Every part of every cell is important for good health. One part, though, has recently risen to the forefront in research on health and longevity – mitochondria. Everything works better and longer when you are good to them. If you aren’t, well … good luck with that. Here are some crucial pointers on what you can do to make sure that your mitochondria are all they should be.
A long and healthy life depends on how good you are to your mitochondria.
For your convenience, this post is organized into two main parts:
Part 1: The science-y stuff about why healthy mitochondria are so danged important.
Part 2: What you must do to have healthy mitochondria.
SIDENOTE: The early parts of this post (mostly Part 1) set the stage for what goes wrong with mitochondria, which can be a little geeky. Stick with it if you can, though. Or, skip ahead to the sections in Part 2 where you can learn about the most important actions you can take for mitochondrial (and overall) health.]
Part 1: The Importance of Healthy Mitochondria
The textbook cell here just gives you an idea about some of the main parts of cells. The original purpose of this diagram is to plague biology students who have to memorize all the different parts and their functions. The sizes and shapes in this diagram are generally inaccurate, and the colors here don’t exist in living cells. Otherwise, it’s a fine way to start a discussion about mitochondria, don’t you think?
Misconceptions About Mitochondria
The textbook description of mitochondria that you will encounter most often says that they are the powerhouses of the cells. The reason for this description is that they house two fundamental pathways (i.e., the Krebs cycle and the electron transport chain) that drive the formation of the misleadingly termed ‘energy’ molecule, ATP (adenosine triphosphate). (BTW, if you ever had memorize how to get 36 molecules of ATP from one molecule of glucose … what can I say? … you were grossly misinformed.)
The textbook dogma of mitochondrial physiology is, unfortunately, full of holes.
If you had to barf up this dogma on exams in high school or college, you may be interested to know that most of what textbooks say about mitochondria is wrong. For the really geeky among you, a good place to get a peek into why this is the case is this article by Dr. Gilbert Ling: OXIDATIVE PHOSPHORYLATION AND MITOCHONDRIAL PHYSIOLOGY: A CRITICAL REVIEW OF CHEMIOSMOTIC THEORY, AND REINTERPRETATION BY THE ASSOCIATION-INDUCTION HYPOTHESIS.
I will leave it at that for now. Let’s move on to what we now know about mitochondria and how they actually work.
What Mitochondria Really Do
Mitochondrial physiology has a much broader impact and is more complicated than merely generating cellular energy. Some of the health outcomes of such breadth and complexity of functions are revealed in a category of health issues that are called mitochondrial diseases. You can start to see the possibilities by taking a look at the wide variety of mitochondrial functions that are already known.
A short list includes:
- Heat production
- Storage of calcium ions
- Signaling through mitochondrial reactive oxygen species
- Regulation of the membrane potential
- Apoptosis-programmed cell death
- Calcium signaling (including calcium-evoked apoptosis)
- Regulation of cellular metabolism
- Certain heme synthesis reactions
- Steroid synthesis
- Hormonal signaling, via estrogen receptors particularly in brain and heart cells
- Regulation of cellular proliferation
That’s quite a lot. Disruptions in any of these functions can show up in any of a myriad of health disorders.
Depending on where mitochondria are most deficient, symptoms of dysfunction can arise in one or more of the following organ systems:
THE TOP THREE SCARIEST DYSFUNCTIONS – PLUS ONE
These are the ‘BIG THREE’ that scare most people, not counting cancer (which is enough for a separate article all by itself):
- Dementia (esp. Alzheimer’s disease)
- Heart failure
The ‘PLUS ONE’ that I refer to, which is not depicted directly in the above diagram, is obesity.
The key mitochondria in these dysfunctions are mostly in the cells of the brain and the heart. With respect to diabetes, I would maintain that the hormone signaling pathways involving leptin and insulin are more explanatory than pancreatic dysfunction. These two hormones depend on receptors in the brain.
In regard to obesity, the mitochondrial function of note is part of a system that entails the formation of brown adipose tissue (BAT, brown fat) from white adipose tissue (WAT, white fat). The formation of BAT is accompanied by the generation of new mitochondria. Indeed, the darker color of BAT is due to a high density of mitochondria.
THIS SHOULD BE EQUALLY SCARY
Yup, mitochondrial dysfunction seems to be a major driving factor for accelerated aging.
Nobody really believes that you can reverse aging, despite all the marketing hype about it. However, you can reverse mitochondrial dysfunction that accelerates aging. In other words, you can slow down the aging process, which is what good health is all about.
