The idea of a true “fountain of youth” — some transformative potion or other mystical way to halt or reverse aging — is the stuff of movie scripts for a reason: It’s as appealing as it is impossible. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t slow down the aging process and maintain an active, healthy life well into your golden years.
Researchers are now beginning to better understand what exactly accelerates the normal aging process. Even better, they’re learning about ways to not only increase longevity, but also to make those extra years as healthy as possible.
One major piece of the puzzle: Mitochondria, tiny intracellular organisms with superhero-sized powers, says Dr. Bill Rawls, M.D., medical director of Vital Plan. Read on to understand how mitochondria drive your rate of aging, plus how to take your foot off the proverbial pedal so you can add years — quality, feel-good ones — onto your life.
Why Mitochondria Matter for Longevity
As you may recall from high school biology class, mitochondria are the “power plants” of cells; they generate and supply the raw energy that every cell — and thus your entire body — needs to live and function. From heart, immune, and brain cells to muscle and skin cells, without their energy-generating mitochondria, cells would be unable to do their jobs, protect themselves, repair, reproduce, and more. Essentially, life would end.
But what your school textbook diagrams may have gotten wrong is that each of your body’s 10 trillion or so cells house anywhere from 100 to 1,000 mitochondria, not just the few you probably saw in the drawings. “Cells are loaded with mitochondria,” Dr. Rawls says, adding that the cells that must work the hardest – heart cells, for example — pack in the most.
Like most power plants, mitochondria don’t produce 100% clean energy. Instead, when they burn carbohydrates to make ATP — the organic chemical that cells use for energy — they also generate molecules called free radicals as a toxic byproduct. Free radicals damage all the structures in the cell, but the mitochondria themselves take the biggest hit.
So long as the mitochondria’s DNA — the blueprint for reproducing new mitochondria — stays intact, all of the other parts of the mitochondria can be replaced. If that DNA is damaged, however, the mitochondria is rendered useless. This is why mitochondria keep five to 10 copies of their DNA, but even with that safety net, free-radical byproducts eventually damage all of those copies, and the mitochondria completely burns out. “Just like a dead battery, mitochondria eventually run out of juice,” Dr. Rawls says.
Luckily, you’ve got plenty of backup mitochondria in the cell to pick up the slack. But over time, the same thing would happen to every mitochondria in every cell, and the cells gradually lose energy — which explains why a 70-year-old doesn’t have nearly as much energy as a 20-year-old, for instance.
In the absence of any other cell-damaging stress factors, your mitochondria would continue to burn out over the years at a slow and steady pace. “You’d probably feel okay as it happened, you’d just gradually become weaker and weaker and your body would stop working, probably around age 120 or so,” says Dr. Rawls.
How Stressing Your Cells Accelerates Mitochondrial Burnout — and Aging
Of course, we all don’t live to age 120, and many of us develop chronic illness along the way, suggesting something external is hastening mitochondrial burnout — and shortening lifespan in the process. And as it turns out, there are several aspects of living a modern life that put excess stress on cells, says Dr. Rawls. The top five biggest culprits:
- Eating a high-carbohydrate, nutrient-deficient diet
- Leading a sedentary lifestyle
- Coping with chronic stress and lack of adequate sleep
- Being constantly exposed to environmental toxins
- Suffering from microbiome imbalance
“These stress factors disrupt the communication systems our cells rely on to function properly, and they affect the pathways cells use to obtain nutrients and remove waste,” Dr. Rawls says. “The more stress cells endure, the less healthy they become, and the more energy you use just to function.” As a result, your mitochondria have to work overtime to provide that energy, creating more free radicals in the process and speeding their rate of burnout.
A combination of a high-carbohydrate diet and a lack of physical activity is particularly toxic to mitochondria. “You’ve got your mitochondria burning through the carbohydrate load, and then you’ve got all this energy just sitting there because you’re not active and utilizing it,” Dr. Rawls says. “So you’re just generating free radicals like crazy and not using the ATP, all of which causes damage.”
And then there’s your microbiome, the collection of microbes that reside in tissues throughout your body, and even in cells themselves. “All of the microbes in your microbiome are freeloaders, because they require a host to survive,” Dr. Rawls says. “We depend on a healthy immune system to keep them in check, but as immune cells run out of energy, they have a harder time accomplishing the job.”
Microbes may then start to flourish and imbalances occur, creating even more stress on the body. That contributes to inflammation, which continues to speed up mitochondrial burnout and accelerate aging.
5 Ways to Minimize Mitochondrial Burnout and Age More Slowly
While you can’t completely stop mitochondrial burnout or the aging process altogether, you can minimize the external factors that speed things up so both your cells and you can enjoy a longer, healthier life. Here’s how.
1. Balance Your Carbs and Physical Activity
Because too many carbs and too little exercise is one of the biggest contributors to mitochondrial burnout and cellular aging, Dr. Rawls’ number one strategy is to stay as active as possible throughout the day, limit your carbohydrate intake, and/or find a good balance between the two.
“I’m not anti-carb — after all, some of the longest-living people on earth live in Japan and eat rice three times a day,” Dr. Rawls says. “You just have to burn the carbohydrates you eat.”
The activity needn’t be strenuous — in fact, too much hard labor can physically stress your system and burn out mitochondria. Rather, do things like walk more and sit less, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or ride your bike instead of using your car.
