy Metabolism in Brain Cancer: Review and Hypothesis. Nutrition & Metabolism, 2, 30.
- Bough, K. J., Wetherington, J., Hassel, B., et al. (2006). Mitochondrial Biogenesis in the Anticonvulsant Mechanism of the Ketogenic Diet. Annals of Neurology, 60(2), 223–235.
- Pesta, D., Hoppel, F., Macek, C., et al.(2011). Similar Qualitative and Quantitative Changes of Mitochondrial Respiration Following Strength and Endurance Training in Normoxia and Hypoxia in Sedentary Humans. American Journal of Physiology. Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 301(4), R1078–87.
- Fernström, M., Tonkonogi, M., & Sahlin, K. (2004). Effects of Acute and Chronic Endurance Exercise on Mitochondrial Uncoupling in Human Skeletal Muscle. The Journal of Physiology, 554(Pt 3), 755–763.
- Wang, L., Mascher, H., Psilander, N., et al. (2011). Resistance Exercise Enhances the Molecular Signaling of Mitochondrial Biogenesis Induced by Endurance Exercise in Human Skeletal Muscle. Journal of Applied Physiology, 111(5), 1335–1344.
- Little, J. P., Safdar, A., Bishop, D., et al. (2011). An Acute Bout of High-intensity Interval Training Increases the Nuclear Abundance of PGC-1α and Activates Mitochondrial Biogenesis in Human Skeletal Muscle. American Journal of Physiology. Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 300(6), R1303–10.
- Klingenspor, M., Ivemeyer, M., Wiesinger, H., et al. (1996). Biogenesis of Thermogenic Mitochondria in Brown Adipose Tissue of Djungarian Hamsters During Cold Adaptation. Biochemical Journal, 316(Pt 2), 607–613.
- Xie, L., Kang, H., Xu, Q., et al. (2013). Sleep Drives Metabolite Clearance from the Adult Brain. Science, 342(6156), 373–377.
- Motori, E., Puyal, J., Toni, N., et al. (2013). Inflammation-induced Alteration of Astrocyte Mitochondrial Dynamics Requires Autophagy for Mitochondrial Network Maintenance. Cell Metabolism, 18(6), 844–859.