Mitochondria: The inner fountain of youth. By Pete Edwards
A core principal of the EP training, eating and living philosophy is that the way you live determines the way you age to a significant degree. The many factors that make you who you are, such as genetics, interact with the infinite number of external forces that work on your mind and body, such as culture, food, environment etc which collectively is called the exosome. The end result is the mind-bogglingly unique person that is currently reading this.
The physical body that you inhabit is, obviously the only one you will ever get to use. There’s no swapping. It is the vehicle through which you will experience every single experience of your life. You will use it to work, play love and do all else you will ever do. It makes sense to take the best care of that vehicle possible. Does it not?
If we agree on that point then I can bet I’ve got you on board with this next point, also. If there was a function of your vehicle, your body that impacted the rate and quality of ageing of almost every single cell and function within you, it would make sense to take care of that function and maintain it as best as possible. Agreed?
Turns out that there are a few such components that are immensely critical and deserve special attention, having a wide-ranging impact on a hard to believe scale. One such element is your mitochondria. Here's a few things you absolutely need to know.
What are mitochondria?
Mitochondria are the “powerhouse of the cell” as my old biology teachers used to tell me. Inside your cells there are hundreds, sometimes thousands of mitochondria. Each one uses fats and / or glucose to make energy, that the cell can then use to do whatever that particular cell does. Without mitochondria we would probably not be here at all. The prevailing theory is that mitochondria started out as a bacteria, that managed to burrow inside a single celled organism in the ancient past. The result of the happy marriage was that the mitochondria had a safe and protective environment inside the cell and the cell had an unprecedented energy source. This combination turned out to be an evolutionary spark that made rapid growth, proliferation and ultimately mutation possible. Without this happening, advanced life forms like mammals may never have been able to evolve at all. In our modern bodies they are a profoundly important component of our cellular makeup and make our lives possible.
Why are mitochondria so important?
Without the energy provided my mitochondria, cells could not live for very long at all. Nor could they perform their various specialised functions very well, if at all. Take muscles for example. Our slow twitch “endurance” fibres are a deep red colour due to their high concentration of thousands of mitochondria in each cell. This allows them to produce movement, without them we could not muster enough energy to move. Nowhere is this more evident than in our hearts, where cells have an incredible density of mitochondria. In the brain they provide energy for thought , which is very expensive, (the brain makes up only one twentieth of our weight yet uses one fifth of our resting energy expenditure). Simply put, without highly functioning mitochondria we would be very little use at all.
What happens to mitochondria if I don't take care of them?
When we neglect our mitochondria the cost can be significant and never good. Mitochondria can produce energy through one of two different pathways. The oxidative pathway and the glycolytic pathway. When respiring through the oxidative pathway they tend to thrive. Biogenesis (making new mitochondria) happens as it should and very little damage is done to the cell that the mitochondria resides within. When the glycolytic pathway is used, however, reactive oxygen species (ROS) are created. This effectively oxidises the cell from the inside out. Think of this as rusting the cell from within. It causes the cell to age more quickly and damages other components of the cell and hinders other functions. For example, DNA replication can be compromised as well as DNA itself damaged. This can lead to a multitude of things going wrong within the cell and can lead to cell death or even cancer.
Additionally, chronic glucose burning actually hinders the mitochondria's ability to burn fats. This can, at least theoretically, lead to fat loss resistance and difficulty getting lean. It will reduce whats known as metabolic flexibility (the ability to switch between fuel sources) and that can lead to a dependency on frequent meals, increased hunger and getting cranky when not fed.
When our cells fail to produce energy effectively, age quickly and have compromised functioning, whichever organ system that cell is part of will suffer. Effectively this is one of the mechanisms of ageing. We’ve all seen kids with seemingly boundless energy? that’s healthy mitochondria! We’ve all seen people at 50 years old who seem young, healthy and full of life, while others at the same age seem slow, lethargic and older in years than they may actually be. The difference is healthy mitochondria. At least in part.
