The healthier your mitochondria, the better your chances of living a long, healthy life. Our mitochondria keep our neurons firing, our muscles flexing, and our hearts beating. Even if you don’t feel it, these microscopic powerhouses are constantly churning out the energy we need to function at the most basic level.
Sadly, your mitochondria gradually deteriorate as you grow older. In fact, mitochondrial dysfunction is considered a hallmark of aging.
Exercise and lifestyle changes are one way. When we are less active, our cells figure we need less energy to get through our day-to-day. In effect, our bodies reduce the number of mitochondria we need. One way to signal to the body that more energy is needed is to start demanding more power of your cells through exercise. Research from York University reveals that exercise can trigger mitochondrial biogenesis, the process of creating new mitochondria.
Another way to maintain healthy mitochondria is to eat a healthy diet rich in antioxidants (fruits and veggies) and low in high glycemic foods (refined carbohydrates and sugars). Eating processed junk food produces more free radicals than a healthy cell should have, weakening and destroying mitochondria.
What are free radicals? Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that mitochondria generate as a normal byproduct of cellular energy production. Too many free radicals can damage cellular components. Specifically, free radicals and reactive oxygen species bombard and damage your mitochondria. This damage also makes your mitochondria less efficient, which in turn produces more free radicals—creating a vicious cycle.
Here are a few ways to supplement your diet to maintain a healthy mitochondria:
One of the primary antioxidants the human cell produces to protect the mitochondria from free radicals is the coenzyme Q10, typically abbreviated as CoQ10. CoQ10 plays double-duty by helping produce cellular energy and protecting tissues from mitochondrial decline.
Your body produces CoQ10 naturally, but CoQ10 production decreases with age. Also, a study from The Oschner Journal shows that the use of statin drugs, also known as cholesterol-lowering drugs, can contribute to a lower level of CoQ10 in the body.
If your body has low levels of CoQ10, your mitochondria produce less ATP, increasing the likelihood of dysfunction and illness. Fortunately, you can get CoQ10 through foods like animal organs, vegetables, and legumes. CoQ10 is also available as a dietary supplement.
Glutathione, also known as GSH, is an organic compound that helps the body keep its level of oxidative stress in the healthy zone. The Foundational Medicine Review argues that glutathione may be the best oxidative stress supplement. It’s essentially another antioxidant, protecting the cell’s biomolecules by taking on excess oxidizing agents such as free radicals, peroxides, lipid peroxides, and heavy metals.
Most importantly, glutathione plays an important role in protecting the mitochondria. Glutathione helps keep the mitochondrial membrane intact, preventing it from releasing proteins into the cytoplasm that trigger cell death.
Glutathione is produced naturally in the body. However, your glutathione levels can decrease due to poor nutrition, environmental toxins, and stress. Liver health may be directly tied to our level of antioxidants, specifically glutathione. A study reported from an Italian research team at Istituto Policattedra shows that supplemental glutathione provided effective results for people with fatty liver disease.
Glutathione supplements are also available on the market. However, the efficacy of a direct glutathione supplement is uncertain. A study published in Nutrients shows that a glutathione precursor, such as glycine, is much more effective at raising glutathione levels. A precursor is the raw material needed to form a nutrient, in this case, glutathione.
Alpha-lipoic acid, also known as a-lipoic acid or ALA, is an antioxidant that helps optimize energy production in the mitochondria. Although a relatively lesser-known micronutrient, a study published in Neurochemical Research posits that ALA’s main function is to prevent the release of bad oxidants and alleviate mitochondrial dysfunction.
ALA is produced naturally in the body. However, you can supplement your ALA levels through foods such as yeast, spinach, broccoli, potatoes and organ meats such as liver or kidney. However, the amount of ALA found in dietary sources is low.
The best way to get this antioxidant would be through a chemically-synthesized supplement. There are several unknowns with ALA but studies from the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute show that an ALA supplement may slow mitochondrial aging.
Carnitine is actually a generic term that encompasses a number of compounds including L-carnitine, acetyl-L-carnitine, and propionyl-L-carnitine. Carnitine is a molecular compound derived from amino acids that play a critical role in energy production. It transports long-chain fatty acids into the mitochondria so they have fuel available to produce energy. Carnitine also transports the toxic compounds generated by oxidation out of the mitochondria.
Our bodies usually make sufficient amounts of carnitine naturally. However, as you get older, the amount of carnitine in your tissues decline, weakening the mitochondrial membrane.
Carnitine can be found in many everyday foods such as red meat, poultry, and milk. They are also available as dietary supplements.
Research from Oregon State University shows that carnitine supplements reduce mitochondrial decay in animals. In addition, a clinical study from the Imperial College University of London shows that carnitine supplements can treat cognitive impairment in humans. Athletes have also been known to supplement their diet with carnitine. However, research finds no consistent evidence that carnitine supplements can improve physical performance.
Creatine is another molecule derived from amino acids, created in the liver, kidney, and pancreas. Creatine helps store cellular energy. How?
Cellular energy is stored in these high-energy molecular chains called ATP, or adenosine triphosphate.
When your body uses ATP for energy, one of the three phosphates in “triphosphate” pops off the molecule, turning ATP into ADP or adenosine diphosphate. The cell slowly recharges the spent ADP molecule into a usable ATP molecule again, like a rechargeable battery. One of the ways your cell recharges these molecules is by using creatine.
Creatine can be found naturally in foods, mostly found in seafood and meat. You can also take it as an oral supplement. Athletes often take it in powder form in order to improve their strength training during resistance exercises. A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition shows that it can increase muscle mass and exercise performance.
Creatine gets a bad reputation for having several side effects and being associated with performance-enhancing drugs. Some claim it causes weight gain, cramping, digestive problems, kidney problems, or liver problems. However, as suggested by Healthline, these claims are largely unfounded and have no real basis in evidence. Due to its focus on sports nutrition, creatine is one of the most well-researched supplements. The International Society of Sports Nutrition and leading researchers regard creatine as extremely safe.
Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide, or NAD+, is a coenzyme our cells use to transport electrons. They are a huge contributor to cellular energy production. NAD+ works together with the micronutrient CoQ10 to support practically all of the metabolic processes cells use to power your body.
Our bodies produce NAD+ naturally. However, NAD+ levels decrease by 40-50% between the ages of 40-60, making it harder for cells to produce vital ATP.
NAD+ is also affected by metabolic and physiologic stress. Things like overeating, drinking, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, and viral infections all deplete your NAD+ levels.
You can increase your NAD+ levels through a variety of natural methods such as fasting and exercise. However, direct NAD+ supplementation is largely ineffective.
The best way to increase your NAD+ quickly and efficiently is through NAD-boosting supplements that can help facilitate more NAD+ production through precursors, a smaller building block that leads to the production of NAD+.
Out of all the NAD-boosting supplements, nicotinamide riboside is the most effective. Nicotinamide riboside is naturally found in dairy milk and yeast, however, the quantities are too small to act as a supplement alone. Existing nicotinamide riboside supplements are synthesized.
A study published in Nature Communications showed that taking nicotinamide riboside as a daily oral supplement increased NAD in healthy middle-aged and older adults. In addition, a study in Scientific Reports showed that supplemental nicotinamide riboside sustained elevated NAD+ levels with long-term use. Also, many of the more than 100 preclinical studies investigating nicotinamide riboside show that increased NAD+ levels help maintain metabolic health in animals, counteracting the cellular signs of metabolic stress and aging.