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Going Strong: How Healthy Mitochondria Make For A Long, Active Life

February 18, 2019
Updated May 3, 2019
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You know the formula for a healthy, long life. You need to eat well, exercise, avoid stress, and surround yourself with people you love. (Having a few pets helps, too.) But do you know what keeps a person healthy and active well into old age on a cellular level?

Here’s a quick refresher on seventh-grade biology, just in case you missed some of the details while paper airplanes bounced off your head. The mitochondria are organelles—small components of your cells that produce the energy that keep cells alive and functioning. Mitochondria create adenosine triphosphate (ATP)—the compound that powers muscle contractions, nerve impulses, and many other processes that we can’t live without. As we age, our cells break down and the mitochondria in them doesn’t function as well. But there are steps you can take, in your lifestyle and nutrition, to keep the mitochondria pumping out power for a good while to come, helping you stay in the game of life long enough to get everything you want out of it.

You’re about to learn how to support healthy cells and mitochondria to keep going strong, year after year.

What Are Mitochondria?

As mentioned above, back in school, you were probably taught that the mitochondria were the “little power plants of the cell.” That’s still true, but it’s just the beginning. Scientists now know that mitochondria play several other roles, including sending messages between cells and helping regulate the immune system and even stem cells.

According to a 2017 article in the journal Molecular Cell, “A decline in mitochondrial quality and activity has been associated with normal aging and correlated with the development of a wide range of age-related [complications].” When mitochondria are damaged via life-induced stress, the cell that surrounds them begins to deteriorate, and inflammatory markers begin to rise. This process can affect virtually every aspect of health. For instance, a Science study found that declines in mitochondria function contributed to a poor insulin response in older people.

Ways To Boost Cell Health

To a degree, fading mitochondria are unavoidable. A 2015 study showed that even short-term sleep loss can damage mitochondrial DNA. However, there are ways to fight back. Healthy mitochondria depend on overall healthy cells. The following are means of maintaining both.

Exercise

No surprise here. A trial in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that both high- and moderate-intensity cardio stimulates pathways for the creation of mitochondria. A 2014 review in Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews indicated that cardio not only helps the mitochondria to function more efficiently, but also promotes growth in the number of mitochondria within the cells.

Take It Easy

Apart from getting more sleep (if that’s currently a problem for you, see our guide HERE), learning to unwind more often in general can help sustain you on a cellular level. A 2018 review concluded that chronic stress exposure can make negative and lasting changes to mitochondria.

Be Cool

Although the subjects were mice, a 2017 study showed that exercise in cold air and cold-water immersion boosted the creation of mitochondria in their muscles.

Supplement with PQQ

A molecule found in human milk, as well as foods such as cabbage, peppers, and potatoes, PQQ has a potent cell-protecting effect. A 2013 study in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry found that subjects supplementing with PQQ saw a boost in cellular integrity; the PQQ also helped in maintaining lower levels of C-reactive proteins, a marker of inflammation. Urinary biomarkers also suggested that PQQ had a positive effect on mitochondrial efficiency.

Another study on middle-aged men and women in Functional Foods in Health and Disease demonstrated that eight weeks of daily PQQ use offered significant benefits in measures of vigor, fatigue, stress, and mood. “Measures for quality of life, appetite, sleep, [and] obsession also improved significantly,” the researchers wrote.

Supplement With CoQ10

A nutrient present in many foods including fatty fish and organ meats, coenzyme Q10 assists mitochondria in energy production, and has been shown to help protect against cellular breakdown due to all-out exercise. One study in the British Journal of Nutrition followed martial artists who practiced kendo—the Japanese system of fencing. They trained five-and-a-half hours daily for six straight days, but when blood samples were taken at the end of the experiment, those who supplemented with CoQ10 showed less exercise-induced muscular damage than the placebo group.

The Southern Medical Journal also reports that CoQ10 helps maintain normal healthy blood pressure.

The body makes its own CoQ10 as well, but production slows down with age. According to a paper in Nutrition Reviews, “its deficit in tissues is associated with degenerative changes of aging.”

Supplement with Resveratrol

A polyphenol found in the skins of grapes as well as red wine, resveratrol is thought to help promote cardiovascular health by promoting healthy blood pressure and durability of blood vessels. An article in the journal Cell Cycle also points to resveratrol’s ability to scavenge free radicals, unstable molecules that can damage healthy cells.

Many don’t realize that the simple act of eating can be a source of stress to the body as well. Even the healthiest meals require energy to digest and assimilate, and this puts a strain on cells. Research from the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism suggests that resveratrol can help balance markers of inflammation after ingesting a heavy meal.

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