“The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.”
You probably heard your high school biology teacher say that phrase about a dozen times. It probably showed up on the midterm, too. Possibly in a fill-in-the-blank format.
There’s a reason biology teachers hammer the phrase home. Mitochondria are important - they provide all the energy you use to live your daily life. Your mitochondria play a central role in the aging process, brain function, cellular energy production, immune system function, skeletal muscle strength, and more.
You want your mitochondria to be strong; mitochondrial dysfunction is linked to cardiovascular disease, increased cell death and cellular aging, Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative diseases, hallmarks of aging like shortened telomeres, DNA damage, and more. Compromised mitochondria also put you at risk for mitochondrial diseases.
The good news is that there's a lot you can do to fix dysfunctional mitochondria and build strong, shiny new ones. This article will cover four anti-aging tools you can use to improve your mitochondrial health and make yourself as resilient as possible.
What exactly are mitochondria?
Mitochondria (the singular is mitochondrion, by the way) are organelles -- essential parts of your cells that keep them running properly. Mitochondria are in almost every cell in your body.
If your cell is a car, the mitochondrion is the engine. An engine takes gas and turns it into energy in the form of heat; similarly, a mitochondrion takes the broken down food you eat (either glucose from carbs and protein, or ketones from fat) and turns it into energy, in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
Here’s a quick look at how you produce energy:
- You eat food
- You digest the food in your stomach and small intestine
- The digested food goes through the wall of your small intestine, into your blood, and to your liver
- Your liver bundles up packets of digested food (in the form of either sugar or ketones) and sends them back into your blood
- These little packets zoom around your bloodstream until they find a cell that needs energy
- When they do, they go to that cell’s mitochondrion, where they pass through the mitochondrial membrane
- The mitochondrion grabs the packet and sends it through the Krebs cycle and the electron transport chain (two more terms you might remember from high school bio), producing ATP (energy)
- Your cell uses that ATP for fuel
ATP powers nearly every cell in your body. Walking, thinking, working out, moving your eyes to read these words - all of it happens because your mitochondria are hidden away in your cells right now, cranking out tons of ATP.
Better mitochondria = more energy
You lose mitochondrial function as you age, which contributes to muscle loss, fat gain, decreased cognitive function, and fatigue . In fact, one of the more popular theories of aging (we still don’t know exactly why humans age) is that your mitochondria become less efficient over time and start producing more and more damaging free radicals, especially in the parts of your body that are richest in mitochondria - your brain, muscles, and heart. .
However, you don’t have to resign yourself to declining mitochondria. With the right habits, you can grow brand new mitochondria and make the ones you have more efficient. Here are four ways to strengthen your mitochondria for more energy and focus.
1) High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) involves bouncing between ~30-60 seconds of all-out physical effort, followed by ~10-20 seconds of rest, for several sets. For example:
- 20 meter sprint
- 10 seconds rest
- 20 meter sprint
- 10 seconds rest
- Repeat for 8 sprints total
The nice thing about HIIT is that you fit a full day’s worth of exercise into about 4 minutes. The challenging thing about HIIT is that those 4 minutes are intense. You should be on the verge of collapse afterward (we’re half-joking).
Why would you subject yourself to HIIT?
Because it’s phenomenal for your mitochondria. People who did HIIT 4x/week saw pretty dramatic increases in their muscle mitochondrial function after only two weeks . In two weeks you can increase your body’s capacity to produce energy. That leaves you with more reserves to handle life’s daily challenges. It’ll keep you young, too: HIIT slowed down aging, and the researchers concluded it was likely because the workout group grew more efficient mitochondria . Normal strength training and endurance training didn’t yield the same results; there’s something special about HIIT.
Not a fan of sprinting? Do HIIT in a pool or on an exercise bike, or do a CrossFit-style workout where you lift heavy things for time, with brief rests in between. The key is to go all-out, followed by just enough of a break to almost catch your breath.
2) Deeper sleep
Your brain is one of the most mitochondria-dense parts of your body - which makes sense, considering it takes up almost 25% of your daily energy needs, despite its size.
During deep sleep, all your brain mitochondria refresh themselves by getting rid of damaged parts and cellular waste . After a good night’s rest, you wake up to more efficient energy production in your brain and heightened cognition. On the flip side, consistently poor sleep leads to mitochondrial mutations .
Get a minimum of 8 hours’ sleep each night, especially if you’re working out. If you have trouble sleeping, try 400 mg magnesium before bed (the linked brand is excellent). For extra deep sleep, add in 0.3 mg melatonin. You don’t need more than that.
3) Anti-inflammatory foods
Inflammation takes a serious toll on your mitochondria. It makes them produce less energy, which in turn triggers further inflammation. The result is a vicious cycle of increasing inflammation and decreasing energy production [7,8].
Diet is one of the best ways to decrease inflammation. Here are a few guidelines for decreasing inflammation.
- Drink coffee. It’s the richest source of anti-inflammatory polyphenols in the Western world . You can do regular or decaf - it doesn’t make a difference.
- Aim for 6-10 servings of veggies a day. They’re full of antioxidants and fiber, both of which decrease inflammation.
- Have a handful of colorful berries. Blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries are all packed with antioxidants.
- Take a quality omega-3 supplement, or add fatty fish to your diet. Your body will turn to omega-3 fats instead of inflammatory omega-6 fats, keeping your systemic inflammation low.
Calorie restriction makes you grow new mitochondria . That makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint: if you don’t have enough food, your body wants you running at peak performance so you can find something to eat.
The downside is that caloric restriction sucks. It’s exhausting and leaves you hungry. Fortunately, there’s a happy medium in intermittent fasting.
With intermittent fasting, you eat all your food in a 6-hour or 8-hour window, and fast for the rest of the day. You get the benefits of short-term calorie restriction, but you’re free to eat until you’re full during your eating window. Intermittent fasting triggers a process called autophagy, which is like spring cleaning for your cells. During autophagy, your cells get rid of damaged parts and replace them with shiny new ones. Fasting also triggers mitophagy, which is autophagy specifically in your mitochondria. Fasting causes your brain cells to recycle damaged mitochondria and bring in strong, new ones.
Your mitochondria are essential to aging well and feeling energized all day. Pick a few of these habits to increase your energy reserves for a more vibrant life.
Have you noticed results from any of the above? What else do you do for more energy? Let us know below. Thanks for reading!