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So far, we’ve considered the question of energy on many levels, both macro and micro. How much total energy we possess is an aggregation of how well we’re functioning, behaviorally, emotionally, and physically. We can understand that our bodies are a constellation of interrelated systems. Remember, we can’t multiply by zero when it comes to energy, or any of these interrelated systems.
But on the physical front, there is actually a bit more to delve into. Boosting energy at the biological level is much more than simply making sure you’re getting good sleep and nutrition, though again, those are the prerequisites to begin with.
The entire body is a complex organism that is entirely made up of and dependent on the flow of energy. We’ve mentioned the role that good diet plays, and the effects of insulin on blood sugar, but let’s look a little closer at the finer details of how your body actually generates energy to live from the food you eat. Though a biology lesson might not seem relevant in understanding how you function at work or the enthusiasm you have for your goals and dreams, when you think about it, every action, every choice, every emotion, every organ in your body relies on fundamental chemical and physiological processes.
And the body is nothing if not a simple collection of different types of cells. Thus, it stands to reason that we must look to our cells for that extra advantage in energy.
This chapter looks at the cellular mechanisms behind your body’s energy processes, specifically the mitochondria and the role they play in creating the energy you need to survive and thrive. You can optimize health by sleeping better, by taking in the right nutrients and so on. But you can take it a step deeper and use a scientific understanding of your own metabolism to boost your health and energy levels. Everything comes down, in some way, to the mitochondria, so let’s take a closer look at how they work, and how you can support them.
The Cellular Powerhouse
You were probably told in high school that the mitochondria are the “powerhouses” of the cell. These little organelles inside every cell in your body are responsible for, broadly speaking, the actual process of converting the food you eat into energy that then powers every active process in the rest of your body. As you sit and read this right now, your mitochondria are working hard to power every twitch of every muscle, your digestion, the heat in your skin, even the electrochemical thoughts zapping around in your brain. Mitochondria themselves are not the most important aspect of this process; rather, it’s what they create that matters most: ATP.
ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, is thought of as a molecular “currency” that your body uses to deal in energy. The energy in food is stored in the bonds that hold the atoms of your body’s molecules together. When these bonds are broken within the mitochondria, energy is released, captured, and stored for your use. This energy is essentially ATP. ATP is the body’s way of capturing and holding this energy to store and use later. Cells in your body that use a lot of energy—like in the heart, muscles, or the brain—consequently contain cells that are packed with mitochondria, and thus ATP.
It’s simple: without ATP, there is no energy (i.e. life!), and without mitochondria, there is no ATP. So, if you’re really concerned about your well-being and enhancing energy levels, you have to make sure your mitochondrial health is top notch before you do anything else.
A crucial point is that mitochondrial dysfunction is strongly linked with aging. The connection gets overly complex for our purposes, but there are several theories as to why these little cell batteries lose function over time. One is that the very nature of aerobic respiration is damaging to cells, since the process called oxidative phosphorylation within the mitochondrial membranes releases damaging free radicals. Another theory, in keeping with other general theories of ageing, is that repeated cell division allows cell mutations to accumulate with time, eventually inhibiting mitochondrial function. NAD+, an essential coenzyme in the mitochondrial mechanism, is found to decrease aging in some animal studies, but more research is needed to be conclusive.
There’s not much you can do about your genetically determined number of mitochondria or the amount of ATP you naturally produce, but it turns out there’s plenty you can do to support and encourage these elements in the lifestyle choices you make every day. Learning to turn your mitochondrial function up to the max will mean better cognitive function and focus, stronger muscles and better recovery time, slower aging and plenty of energy for life.
As we get older, mitochondria get old and die off. But it’s not this die-off that’s a problem per se. Mitochondrial biogenesis, or the birth of new mitochondria, should ordinarily replace lost mitochondria, but this process slows down as we age as well. This means that a great place to focus our efforts is on supporting biogenesis. How on earth do you know if your mitochondria are healthy? Well, a microscopic view of deteriorating mitochondria would show increased mitochondrial death, slower regeneration, and a drop in ATP production. Outwardly, physical signs of aging and chronic disease are the result.
Many of us have been taught that getting tired is just a natural part of aging, and that little children can run around with boundless energy but not older adults. But this doesn’t have to be true! Fatigue is not a normal part of growing old, but a sign of impaired function right at the cellular level. Losing energy is not inevitable as we age. In fact, many disorders and diseases that result in extreme fatigue—fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and even mold-toxin-caused chronic inflammatory response—all have characteristic mitochondrial impairment. Speak to people with these problems and they’ll tell you they feel as though their plugs have been pulled, or that their battery is low—and in a cellular sense, this is exactly what is happening!
Mitochondrial dysfunction can be a problem all on its own, but it’s also found in many other chronic diseases, from cancer and autoimmune diseases to Alzheimer’s and even, according to some, autism. Plenty of disease processes involve mitochondria in one way or another. Though it might not at first seem relevant to focus on the biology of this one tiny organelle, the more you look at it, the more you see that mitochondrial health is synonymous with overall well-being and energy.
So, what should we be doing to make sure we’re giving our mitochondria everything they need to provide us with the energy we want? As it turns out, priming our cells for peak energy is pretty common sense, and you may already be doing all the right things. Firstly, take a closer look at your diet. “Mitochondrial toxins” are, as you may have guessed, refined carbs and excess sugar. This is made worse if you eat a high-carb diet but don’t do much to immediately burn up that energy. Besides playing havoc on your energy levels and putting you on a roller coaster of blood sugar highs and lows, a carb-heavy diet could be doing more permanent damage to your cells through the generation of free radicals, and even increase your risk in the longer term of Type 2 diabetes. Italian scientists put rats on a diet that was 30 percent pure sugar, and they found significant damage to the liver mitochondria after only eight weeks. Not only that, the sugar-rich diet also significantly reduced the rats’ ability to repair the damage and engage in mitochondria biogenesis.
