For the brave, however, there are also a few more interesting things you could try to raise your mitochondrial output and start feeling super energized. “Cold therapy,” although it might not sound like fun for some, has been shown to be a powerful tool for physical and psychological well-being, and a firm favorite in the “biohacking” community for kicking your mitochondrial biogenesis up a notch.
To get a sudden blast of cold throughout your body, you don’t need to go skinny-dipping in Siberia. Instead, start small by ending every shower with a quick blast with water as cold as you can get it. Even thirty to ninety seconds will do the trick. If you have a pool, a quick dip in very cold water will greatly increase your mitochondrial health, and this works in two ways: first, it essentially gives your mitochondria a stressor to deal with, just like with exercising, and second, when cells grow cold, they contract, and this closer proximity allows mitochondria to function more quickly and efficiently. There’s simply a shorter distance for the energy to travel with contraction.
If you’re up for the challenge, a bath filled with ice can create an at-home plunge pool, or you could build your own setup using a little DIY knowledge and some creativity. The idea is to give your body cold therapy regularly, using it just the same as you would a supplement or a daily workout.
The great thing about cold therapy is that it’s not just good for you physically, but mentally, too. It takes an iron will and a firm resolve to plunge yourself into discomfort this way. But the corresponding sense of mental toughness you acquire can be enormously satisfying. While your mitochondria get a boost, you’re simultaneously strengthening yourself mentally and emotionally, showing yourself that you’re strong and that you can endure pain and come out the other end, better for the experience. What could make you feel more alive and kicking than diving into an icy glacial pool?
Now, while cold can increase the number of mitochondria, heat can on the other hand increase their efficiency. If steam rooms and heat saunas sound more up your alley, you’ll be happy to know that fifteen to thirty minutes of extreme heat has been shown to boost mitochondrial function by up to a third. Specifically, when we are undergoing heat therapy in a sweat lodge or sauna, the energetic needs of our mitochondria go up and they respond by using oxygen in the blood more efficiently. This process is called oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS). In one study, repeated exposure to heat stress for six days increased mitochondrial function by 28 percent.
In addition, researchers from Brigham Young University studied twenty adult volunteers who had not participated in regular exercise in the three months prior to the study. The research team applied two hours of shortwave diathermy—a type of heat therapy generated by electrical pulses—to the thigh muscles of one leg of each person every day. The researchers based the six-day trial of heat on the minimum amount of exercise needed to measure changes in muscle, or about two hours each day. The therapy sessions increased the temperature of the heated leg by approximately seven degrees F. Each participant’s other leg served as a control, receiving no heat therapy or temperature change. The researchers looked at mitochondria content in the muscles on the first day of therapy and twenty-four hours after the last treatment.
Mitochondrial function increased by an average of 28 percent in the heated legs. The concentration of several mitochondrial proteins also rose in the heated legs, again demonstrating that mitochondria health increases as an adaptation, just like muscular strength.
Heat treatments have a long list of well-researched benefits, including better athletic endurance, increased longevity, and better skin. However, this comes with some caveats—if you’re a male attempting to conceive any time soon, it’s best to give heat therapy a miss.
The Noble Bean
At the beginning of this book, one of the things that may have come to mind when you thought of energy and how to get it was “coffee.” Almost all of us drink it or have in the past. Coffee’s reputation for being an all-around energy booster is ubiquitous, and many people reach for it first when their energy is flagging and they need to pep up. Though we’ve explored the many factors that add to a life that is brimming over with energy, this book would be amiss not to mention the noble bean, and its place in a smart energy-management program.
Sadly, though coffee feels as though it gives you a nice buzz, the truth is that when consumed regularly it can actually damage your energy levels. It’s counterintuitive, but coffee doesn’t actually give you energy at all. When you feel tired and low energy, the neurotransmitter adenosine (this is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that’s related to ATP as discussed above) fits into receptors in the brain, and this triggers feelings of sleepiness. When it’s late at night and you’re nodding off, it’s because your adenosine receptors are full.
The caffeine in coffee can also fit into these receptors, except it has an opposite effect—i.e., making us feel wired up and energized. This is because it blocks the adenosine that would ordinarily plug the receptors, and prevents it from instigating any sleepy feelings. Caffeine essentially shuts off adenosine receptors and their fatiguing effects, overall resulting in a stimulant effect. In the short term, this process works quite well, and there are countless studies to prove that caffeine is excellent at boosting energy and cognitive function.
