Boosting Cellular Energy

Boosting Cellular Energy

Julian Whitaker, MD

Strange as it may seem, every cell in your body is host to visitors from another time and place. The mitochondria, the energy-producing factories in each and every one of your cells, are descendants of independent, free-living organisms. We know this because mitochondria have their own unique DNA, or genetic code, separate and distinct from cellular DNA. Eons ago they developed a symbiotic relationship with the ancient ancestors of animal cells and eventually became a part of them.

Lucky for us, since the mitochondria provide 90 percent of the energy that fuels cellular activity and keeps us alive. It is easy to see how important well-functioning mitochondria are to our health and well-being.

Mitochondria Take a Licking

The energy that powers your cells is a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) that is synthesized entirely within the mitochondria. Manufacturing enough ATP to keep your cells functioning is no easy task. A single ATP molecule must be recycled in and out of the mitochondria approximately 1,000 times a day for the body to maintain its energy supply.

Generating ATP is a risky undertaking for the mitochondria. The final step of this manufacturing process involves the transport of electrons down an assembly line of molecules, much like a bucket brigade. This process generates highly unstable free radicals that bind to and destroy DNA, proteins, and lipids. Since the mitochondria are directly in the line of fire, they are a primary target for free radicals. In fact, mitochondrial DNA is about 2,000 times more susceptible to damage than your cellular DNA!

There are basically two ways of protecting your mitochondria and enhancing their longevity: slowing the production of free radicals within the mitochondria or boosting your antioxidant defenses to protect them from these destructive compounds.

Let’s first look at the single most powerful way to slow free radical production—and the only proven way to increase lifespan in mammals: dramatic calorie restriction.

Eat Less, Live Longer

If you were to attend a gathering of centenarians, you would find that they were a varied group with one thing in common besides their advanced age: not a single one would be obese. Obesity and longevity are simply incompatible, and research into the effects of calorie restriction shows why.

Animal studies dating back to the 1930s have repeatedly shown that lifespan can be extended by 30 to 40 percent with a calorie-restricted, nutrient-rich diet. This doesn’t just extend life—it also enhances quality of life. By slowing the rate of aging, it delays the occurrence of a wide range of age-dependent diseases and disabilities such as cancer, cognitive decline, loss of muscle strength, cataracts, insulin resistance, and cardiovascular disease. Though the centenarians in our midst may not have consciously restricted their calories, by staying lean they have achieved similar results.

What does this have to do with the mitochondria? Plenty. One of the primary effects of calorie restriction is to make the mitochondria more efficient and adaptable to stress. These leaner, meaner mitochondria produce fewer free radicals as they generate energy than their well-fed cousins. And anything you can do to decrease your free radical burden will extend the life of your mitochondria.

Although calorie restriction is the best-studied way to protect your mitochondria and increase longevity, it is also the most difficult. A more convenient tactic to keep your engines running is to simply stay lean and take targeted nutritional supplements.

Keep Your Engines Clean

First on your supplement list should be alpha lipoic acid. This versatile compound plays a supporting role in energy production, assisting the mitochondria in the breakdown of glucose to generate ATP, and a starring role in mopping up free radicals. Think of it as a gasoline additive that helps your engines run better and cleaner.

Alpha lipoic acid has been called the universal antioxidant because unlike all other antioxidants, which are either water-soluble or fat-soluble, alpha lipoic acid is both. This means that it passes readily through fatty cell membranes and into the cells’ watery interior, where it can protect the mitochondria and other cellular components from free radicals.

Another unique aspect of alpha lipoic acid is its ability to function as an antioxidant even after it has given up an electron. Antioxidants achieve their protective effects by donating electrons to stabilize free radicals before they bind to and damage tissues. Most antioxidants are one-shot wonders—once they’ve donated an electron, they’re out of commission until another compound comes along to regenerate them.

Alpha lipoic acid, however, becomes even more potent after giving up an electron, not only maintaining its free radical-fighting power but also regenerating “spent” antioxidants such as vitamin E. Research has also shown that alpha lipoic acid can increase levels of a front-line antioxidant called glutathione, as well as another important player in mitochondrial function: coenzyme Q10.