By now you may have heard about telomeres with respect to aging. Telomeres are little segments of DNA at the ends of chromosomes. Each time a nucleus divides, the telomeres get a little shorter. Ultimately they get so short that the nucleus can no longer divide and the cell dies.
This means that a lower limit on telomere length determines how old a cell can get before it dies. Telomere length is a core indicator of longevity.
BONUS: Longer telomeres, and therefore longevity, are directly tied to mitochondrial health.
The biology that relates telomeres, mitochondria, and longevity is still in its infancy. Researchers are working furiously to figure out how it all works. The best current explanation is rather detailed and heavy with scientific jargon. The full article is available at no charge online, which I’ve made available here: Linking functional decline of telomeres, mitochondria and stem cells during ageing. It is fascinating reading, although wading through it might make your head hurt.
Or you can take a look at the key image from that article that shows a model of how mitochondrial dysfunction leads to aging, here: Mitochondria, telomeres, and aging (links to the image).
Part 2: What Must You Do?
Taking a look at how mitochondria control your overall health and lifespan might be fun, although pretty geeky. The key to good health, though, is knowing what action steps to take to capitalize on mitochondrial biology for your benefit.
It turns out that the lifestyle choices of most folks in modern times destroy mitochondrial health.
The good news is that making better choices can reverse mitochondrial destruction.
Some of the most important of such choices include the following:
- Reduce exposure to non-native electromagnetic fields (nnEMFs)
- Live by appropriate circadian rhythms (day-night cycles)
- Recharge your mitochondrial batteries with food-based DHA
- Harness the power of cold (non-shivering) thermogenesis
- Boost the most important dietary ingredients for making more mitochondria
Take note that how to make such lifestyle changes is not always obvious. Furthermore, the magnitude and strategy of these changes vary depending on how far down the wrong path you have been traveling.
Each of the strategies that I’m going to tell you about below is an enormous topic all by itself. For that reason, I will be giving you the main points and referring you to sources of further information to really dig into the salient details that you might want to know more about.
So, let’s get started …
1. Reduce exposure to nnEMFs
FACT: In the past century our entire planet has seen a 500-fold increase in nnEMFs.
The four types of nnEMFs that we can easily measure
- Electric fields
- Magnetic fields
- Radiofrequency radiation
- Intermediate frequencies or “dirty electricity”
The main sources of electropollution
- Cell phones – Cell phones and cell towers emit radio frequency fields (RFs), a type of high frequency EMF.
- WiFi – Wireless internet emits powerful radio frequency fields (RFs).
- Cordless phones – Do you have cordless phones in your home or office? The base for these phones emits a high concentration of high frequency EMFs.
- Dirty electricity in homes, schools and offices – The U.S. electrical power grid is polluted by “invisible dirt,” high and mid-frequency signals that are equated with static on a radio station.
- Fluorescent lights – Fluorescent lights emit much higher levels of EMFs than their incandescent or LED counterparts.
- Wireless baby monitors – emit RFs that are shown to be damaging especially to infants.
- Smart Meters – emit high frequency radiation.
- Appliances and electronics – all appliances and electronics emit EMFs, some more than others. For example, refrigerators and electric stoves create a powerful EMF field.
Biological effects … a modern health nightmare
Rather than outline all the possible biological effects here, I am going send the truly serious among my readers to the best article that I have ever found on the biological effects of nnEMFs. This is a must-read for understanding what nnEMFs are doing to ruin your health.
WARNING: You will be shocked when you start digging into this topic.
Here is the article on Dr. Jack Kruse’s blog: EMF 5: What are the Biologic Effects of EMF?
Note that one of the underlying themes of Dr. Kruse’s comments on EMFs is that we are adapted to the natural electromagnetic fields of our planet. All life is. The key for understanding what nnEMFs do to us is that they disrupt how we detect and respond to them via our own internal EMFs, the most powerful of which are in the brain and the heart.
Protecting yourself against nnEMFs
The only way to avoid exposure to most nnEMFs is to live 200 feet underground. Not practical, you say?
Fortunately, we can take certain actions to reduce our exposure. As I discovered in my own home, this could be as simple as unplugging a bedside lamp because of the intense magnetic field emitted by it even when it was switched off!
This is just one example of what I discovered in my daily environment and what I could do about reducing my exposure.