So what makes all this damage happen? Diet is one of the biggest keys. The default energy source for aerobic metabolism in the human body is fat. When mitochondria are burning fats they are using that friendly oxidative system. They hum along quite happily causing little to no damage, regenerate themselves as they should and all is well. When they are forced to chronically burn glucose through the glycolytic system damage happens. This is caused by what we eat. A carbohydrate based diet that forces our mitochondria to continually use the glycolytic pathway causes a chronic stress on the mitochondria and inside the cell within which it sits. Short term use of the glycolytic system causes some damage, when cycled with recovery it is not a problem. But when sustained all day every day it is a big problem.
Most people eat a glucose dependent diet. Which means they eat enough carbs to essentially force the mitochondria to use the glycolytic system chronically. This essentially causes accelerated ageing in the body and limits mitochondrial biogenesis (you cannot regenerate your mitochondria, and numbers will fall dramatically over time). Sugar and refined carbohydrate are the worst offenders, but essentially you will pay a slight mitochondrial price every time you force your cells to burn glucose instead of fats.
This is one reason why fasting has been shown to provide really promising benefits to cells and mitochondrial function. Fasting limits glucose availability to the point that cells are forced to utilise almost exclusively fats for fuel. This respite from the insults of glucose allow the mitochondria and their cells to recover and even stimulates biogenesis. The same results are achievable through a ketogenic diet.
How do I undo this damage?
In short, If you want to live a long and vibrant life, you should take care of your mitochondria. How do you do that? Well, diet is a huge key. The optimal diet for mitochondrial health isn’t exactly established and agreed upon. But here are some approaches which are proven to have a beneficial impact:
Follow a ketogenic diet. It has been shown that a ketogenic diet has beneficial effects on mitochondria. It will stimulate biogenesis, reduce and even repair damage done by chronic glucose burning, and heal the mitochondria's ability to burn fats. I do not think that you need to be on a ketogenic diet all year round. Short periods spent in ketosis will provide all these benefits and by going in and out of ketosis over the year you will be able to cycle stress and recovery.
Periodically fasting will also provide these benefits.
Fasts of up to four days have been shown to have significant positive benefits on mitochondrial health. But obviously not eating for four days will come with dangers of its own and should be attempted intelligently. Consult with the relative professional before attempting this.
There are also some supplements that may have advantages, some are more promising than others, so here are my top picks.
Resveratrol is one of the most exciting products available on the market for anti aging. I’ve written more extensively about this product HERE, but the highlights are that will protect against and even heal the mitochondria from the ROS created by glucose burning. It will stimulate biogenesis and heal the mitochondria's ability to burn fats. Take 250 - 500mg per day
Antioxidants may help to protect against the oxidative damage caused by the ROS produced by glucose burning.
CoQ10 has been shown to enhance mitochondrial function and in known as ubiquinone due to it’s ubiquitous presence in cells.
Keto CaNa. Made by Ketosports, This product is a godsend when trying to get into ketosis. It cuts out the three day transition period and can get you into ketosis in about 10 minutes! Which saves a lot of discomfort! Click here to see my review of this product.
Periodically using a low protein approach in the diet can have significant positive impact on biogenisis. Essentially when you eat enough protein to stimulate protein synthesis you turn off a process called autophagy. Think of the body as having two modes when it comes to protein intake; proliferation and conservation. In proliferation mode you make new muscle cells, repair tissues and grow. In conservation mode you clean out old dead cells and cell machinery and essentially recycle our protein. This conservation mode is called autophagy and has been linked to very positive effects on longevity, anti-cancer and mitochondrial biogenisis. In order to enter autophagy you need to keep protein really low. Under 15g per day actually. After about 20 hours of keeping protein intake this low the body will enter autophagy and you will reap the benefits. Unlike as is suggested in intermittent fasting circles, I do not think that living in this state daily is necessary or optimal. But using short protein fasts or periodical multi day fasts I think is useful. I have also seen protein fasts lead to breaking through fat loss plateaus, I think this is due to a significant inflammatory reducing effect of protein fasting.
Click here to download my mitochondria protocol. It will bring all this info together into a protocol you can follow to keep your mitochondrial health in good check.