By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Some people enjoy and embrace the idea of aging. Others, not so much. They do everything in their power to slow down the hands of time, from anti-aging creams and laser treatments to plastic surgery and other procedures.
Whichever side of the spectrum you fall, there’s something I want you to consider…What if anti-aging is about more than good skin care or surgeries? What if it’s primarily about keeping our cells from aging and malfunctioning?
In other words…anti-aging from the inside out.
The secret to this lies in tiny organelles called mitochondria.
Mitochondria: Your Body’s Energy Factories
Mitochondria are miniscule, cigar shaped “power plants” inside each and every cell. They produce the energy that keeps the body running.
After the food we eat is digested, glucose enters our cells. The mitochondria in our cells convert the food (along with oxygen) into energy the body can use.
Specifically, mitochondria make adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the body’s basic fuel. Our cells run on ATP much like a car runs on gasoline.
While all cells have mitochondria, the heart muscle cells have the most—about 5,000 mitochondria per cell! (By comparison, the bicep muscle has about 200 per cell.)
It makes sense, considering the heart works harder than any other organ in the body, beating and pumping blood 24 hours a day for decades without a break.
Mitochondria Play a Huge Role in Health Maintenance
While energy production is one of the mitochondria’s major roles, it’s not the only one.
Mitochondria are involved in intracellular homeostasis (keeping stability and consistency necessary for proper cellular function), as well as our body’s response to stressors.
Research shows, “Mitochondrial fission and fusion play critical roles in maintaining functional mitochondria when cells experience metabolic or environmental stresses. Fusion helps mitigate stress by mixing the contents of partially damaged mitochondria as a form of complementation. Fission is needed to create new mitochondria, but it also contributes to quality control by enabling the removal of damaged mitochondria and can facilitate apoptosis during high levels of cellular stress.”1
Disruptions in any of these important processes have been blamed for the development of various health concerns, including:
- Neurodegenerative conditions (Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, ALS, etc.)
- Cardiovascular disease
- Chronic fatigue
- Early aging
The accumulated damage to mitochondria is caused by a variety of factors: chemical and electric pollution, pharmaceutical and over-the-counter drugs, and even the very nature of the energy-generating activity of mitochondria, which produces a minimal amount of free radical oxidative stress.
Reverse Mitochondrial Damage…and Aging
This damage is inevitable. Your mitochondria can’t perform all these jobs without taking a bit of a hit. But here’s the good news. There are several things you can do to slow and even reverse the decline and destruction of mitochondria—and as a result, slow the aging process.
The key is to start now. Research shows that once mitochondrial damage and dysfunction begins, it becomes permanent within 10 years time. But if you take steps in the early stages to slow the destruction, you can actually reverse it.2
Well, there are several things you can do, all of which fall under what I call a high-vibration lifestyle.
A “high-vibe” lifestyle includes many of the healthy habits that science has shown can protect your mitochondria from stress, destruction, and aging:3
- Eating a diet rich in fresh, whole, organic foods that promote strong cellular metabolism;
- Decreasing exposure to toxins in foods, products you use, and the surrounding environment (this includes various drugs such as acetaminophen, aspirin, NSAIDs, statins, antibiotics, and illicit drugs, all of which damage mitochondria);
- Taking nutrients that protect mitochondria from oxidative stress, the most important of which is CoQ10; and
- Exercising regularly
In fact, when it comes to exercise, research is finding just how much it actually helps in safeguarding mitochondria.
When you’re active, you burn more energy. This means you have more mitochondria in your cells, and they operate more efficiently.
According to one study, mitochondria can be “‘enhanced’ by physical activity (including exercise), which increases their integrity, efficiency and dynamic adaptation to stressors, in short ‘mitochondrial fitness.’”4
Mitochondrial fitness is linked to cardiorespiratory fitness, better immunity, and healthier aging.
Another study noted that “exercise counteracts the effects of many chronic diseases on skeletal muscle mitochondrial function.” The researchers elaborated, “Skeletal muscle mitochondria are highly dynamic organelles,” meaning they adapt to meet the demands associated with all sorts of physical stressors. “Increases in mitochondrial content and mass accompany endurance exercise training. Likewise, decreases in mitochondrial content and oxidative energy metabolism are associated with obesity, diabetes and aging.”5
This means exercise can actually train your mitochondria to work more efficiently. Both strength training and aerobic/endurance training are important, with probably the slight edge going to aerobic exercise. But, you should do both. Here’s why…
A 12-week training program involving 11 men showed that resistance training resulted in “qualitative and quantitative changes in skeletal muscle mitochondrial respiration.” (This describes the metabolic reactions that take place in the mitochondria to convert food to ATP.)6
Likewise, in a separate study, aerobic exercise—in particular high-intensity interval training—encouraged cells to make more building blocks of mitochondrial growth and repair. It even seemed to reverse age-related decline in mitochondrial function.7
The key is to exercise at just the right intensity for you—by this I mean, not too hard but not too little. If you push yourself too hard, you can do more harm than good. But you also want to put enough effort into it to make it feel like a challenging workout. That is the sweet spot where your mitochondria respond in kind.
You Can Slow the Hands of Time!
If I sound like a broken record, it’s probably because the “secret” to a longer, healthier life is really no secret at all. Science has proven over and over again (and this will NEVER change), that making consistently healthy lifestyle choices over the course of your life provides the best defense against disease, disability, and rapid aging.
No, you’ll never be able to stop the hands of time. But, by having a long-term focus on healthy diet, physical activity, and detoxification, you can slow down or reverse cellular aging. And the “younger” your cells age, the longer—and healthier—you’ll live. And isn’t that all anyone can ask for?
- Youle R. and van der Bliek A. Mitochondrial Fission, Fusion, and Stress. 2012 Aug 31;337(6098):1062-5.
- Conley K, et al. Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Age. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2007 Nov;10(6):688-92.
- Pizzorno J. Mitochondria—Fundamental to Life and Health. Integr Med (Encinitas). 2014 Apr;13(2):8-15.
- Burtscher J, et al. The Central Role of Mitochondrial Fitness on Antiviral Defenses: An Advocacy for Physical Activity During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Redox Biol. 2021 Jul;43:101976.
- Gan Z, et al. Skeletal Muscle Mitochondrial Remodeling in Exercise and Diseases. Cell Research. 2018 Aug;28:969-80.
- Porter C, et al. Resistance Exercise Training Alters Mitochondrial Function in Human Skeletal Muscle. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2015 Sep;47(9):1922-31.
- Robinson M, et al. Enhanced Protein Translation Underlies Improved Metabolic and Physical Adaptations to Different Exercise Training Modes in Young and Old Humans. Cell Metab.2017 Mar 7;25(3):581–92.
© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.