You’re Only As Young As Your Mitochondria
Julian Whitaker, MD
Loss of energy is a common sign of aging and disease. Muscles weaken and atrophy. The heart loses its ability to efficiently pump blood. Memory falters, and organ systems go on the blink. You feel tired and sluggish, both physically and mentally, as if your get-up-and-go has got up and gone.
What’s happening is that your mitochondria, the powerhouses located in each of your cells, are unable to keep up with your body’s energy demands. And when this happens, things begin to fall apart.
Fortunately, you don’t have to take this lying down. If you’re feeling fatigued and worn out before your time, there are steps you can take to restore your energy. You may need to correct thyroid and other hormone imbalances. You might have an underlying medical condition or nutritional deficiency that can be addressed. But most important—and regardless of whatever else you do—you can tune up your mitochondria.
Mitochondria, Cellular Powerhouses
Mitochondria are the energy-producing organelles (cellular substructures) that are present in all animals, plants, and fungi. Your brain, heart, skeletal muscle, liver, and other metabolically active cells each contain thousands of these structures. All told, you have billions of mitochondria that make up a whopping 10 percent of your total body weight.
These organelles are believed to have originated a billion years ago as independent bacteria that developed a symbiotic relationship with single-celled organisms. The larger organisms provided a hospitable environment for the bacteria, while the bacteria shared the copious amounts of energy they were able to generate. Although the two eventually evolved into single cells, mitochondria have retained their own DNA, which is passed from mother to child—independent of the DNA that carries the genetic code you received from both of your parents.
Nutrients from the food we eat pass into the mitochondria, where a chain of reactions known as the citric acid, or Krebs, cycle converts the energy in sugar, fats, and proteins into adenosine triphosphate (ATP)—the high-energy packets that fuel our minds and bodies.
Why Things Fall Apart
Unfortunately, there’s an unavoidable bug in the system. As ATP is produced, there is some inevitable leakage of electrons. This leads to the formation of free radicals called reactive oxygen species (ROS), which move into and wreak havoc in the cells—and the mitochondria and their DNA are directly in the line of fire. Over time, mutations in mitochondrial DNA cause these organelles to become less efficient, unable to produce optimal amounts of energy, and more susceptible to ROS injury.
Many scientists believe that free-radical damage to the mitochondria is the fundamental cause of aging. And virtually all agree that mitochondrial dysfunction is a factor in diseases that involve energy balance, such as age- and disease-related muscle wasting, heart failure, chronic fatigue, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s—even diabetes and obesity.
The mitochondrial theory of aging is especially compelling when you consider that, in addition to producing ATP, these structures perform other vital functions within the cell. They help control cell growth, orchestrate intracellular communication, signal defenses against free-radical onslaught, and trigger the destruction of damaged or aged cells. With this broad repertoire, it’s inconceivable that mitochondria would not play a central role in aging and illness.
Lean, Mean Energy Machines
So what can you do to improve mitochondrial function and enhance energy and wellness?
First, eat less. Animal studies involving a range of species prove that caloric restriction extends lifespan, and population studies suggest that this holds true for humans as well. When you cut back on food consumption, fewer demands are made on your mitochondria, and production of damaging ROS declines. This not only enhances mitochondrial efficiency, but also turns on SIRT1 genes, which encode proteins that boost cellular function. The result? Better health and a longer life.
Second, exercise more. The stress of physical exercise tunes up your mitochondria and activates biochemical pathways that stimulate the production of new organelles, a phenomenon known as mitochondria biogenesis. This has been best observed in muscle cells; studies of endurance athletes reveal that their muscles have exceptionally high concentrations of mitochondria. But you don’t have to be a marathon runner to grow new mitochondria. Simply engaging in consistent, moderate aerobic activity stimulates your muscle cells to make this adaptation to increased energy demands.