Protecting yourself against nnEMFs is a book length topic, which I learned from a number of books. The core information might be best summarized by Lloyd Burrell and his ebook, Long Term EMF Protection, at ElectricSense.com.
The story of what Lloyd discovered about his “electrosensitivity” and how he dealt with it is a real eye-opener about reducing exposure to nnEMFs. I strongly advise you to pay attention to what he has to say.
Learning about this topic and taking the right action steps can be a long process, so delve in and stick to it.
Remember, mitochondria are little cellular powerhouses whose functions depend on membrane voltages and electron flow. Any kind of disruption by nnEMFs can ruin them (and you).
2. Live by circadian rhythms
Adaptation to the natural day-night cycle is a bedrock for mitochondrial health. It is also a story about electrons (everything is, actually). In this case it entails something called the photoelectric effect, whereby photons (particles of light) cause the emission of electrons. (Fun Trivia: The law of the photoelectric effect, not the theory of relativity, was the basis for Albert Einsteins’s Nobel Prize in 1921.)
Starting at sunrise, the sun’s rays initiate a host of electronic effects. Morning sunlight, awakens our mitochondria and gets our energy flowing for the day.
One of the absolute best thing you can do to live by circadian rhythms is to let sunshine directly into the retina of your eyes (without staring into the sun) and onto your skin first thing in the morning.
This electronic signaling pathway connects your retina to your brain to control a HUGE number of metabolic processes via mitochondria in every living cell in your body (except red blood cells, which have no mitochondria). In other words, the health of your mitochondria depends on an electrical system that is energized by the first light of day.
The simplest action you can take is just to get outdoors more often. Take your work breaks outside in the sun.
The topic of light and circadian rhythms is the focus of an earlier article on my blog here: Heliophobia Makes Modern Disease for One and All.
If getting native sunlight is not always practical, you can supplement with special indoor lighting. Peruse this discussion on Dr. Kruse’s forum to get a feel for what other folks are working on in this regard. I took some of the advice from this thread to get a reptile (high UV) lamp set up on my office desk. When I am working at my desk, like I am as I write this, I have at least some UV light hitting my retinas at all times.
Here is the thread:
A bonus for getting outdoors is the simultaneous exposure to infrared light (IR). IR is a crucial energy source for structuring water on the surfaces of mitochondrial (and other cellular) proteins. Such structured water facilitates the cellular electronics that all metabolic process depend on. You can get a peek into this fascinating topic via an interview of its discoverer, Dr. Gerald Pollack, at Dr. Joseph Mercola’s website here: The Fourth Phase of Water – What You Don’t Know About Water, and Really Should. In my opinion, this discovery merits a Nobel Prize for Dr. Pollack.
The Worst Thing You Can Do
Okay, sunrise says it is daytime, so get going. Conversely, sunset says it is nighttime, so cease the daytime signaling to your brain.
Unfortunately, here is what most people do at night: turn on the lights, turn on the TV, turn on the laptop or iPad, catch up on text messages, etc., etc.
What does all this activity have in common? Blue light at night.
Blue light is part of daylight. Exposure to blue light during the day appropriately tells your retinal-brain-mitochondrial signaling system that it is daytime.
Exposure to blue light at night tells this system that it is still daytime.
That totally screws up your circadian rhythms.
Blue light toxicity is akin to eating a Standard American Diet (i.e., really crappy) and cheesecake all day.
The best thing you can do to combat blue light toxicity is to use only candles and firelight after sunset.
The next best thing you can do is use filters on all of your blue-light emitting lights and devices if you have to use them.
Also replace fluorescent lights and LEDs with safelights (i.e., red or dark yellow).
A sort of okay thing to do, which is what I do, is to wear blue light filtering glasses or goggles after sunset (available for under $10 on Amazon and elsewhere).
Keep in mind that your skin also has light receptors. Keeping blue light out of your eyes is a good step for reducing blue light toxicity. Keeping it off of your skin is also important if you can swing it.
The preponderance of blue light after sunset is probably the most damaging exposure to nnEMFs that will ruin mitochondrial health. It is also the one nnEMF that we can personally have the most control over.
You must reduce blue light toxicity if you ever expect to be fully healthy for as long as you should. Period.
PARENTS AND YOUNG PEOPLE:
BRAIN DEVELOPMENT CONTINUES UNTIL ABOUT AGE 25
DO EVERYTHING YOU CAN TO REDUCE OR ELIMINATE IT … NOW!
I hope that I have made myself abundantly clear on that point.