There’s solid proof showing that exercise positively affects longevity. Study after study shows that the more active people are, the healthier they age and the longer they live. In fact, as little as 15 minutes of physical activity a day was found to add three years to your life, according to researchers from Harvard University.
Another study found that those who engage in high levels of exercise were nine years younger biologically than sedentary peers. On the other hand, not exercising can raise your risk of dying prematurely more than heart disease, diabetes, and smoking, according to a study in the journal JAMA Network Open.
What’s more, exercise seems to improve longevity from a cellular level. “It stimulates the generation of new mitochondria,” Dr. Rawls says. Plus, researchers found that people who were active had longer telomeres — tiny caps on the end of DNA. The longer your telomeres, the healthier your DNA and the more times its able to provide a healthy blueprint to make new viable cells.
Along with exercising more, also consider eating more produce and limiting your intake of grains. Again, you needn’t cut carbs completely, just don’t go crazy.
In what’s been called the “most comprehensive study of carbohydrate intake” to date, researchers looking at data from nearly half a million people found that those on low-carb diets who ate mostly meat and other animal protein had shorter life spans than those who ate a mostly plant-based diet with fewer grains. By comparison, those who lived the longest had diets that consisted of about 50% carbs, most of which came from veggies and other plants versus grains.
2. Regulate Your Systems with Adaptogenic Herbs
“Adaptogens like rhodiola, cordyceps, and reishi are really nice because they indirectly protect mitochondrial health by reducing cellular stress,” Dr. Rawls says. They do this by normalizing communication between cells, reducing inflammation, and balancing systems, he adds. “These herbs also increase the oxygenation of tissues, which may directly affect mitochondria, though we don’t yet fully understand how.”
3. Adopt the “Big Three” of Other Healthy Habits
Along with exercise and a plant-based diet, the more you can limit stress, get about eight hours of sleep a night, and reduce your exposure to environmental toxins, the better off your mitochondria will be. Chronic stress, fatigue, and toxins stress your cells, generate additional free radicals, and contribute to inflammation, all of which can negatively impact mitochondria and damage cells, Dr. Rawls says.
For example, chronic social stress shortened lifespan and triggered the development of heart and vascular problems in mice, according to a recent study in the journal Aging Cell. When it comes to sleep, research suggests that a regular sleep-wake cycle (meaning going to bed and waking around the same times each day) and logging at least seven but no more than nine hours of sleep a night also contributes to healthy aging and longevity.
4. Eat Plenty of Blueberries
This sweet fruit is loaded with a compound called pterostilbene, which has a direct effect on mitochondria’s electron transport chain — a key part of how the power plants turn carbohydrates into ATP for energy.
“Pterostilbene is an electron transport chain decoupler,” Dr. Rawls says. “That means if you’re pushing your mitochondria too hard, pterostilbene may stop the process so it doesn’t just continue pushing and generating unused ATP.” Resveratrol is another antioxidant that works similarly.
5. Take Supportive Supplements as Needed
For people who are generally healthy and eat a good diet, their mitochondria likely get the resources they need to function well, Dr. Rawls says. “The human body has a high propensity to make all the various nutrients required, so if you’re in really good health, what you add through micronutrient supplements probably won’t significantly affect your mitochondria.”
Still, hard as we may try, most of us don’t eat perfectly, and many of us also struggle with chronic illness. “In that case, your cells aren’t working as well as they could be, your systems aren’t working as well, and your mitochondria can use all the help they can get,” says Dr. Rawls. If that’s you, he recommends supplementing with the following:
Glutathione and Other Antioxidants
Antioxidants like glutathione are smart for a number reasons. For one, they help mitochondria indirectly by reducing the inflammation and cellular stress that contribute to overworking mitochondria and subsequent burnout, Dr. Rawls says. “Note that they don’t directly limit free radical damage inside the mitochondria — the mitochondria wouldn’t allow it because it would compromise energy production,” he explains.
“Antioxidants also protect cell membranes and the vascular system,” says Dr. Rawls. Other antioxidants to consider: Vitamin C, N-acetylcystein (NAC), and alpha lipoic acid (ALA).
Another antioxidant, Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is better known for its role as one of the components mitochondria use in the machinery that converts carbohydrates to ATP energy. The heart is one organ that might really take advantage of CoQ10.
“The heart uses a lot of energy, so there’s a high concentration of mitochondria in heart cells,” Dr. Rawls says. “There’s been some evidence that coenzyme Q10 can be beneficial for people with heart failure, as well as those over age 50 or 60 and those with other chronic illnesses.”
“Mitochondria use a lot of B vitamins in the electron transport chain, so supplementing with those may be beneficial,” Dr. Rawls says. While healthy diets are rarely deficient in B vitamins, vitamin B12 can be harder to absorb with age, and vegans and vegetarians can sometimes fall short on this vitamin because it’s found in animal foods like dairy, eggs, meat, and fish. Others who might consider supplementing with B vitamins include those with immune system disorders like lupus or chronic conditions that affect the small intestine, such as Crohn’s and celiac disease.
It’s hard to believe that such tiny, intracellular organelles like mitochondria can generate so much power, much less that they may be the key to living longer and enjoying a symptom-free life well into your senior years. But then again, as the saying goes, good things usually come in small packages.
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