Give Your Cells a Spark With CoQ10

Coenzyme Q10 is an essential participant in the electron transport system, the “bucket brigade” used by your mitochondria to generate ATP. Because it is the only participant that can transport two electrons at the same time, this remarkable compound is sometimes referred to as the sparkplug of the energy-transmitting system.

Relatively small changes in CoQ10 levels can have significant effects on cellular energy. And tissues with the greatest energy demands—your heart, muscles, and liver—are especially vulnerable to CoQ10 depletion. We all suffer from declining levels of CoQ10 as we get older. Is it any wonder our cardiovascular fitness, our muscle strength, and our liver’s ability to detoxify harmful compounds also decline with age?

Fortunately, unlike the other members of the electron transport system, which must be assembled inside the cell, CoQ10 can be added from the outside. Supplementing with CoQ10 is a highly effective way of helping aging mitochondria perform their work of generating energy. But there is another reason why supplementing with CoQ10 is a valuable anti-aging strategy: it is also a potent antioxidant. CoQ10 helps protect mitochondrial membranes, DNA, and the electron transport chain from free radical damage. And like alpha lipoic acid, it also helps to regenerate other antioxidants—vitamin E, in particular.

Fuel Up Your System

The final supplement I want to tell you about for mitochondrial protection is L-carnitine. If alpha lipoic acid can be likened to an engine-cleaning fuel additive and CoQ10 to a sparkplug, then carnitine is the fuel pump of the mitochondria. If your tank is full but you have no fuel pump, your engine won’t have the juice to run. Let me explain.

Although glucose is your body’s primary fuel for generating ATP, some of the hardest working cells of your body depend on high-octane fatty acids as fuel. Unfortunately, fatty acids can’t enter the mitochondria without help. Carnitine is the carrier molecule that shuttles these energy-rich molecules across the mitochondrial membrane.

The same tissues that have high requirements for CoQ10 also have a great demand for carnitine. And as with CoQ10 and alpha lipoic acid, carnitine does double duty. By pumping fatty acids into the mitochondria for breakdown and use as fuel, it helps prevent fatty acids from building up outside of the mitochondria, where they could be damaged by free radicals and go on to wreak havoc in your cells. Keeping your mitochondrial fuel pump in working order is crucial to preventing this cascade of damage.

The Blessing of Abundant Energy

Abundant energy is the essence of youth, and this is equally true whether we’re talking about mitochondria, cells, organs, or human beings. While you can’t see the degenerative changes occurring in your mitochondria, you can certainly see the effects: flagging energy, weakened immunity, a slowdown of mental function, and other hallmarks of aging. Taking these easy steps to nourish and protect your mitochondria is a simple way to maintain youthful vigor in every cell of your body.


  • Eating moderately and maintaining a healthy weight is a proven way to reduce your free radical burden, increase your energy, and reduce your risk of age-related diseases such as heart diseasediabetesarthritis, and cancer.
  • The recommended dose of alpha lipoic acid is 100-200 mg per day. If you have diabetes, heart disease, or liver disease, you may increase this to 800 mg per day in divided doses.
  • For coenzyme Q10, the recommended protective dose is 60-200 mg a day. If you have heart disease or are taking a statin cholesterol-lowering drug, increase your dose to 200 to 400 mg per day.
  • Carnitine is available in several forms. I recommend L-carnitine or its more expensive cousin, acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC), which seems to be especially protective of the brain. The recommended dose is 500-1,000 mg per day.
  • These supplements are available in health food stores or by calling (800) 810-6655.


  • Beckman KB et al. The free radical theory of aging matures. Physiol Rev. 1998;78:547-81.
  • Linnane AW et al. The universality of bioenergetic disease. Ann NY Acad Sci. 1998;854:202-13.
  • Liu J et al. Delaying brain mitochondrial decay and aging with mitochondrial antioxidants and metabolites. Ann NY Acad Sci. 2002;959:133-66.
  • Yu BP et al. Stress resistance by caloric restriction for longevity. Ann NY Acad Sci. 2001; 928:39-47.

Modified from Health & Healing with permission from Healthy Directions, LLC. Copyright 2008. Photocopying, reproduction, or quotation strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. To subscribe to Health & Healingclick here.

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