Lifestyle Habits to Boost Mitochondrial Health
In each of our cells are small energy generators called mitochondria. The health of our mitochondria determines the amount of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) they can produce from the calories we eat and oxygen we consume. Without robust mitochondria, cells cannot do as much work as they’re capable of and we need them to do so we can stay healthy.
To achieve higher levels of performance we must optimize our mitochondria, the powerhouse of our cells, to produce energy. Cell function isn’t always the first place biohackers and nootropics enthusiasts start because it is challenging to notice a subjective boost in our mitochondrial function. Whether we can detect enhanced mitochondria subjectively or not, the science is pretty clear that healthy mitochondria play a role in supporting all indicators of cognition, physical performance, and aging.
In a series of comprehensive posts, we will introduce scientifically-backed lifestyle changes and nootropics that up-regulate your mitochondrial function. In our last post, we went over how to use light and temperature to boost mitochondria. Now let’s tackle 5 more lifestyle habits we can implement to achieve healthier mitochondria.
#1. Boost Your Mitochondria with HIIT
High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a strategy of alternating short bursts of intense exercise (via sprints, for example) with short duration rest, repeating this activity-rest cycle until exhaustion.
Exercise of all types produces energy and can boost mitochondrial function1, but HIIT seems to be especially advantageous to cell function. A 2017 paper in Cell Metabolism found that HIIT caused cells to make more proteins for the mitochondria, which made the powerhouse of the cell more robust. HIIT conferred a 49% increase in mitochondrial capacity for young, healthy adults in the study: the older volunteers experienced a 69% increase.2
My favorite form of HIIT is sprinting using a Tabata sequence, which pairs 20 seconds of all our exertion with 10 seconds of rest (30 seconds total) for 8 rounds. This four minute exercise regimen is one of the most awful experiences I regularly inflict upon myself for the sake of health and efficiency (hard to beat a great workout in four minutes). In the midst of such a regimen, I very commonly regret being there. By the end, and for the rest of the day, I’m always happy I did.
#2. Fuel Your Cells: Exploring the Benefits of a Ketogenic Diet
A ketogenic diet is a high fat and low-carb / low-protein diet growing in popularity as a way to (1) improve poor-health conditions, and (2) optimize mental performance. Ketones are an alternative fuel source when blood sugar (glucose) isn’t available. These ketones are often used during extended fasting, but highly specific diets can achieve the same physiological state.
Many proponents of a ketogenic diet claim to have increased focus, concentration, and some anecdotal reports suggest it can help with anxiety as well.3
One study confirmed that the ketogenic diet influences longevity pathways like AMPK, mTOR, and sirtuins.4 This may be one reason why ketogenic diets can slow the progression of mitochondrial diseases in animal models.5
[The] ketogenic diet has been proposed as a possible treatment for mitochondrial disorders.5
There are numerous influencers who have participated or grown the ketogenic diet movement including Tim Ferriss. His podcasts with Dr. Dom D’Agostino (part 1 and 2) and Dr. Peter Attia informed much of the discussion around using this diet.
Personally, I’ve never used a ketogenic diet, mostly because I love protein and carbs so much. Because I practice time restricted eating and long-term water fasts, my body seems relatively flexible switching from glucose to ketones as an energy source, but that is my subjective guess based on how well I adapt and perform even during extended periods without food.
For people who want to start, there are right and wrong ways to approach a ketogenic diet. Here is Tim Ferriss describing some key stumbling blocks (and how NOT to do a ketogenic diet) in a quick 5 minute video:
#3. Sleep Hygiene for Optimal Mitochondrial Health
Sleep researcher Allan Rechtschaffen once quipped:
If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process has ever made.6
One of the main mechanisms that makes sleep so important for mitochondrial health is the “glymphatic system,” which was described in a 2013 report in Science Magazine. Restorative sleep allows the brain to clear the byproducts of thinking (waste) and maintain healthful mitochondria.
Sleep researcher Dr. Dan Pardi shared restorative sleep tips and discussed sleep hygiene with Daniel Schmachtenberger in the Collective Insights podcast:
As a friend of Dan’s, I’ve managed to learn many of these sleep hygiene tricks over the past few years. My bedroom only has Lighting Science light bulbs, which emit no blue light. I also have a sound machine and ear plugs to ensure sounds are not disrupting my sleep.
The most impactful habit has been winding down towards my grandfatherly bed time (9:30 PM). I limit phone time (or put it on airplane mode altogether) and read an enjoyable (not highly stimulating) book.
#4. Grounding (Earthing) to Benefit Mitochondria
Grounding (also known as earthing) is the practice of applying bare skin to the Earth (grass, dirt etc.) in order to draw electrons into the body to neutralize free radicals and affect positive physiological responses.
When I first heard of grounding, I was skeptical from a scientific perspective, but recognized the mismatch between our evolutionary environments (where we were constantly in touch with the Earth) and urban civilization (where we’re rarely if ever directly in contact with the Earth).
There is reliable scientific research behind grounding practices. A meta-analysis found evidence that Earthing could support restorative sleep and help with chronic pain.10 A study in the Journal of Inflammation Research showed grounding could support the immune system and promote wound healing. The study also noted profound effects on inflammatory markers.11
Tucked away within that study is a vital segment identifying how grounding might impact the health of our mitochondria:
Mitochondria in the grounded subjects are not producing as much metabolic energy, probably because there is less demand due to more rapid achievement of homeostasis
They showed that the mitochondria were doing less work to get rid of accumulated waste.
My advice is to get out into nature as often and frequently as you can; preferably with your shoes off. While there are numerous devices (grounding mats, grounding beds) I don’t particularly find them appealing. They are costly and provide little of the mental satisfaction of actually being outside in touch with Earth.
#5. Intermittent Fasting to Boost Mitochondria
Readers of the Neurohacker Collective blog are no strangers to fasting by this point. We recently published a four part series as an introduction to intermittent fasting, the benefits, and mechanisms that influence aging (start with "How to Fast" here).
Fasting refers to the abstinence of calories or significantly reducing caloric intake (also known as calorie restriction) for a duration of time.
We explored the anti-aging benefits of fasting, which consisted of numerous mitochondrial-enhancing mechanisms. Certain fasting protocols activate pathways like AMP-dependent kinase (AMPK) and sirtuins (SIRT), which are valuable for enhancing mitochondrial health. These pathways specifically support mitochondrial biogenesis (i.e., the creation of new mitochondria). Another process known as “mitophagy” recycles damaged and dysfunctional mitochondria (like cleaning house). Together, fasting supports a high quality mitochondrial network by removing damaged mitochondria and replacing them with robust, new ones.
I shared my fasting preferences in more depth throughout the series, but I prefer both ends of the fasting extreme. With time restricted eating, I generally fast for 16 hours per day and eat during an 8 hour window. Every 3 months I also do a 3-day water fast.
My suggestion for people who want to get the longevity benefits, but without the intensity of water only fasting, is to utilize the fasting-mimicking diet (FMD) developed by Dr. Valter Longo. I outlined details of the FMD in this post.