3. Consume more food-based DHA
Did you ever hear the old adage that fish is ‘brain food’?
This old tale is backed up by modern research showing that DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a key fatty acid in fish oils, plays a crucial role in the mitochondria of brain cells. Actually, ditto for all other cells. There may be more DHA in your brain than anywhere else, except maybe for your eyes.
DHA deficiency means mitochondrial deficiency. Brain dysfunction attracts more attention in this regard, although DHA deficiency impacts all sorts of cell types.
Note that I do not recommend fish oil supplements as the first choice for getting DHA into your diet. Fish oils have to be manipulated, sometimes harshly, to get them into supplement form. It is no surprise, therefore, that we are better adapted to getting the benefits from whole-food fish oils … actually from consuming fish … than from any kind of processed fish oil.
The importance of getting ‘native’ DHA from whole-food fish oils (i.e., fish) is the topic of my earlier article here: Fish Oils – Industry BS Just Plain Fishy.
As you can see, fish oil supplements are sometimes acceptable, just not the best choice for your source of DHA.
However you choose to get DHA, the key is get it every day. Your mitochondrial health depends on it.
By the way, this is the only dietary recommendation that I have offered so far. It is the most important one that I could make.
The reason that dietary recommendations are so few here is that the impact of diet takes a back seat to the importance of protecting yourself against nnEMFs and living by appropriate circadian rhythms.
4. Cold Thermogenesis
Take a look at this earlier post to orient yourself on this topic: Get Healthy, Live Longer With Cold Thermogenesis.
Cold thermogenesis (CT) is a wonderful way to boost mitochondrial health in at least two ways.
First, it drives mitochondria to generate more heat and less ATP. The biochemistry of how that happens is really cool. I’ll save you the brain pain of all the details and just summarize it this way: CT makes mitochondria behave as if you had exercised. Yup, you can say that CT is a substitute for working out. It makes your muscles more active. Of course, as I discussed in that earlier post, combining CT with a workout is the key to super-fitness.
Second, CT drives the conversion of white fat (e.g., the unwanted icky stuff around your middle) into brown fat. I touched on this topic in my CT post, too. Regarding mitochondria, one of the consequences of this conversion is the formation of scads and scads of mitochondria in the newly formed brown fat cells. In fact, that is why they are brown (actually, they are colored by one of the mitochondrial enzymes).
Brown fat cells are fat-burning furnaces!
5. Boost certain dietary ingredients (besides DHA)
There is one more food-based nutrient, besides DHA, that is crucial for mitochondrial health. It is the single most important ingredient for stimulating the formation of new mitochondria.
Mitochondria have a limited lifespan. They also have their own DNA, which means even when they are working they are subject to genetic mutations. It therefore behooves a cell to continually replace them with new ones.
This is especially important for those cells that contain lots of mitochondria … muscle, liver, brain. (Not red blood cells … they don’t have any!)
The ingredient that I am referring to is pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ). This substance has attracted so much attention that supplement manufacturers have become all agog about it.
For example, I just received one advertising circular about it that had these headlines:
Breakthrough Discovery INCREASES the Number of
“Power Generators” in Your Cells, Releasing Inexhaustible
Power and Energy ON DEMAND
WOW! … who wouldn’t want that?
The “power generators” are, of course, the mitochondria. The ingredient that boosts their numbers is PQQ.
This kind of marketing hype is over-the-top entertainment. However, the underlying point about the effects of PQQ on mitochondrial biogenesis is well-supported scientifically.
Early research suggested that PQQ should be classified as a new vitamin. This suggestion attracted all kinds of disagreements among the vitamin police. Regardless of what we call it, at the very least, PQQ is clearly an essential nutrient that everyone must get in their diets. Unfortunately, nobody seems to know now much we need.
We do know, however, that we can get a tiny amount from certain foods. These include the following:
Extrapolation from research studies mostly on lab animals, plus a limited number of human studies, targets about 500 micrograms (μg) as a daily dosage that will prevent symptoms of PQQ deficiency.
As with all vitamins and other essential nutrients, suggestions about daily dosages revolve around avoiding symptoms of deficiency, not optimal health. For comparison, consuming 500 μg of PQQ would be like getting 10-20 mg (milligrams) of vitamin C. That amount of vitamin C prevents scurvy, but not much else. The actual RDA for vitamin C is 90 mg per day. The optimal dose is much, much higher. (E.g., Dr. Linus Pauling, the greatest advocate for higher doses of vitamin C, recommended well over 10,000 mg per day.)