However, your body is pretty clever, and if you drink caffeine daily, it begins to adapt to the fact. After the coffee wears off, your body might double down and produce more adenosine, almost to balance things out. You’re then hit with a massive wall of fatigue that is essentially bigger than the tiredness you originally warded off. If you reach for another cup of coffee, you could end up on a nasty energy merry-go-round, drinking more and more caffeine with seemingly diminishing returns. People who try to quit coffee may discover their energy levels completely crash; convinced that the caffeine was the only thing propping them up, they return to drinking it. However, as you can see, caffeine’s power is a bit of an illusion.
What’s more, consuming coffee daily can chronically overstimulate your adenosine receptors, causing your body to ramp up production of adenosine and receptors. What happens then is that your normal energy baseline drops, and you essentially become dependent on caffeine to attain normal levels of energy. Like a drug addict who develops tolerance, you end up drinking more just to stay in the same place, and find it hard to quit without withdrawal. It’s a sorry state of affairs. While you may sincerely believe that your coffee is your energy lifeline, all it’s really doing is boosting you back up to what used to be your ordinary energy level, before you started consuming caffeine.
You wake up groggy and unrefreshed, your mood is altered for the worse and there’s evidence that coffee has a host of other negative effects on the body, not just on energy levels. That being said, coffee does have some benefits, not to mention it’s delicious. Eliminating coffee is a great idea, but you could also choose to drink it for a few days and then take a few days’ break. If you’re a caffeine junkie, you might need to “detox” for a good few weeks first, just to reset your system. Take heart that although you’ll feel like you’re dying for a few days, your normal energy levels will return.
If you can manage to give up coffee, it won’t be long before you start seeing an improvement. Dropping coffee can improve your sleep and help you feel more balanced and level-headed throughout the day. If you suffer from anxiety or depression, you may find that eliminating coffee cuts down on that on-edge feeling and has your moods feeling more stable. Cutting coffee has also been shown to positively affect PMS and menstrual health, so keep this in mind if you find yourself cycling energy-wise throughout the month.
Since coffee is a diuretic (i.e. it causes you to urinate more), you may find you need a few weeks to find a better water equilibrium in your body. Coffee doesn’t dehydrate us directly, but can cause us to pass more water, resulting in dehydration which then leads to feeling sluggish and fatigued. If you’re quitting coffee, you may find that replacing it with water or tea helps your transition, and will improve the overall quality of your skin and digestion, too. Finally, if you’re used to having sugar in your coffee, cutting this out immediately cuts your caloric intake and will help steady your blood sugar levels in the process. Caffeinated drinks that are also heavy in sugar and fat are sheer destruction for your system, deepening your caffeine crash when it happens. Dropping sugar and cream-laden drinks can have you feeling lighter and more refreshed almost instantly, not to mention the benefit of skipping all those empty calories.
If you’re not ready to cut the caffeine cord just yet, that’s OK. You can still enjoy moderate caffeine intake without jeopardizing your health too much. Aim for no more than 400 mg of caffeine per day (that’s about 2 cups), and avoid adding loads of sugar and cream. Skip coffee altogether in the afternoons and go for tea or water instead. Periodically, wean yourself off and have a few caffeine-free weeks. Try decaf, or else mix half decaf with half fully caffeinated for a compromise.
Finally, there’s a more serious reason to moderate your coffee intake: adrenal fatigue. Your adrenal glands are responsible for producing stress hormones. If they’re constantly overstimulated, they become exhausted and unable to respond, leading to you feeling completely burnt out. Today, many of us live hyper-stressed, chronically “switched-on” lifestyles. It’s like being in “fight or flight” mode, but permanently.
Caffeine is notorious for worsening this phenomenon; your daily cup could be sending constant messages to your adrenals to produce more adrenaline and cortisol. Though excellent in genuine emergencies, routinely flooding your system with these hormones just to meet deadlines and pull all-nighters is no good for your long-term health. Caffeine can “burn out” your adrenal glands and leave you depleted. Furthermore, not only could coffee give you heartburn and intestinal difficulty, it can also interfere with calcium metabolism, wreck blood sugar levels, and interfere with medications. All of this adds up to a perfect storm of exhaustion. If you’re someone who has fatigue issues, a particularly stressful lifestyle, an autoimmune or hormonal condition, or a recent illness you’re trying to overcome, tread carefully when it comes to coffee. It could be the spark that ignites a whole powder keg of adrenal issues for you.