So to start with, cut back or eliminate sugary drinks, sweets, white bread, cakes, and other refined carbs. There’s no need to go on a completely zero carb or keto diet. However, when your body is in a ketogenic state, it produces ketones, which have in some cases been shown to scavenge free radicals and decrease oxidative damage, and help with mitochondrial biogenesis. Again, though, it’s not 100 percent clear that free radical damage is as crucial as was once thought, so don’t feel the need to eliminate all carbs, especially if you’ll be cutting down on valuable fiber, minerals and vitamins in the process.
Choose moderate amounts of good-quality protein sources and then healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds. Forego sugary fruits for colorful, high-fiber vegetables like leafy greens. These contain plant compounds called polyphenols which could also help reduce oxidative stress in the body. For fruits, look for blueberries, cherries, blackberries, and plums—their rich color is a clue to their polyphenol content!
Finally, make sure that you’re not overeating. Massive energy dumps like this harm insulin levels, but also wreak havoc on mitochondrial function because the mitochondria won’t be able to work that fast, and the excess energy will get stored as body fat, which also tends to create damaging free radicals. As a result, you might guess that caloric restriction has been shown to benefit the mitochondria, both through reducing free radicals, and also through improving mitochondrial efficiency. You can also try intermittent fasting or only eating within a narrow eight-hour period in every twenty-four hours. Otherwise, keep an eye on caloric intake and avoid binges, and you are on the right path.
Another way to support your mitochondrial health is via supplementation. Before you take the leap and buy a supplement, bear in mind that many of the recommended supplements have minimal peer-reviewed evidence to back them up. Nevertheless, you may find that as part of a comprehensive program to boost your energy, supplements do add a little something.
Polyphenol extracts can help the body’s own defenses against oxidative stress and free radical damage, and are derived from the same fruits and veggies that should already be in your diet. Pyrroloquinoline quinone, or PQQ, is a popular and effective polyphenol supplement. PQQ isn’t that abundant in a natural diet, but is found (happily!) in dark chocolate. Glycerophospholipids, or GPLs, are also currently being researched for their benefits on mitochondrial health. These are fat-containing compounds that are essential for building the membranes of organelles within the cells. Mitochondria, being essentially made of extensively folded inner membranes to increase their surface area, can greatly benefit from GPL.
Clinical trials for these kinds of supplements are still underway, and many use other nutrients like CoQ10, NADH or NAD+, L-carnitine, and alpha-ketoglutaric acid. Results are still not conclusive, but if you’re curious, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that these might help with fatigue and boost overall energy levels.
A third way to boost mitochondrial health and therefore energy levels is, perhaps paradoxically, to exercise. If you’re already battling fatigue, it may seem quite a stretch to add vigorous exercise into the mix, in the hope that it might give you energy. But the research is pretty clear: exercise is excellent for your mitochondria. Exercise boosts your mood, keeps your body weight down, improves cardiovascular health and flexibility, and boosts energy—particularly as you get older.
Exercise of any kind is going to be beneficial, but several studies show that HIIT, or high-intensity interval training, is especially helpful. A 2017 study published in the journal Cell Metabolism shows that HIIT makes the mitochondria more structurally robust, resulting in an almost 50 percent increase in mitochondrial capacity—and even more for people who were older. The logical conclusion is that our mitochondria function just like our muscles; if you want to improve your muscles, you wouldn’t let them atrophy. Instead, you would challenge them to encourage growth and strength.
Endurance and aerobic exercise may also encourage mitochondrial biogenesis. This includes things like jogging, hiking, and biking. Weight training, although demanding on mitochondrial function, paradoxically strengthens them, and has also been found to improve overall mitochondrial health. High-intensity interval training in particular has been shown to improve all aerobic respiratory functions as well as tone muscles and enhance cardiovascular health.
Finally, in addition to these diet and lifestyle changes, pay attention to actively protecting your mitochondria from environmental toxins that will accelerate their breakdown. This is a relatively new area of study, but environmental toxins like tobacco smoke, heavy metals, and pollution all show the potential to negatively impact the mitochondria’s ability to do its job. Though the evidence is currently modest, we already know that smoking and living in smoggy cities isn’t great for health in any case.
Even if you don’t smoke, try to avoid being around people who do. Secondhand smoke still has similar effects. Heavy metals have been shown to interfere with the enzymes necessary for oxidative phosphorylation in the mitochondrial membranes, and can be found in well water or sometimes in pesticides used on produce.
To protect yourself, consider a water filter and going organic for at least the “dirty dozen” fruit and vegetables, or those that have the highest exposure to pesticides during growing. These are strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, cherries, and sweet bell peppers. It’s more important to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables than it is to eat purely organic, but if you can afford it, start with these twelve and pass on organic produce for things that have a heavy peel or skin, or a short growing season.
Overall, the advice for maintaining healthy mitochondria is, unsurprisingly, not that different from the advice for living well in general. Live a healthy lifestyle with plenty of fresh, healthy food rich in antioxidants from fruits and vegetables. Drink plenty of water, sleep well, exercise often and avoid overeating, smoking, and alcohol. Limit exposure to known environmental toxins and, to round out your plan for better energy levels, possibly add a key supplement to give your body what it needs.