Even though the optimal dosages for PQQ are unknown, supplement companies that manufacture it provide tablets or capsules of 10-20 mg. This dosage is believed to be sufficient for stimulating mitochondrial biogenesis equivalent to what you get from exercise.
[SIDENOTE: If you are keeping track of advice on how to get the benefits of exercise without actually working out, these two strategies are at the top of the list: 1) cold thermogenesis (see above); and, 2) daily supplementation with 10-20 mg of PQQ.
All you couch potatoes rejoice!
Of course, if you do a lot of things right for mitochondrial health, as described in this post, combining them with taking a PQQ supplement will boost you to another level.
Some Important Math on Dietary PQQ
You will probably never get enough PQQ from diet alone. Here is a little exploration into the numbers that tell you why.
Start with the food with the highest content, natto. If you are not familiar with natto, it is a pungent Japanese dish of fermented soybeans that is prepared by infesting wet soybeans with Bacillus subtilis bacteria to produce a mucous-like gooey stringy mess that reeks of ammonia. It is no surprise that it is not very popular in the U.S.
Nevertheless, to get enough PQQ from natto for overcoming symptoms of PQQ deficiency (i.e., 500 μg), you would have to consume in the neighborhood of 10,000 grams a day. (I.e., 10,000 x 61 ng/g, would be 610 μg.) That’s 10 kilograms, or about 22 pounds.
Getting an optimal dose (10-20 mg) would be in the range of 500-1,000 times that amount. That is not possible.
Wait, there’s more!
PQQ is an important cellular antioxidant (i.e., reducing agent). Antioxidants can be characterized by how many reactions they can be cycled through before they give out entirely.
This is where PQQ really shines among all the major antioxidants. Take a look at how its cycling potential stacks up against some of the better known antioxidants below. Note that one of our most important vitamins, vitamin C (ascorbic acid), is at the bottom of this ranking. That is one reason why we have to keep replenishing it in high amounts.
In addition to its antioxidant properties, PQQ is a key ingredient for controlling advanced glycation end products (AGEs) and advanced lipoxidation end products (ALEs) in our diet. These are absolutely evil substances that drive inflammation, disease, and early death. They come from cooked foods (the ‘nice brown color’ that looks delicious and appealing) and from faulty metabolism. There is seemingly no escape from them.
The good news is that dietary carnosine provides a strong defense against AGEs and ALEs. (See: How Carnosine Protects Against Age-Related Disease).
Furthermore, high levels of carnosine are seen clinically in people with long telomeres.
The benefits of dietary carnosine derive from our ability to use it when we are adapted to a Paleo diet. Carnosine is found in high amounts in red meat and seafood. The ability to use carnosine depends completely on mitochondrial health, which depends on PQQ.
If your lifestyle relies on a Paleo-type diet, the link from PQQ to healthy mitochondria to the benefits of carnosine for reducing the negative impact of AGEs and ALEs is a clear pathway to optimal health and longevity.
If you consume a Standard American Diet, you already have sick mitochondria and none of that matters. PQQ, however, will be a crucial supplement for you as you go down the path of better mitochondrial health.
Older than 25? One More Necessity
Peak health typically hits on all cylinders at about age 25. Nearly all the graphs for physiological changes show important stuff dropping off after that point: certain steroid hormones, growth hormone, ability to digest food … the list is seemingly infinite.
One of the main points of this article is that age-related mitochondrial dysfunction can be reversed. PQQ is one of the key supplements for that reversal. Beyond age 25 it becomes increasingly important every decade to boost the benefits of PQQ by also supplementing with Coenzyme Q-10 (CoQ-10).
CoQ-10 and PQQ work together to protect mitochondria against assaults by free radicals and to create new replacement mitochondria. This is a crucial double whammy of benefits.
It is a key combination for mitochondrial health.
An important bit of information about CoQ-10 is that it comes in two forms, reduced (ubiquinol) and oxidized (ubiquinone). Supplement manufacturers provide both forms. However, the reduced form (ubiquinol) is absorbed about 8-fold better than the oxidized form (ubiquinone).
A 100 mg dose of ubiquinol would therefore be equivalent to about 800 mg of ubiquinone.
You can do some internet hunting for PQQ and ubiquinol. They are easy to fine.
Start Being Good to Your Mitochondria Today!
All the best in natural health,