I understand that cutting calories and exercising is a noble goal, but it’s easier said than done. That’s why I recommend the “mini-fast” with exercise protocol—it’s the easiest way to reap the benefits of both caloric restriction and exercise. You simply skip breakfast, do 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise such as walking or jogging in the morning, then eat a sensible lunch and dinner. This program cuts your caloric intake by 20 to 30 percent a day, and it’s much easier to follow than traditional low-calorie diets. Yes, I know you have been taught that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I agree—just eat it at noon!
Supplements for Mitochondrial Biogenesis
Third, take nutritional supplements that mimic the positive effects of exercise and caloric restriction.
One of them is resveratrol, known as the “red wine pill.” Resveratrol is one supplement that has definitely lived up to its early hype. It activates SIRT1 genes—the same ones that are turned on by caloric restriction. SIRT1 activation jump-starts a cascade of positive biochemical reactions that engender mitochondrial function and biogenesis. As a result, resveratrol has been shown to protect against cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, enhance antioxidant status, reduce inflammation, and, in animals, extend lifespan and retard age-related deterioration.
Another useful supplement is L-arginine, an amino acid that is the primary precursor of nitric oxide (NO)—one of several biochemical pathways that are powered up by exercise. In addition to its protective effects on the mitochondria, NO is a very powerful vasodilator. It relaxes the arteries, enhances vascular health, improves blood flow, and even boosts sexual function.
Alpha lipoic acid (also call lipoic acid or ALA) is also important for promoting mitochondrial biogenesis. We use it at the clinic for general antioxidant support and to treat and prevent neuropathy and other diabetic complications. ALA also helps with blood sugar and weight control because it stimulates glucose uptake and increases the burning of fatty acids.
Mighty Coenzyme Q10
Last but certainly not least is coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), an antioxidant present in all cells and particularly concentrated in the mitochondria. CoQ10 participates in the production of ATP as part of the electron transport chain and also protects the mitochondria against free-radical damage.
Although CoQ10 is commonly used to treat patients with rare mitochondrial and metabolic disorders who are known to be deficient in this crucial compound, few doctors recognize that CoQ10 is also an excellent therapy for heart failure, hypertension, angina, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, kidney failure, chronic fatigue, and other conditions that affect high-energy, mitochondrial-dense organs and tissues.
CoQ10 is one supplement that I couldn’t practice medicine without. It’s also why I’m so opposed to cholesterol-lowering statin drugs—they interfere with your body’s production of CoQ10 and have disastrous effects on the heart, liver, and brain.
Rejuvenate Your Mitochondria
I encourage you to embrace these diet, exercise, and supplement recommendations. They not only boost mitochondrial biogenesis, but also improve cellular function, dampen free-radical production, reduce fat stores, increase lean muscle mass, and slow down age-related deterioration.
What this means for you is more energy, vitality, and endurance; a thinner, more muscular body; reduced risk of disease; improvements in blood pressure, blood sugar, and other health challenges—perhaps even an increased lifespan. After all, you’re only as young as your mitochondria.
- Here are the suggested daily doses of the supplements discussed in this article, taken in divided doses: Resveratrol 100–150 mg, alpha lipoic acid 600–1,200 mg, L-arginine 1,000–2,000 mg a day or time-release arginine as directed, and CoQ10 100–300 mg. They are available in health food stores, online, or by calling (800) 810-6655.
- To learn more about our programs for anti-aging support at the Whitaker Wellness Institute, call (866) 944-8253.
- Bell L. Mitochondria gone bad. Science News. 2009 Feb 28:20–23.
- Gruber J, et al. The mitochondrial free radical theory of ageing—where do we stand? Front Biosci. 2008 May 1;13:6554–6579.
- Lopez-Lluch G, et al. Mitochondrial biogenesis and healthy aging. Exp Gerontol. 2008 Sep;43(9):813–819.
- Nisoli E, et al. Nitric oxide and mitochondrial biogenesis. J Cell Science. 2006;119:2855–2862.
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