How to Use Light and Temperature to Boost Mitochondria
Our mitochondria are modulated by numerous choices we make in our lifestyle. The good news is there are ways to improve mitochondria health using nothing more than temperature and light.
#1. Cold Therapy
The infectious personality of Wim Hof has made cold therapy a popular tool for psychological and physical wellbeing. Cold therapy for the purposes of biohacking, refers to using cold temperatures to elicit a positive physiological response.
"There is still every reason for healthy people to take cold showers, or swim outside in cold water. It gives you the feeling that you are alive.” -Wim Hof
There is evidence that cold therapy improves mitochondrial health through a process known as “mitochondrial biogenesis,” or in other words, by producing more of them.1
I find cold therapy compelling because it forces me to become comfortable with discomfort. It is as much a mental training as a physiological one. My cold therapy is opportunistic, which means I don’t always seek out cold, but I embrace it when I find it. Here a picture of me about to plunge into a glacier lake in Iceland!
Getting started with cold therapy is pretty simple. Boost your mitochondria by ending your hot showers with 30 seconds of water as cold as you can get it. Even 30 - 90 seconds of cold water can have profound effects according to a study in PLoS One2. For those looking to take it up a notch beyond cold water in the shower, two bags of ice in a bathtub filled with water is a simple ice bath hack.
My recommendation for people serious about using cold plunges to improve mitochondria health is to use Aaron Alexander’s home cold plunge guide. He uses a 14 cubic foot chest freezer, walks through a few simple steps to turn it into a home ice plunge unit. He approximates the cost at $600, which is minimal considering ice can add up quickly with regular usage. If you are worried about space, check out Alexander’s quick 1 minute video showing how he managed to do this in his tiny Santa Monica apartment.
If I had to choose a form of cold therapy to boost my mitochondrial health that I prefer best, it’s cryotherapy, but not for the right reasons: it’s easier.
Cryotherapy is generally 100 - 250 degrees below zero (colder than ice baths) for a shorter duration. Some cryotherapy centers are 1 minute while some people stay up to 3 minutes. The intense cold in cryotherapy comes from either liquid nitrogen or chilled air. There are some proponents of cryotherapy, including popular mixed martial arts expert Joe Rogan, but the cryotherapy craze may not be as valuable as the hype suggests.
According to a 2017 study in Medical and Science in Sports and Exercise simple cold water immersion may be more effective than cryotherapy.3
Cryotherapy can be great for its ease of use.
Cryotherapy can be great for its ease of use, though. Busy professionals and executives who want to get an efficient means of increasing mitochondrial health can be in and out of a cryotherapy chamber within 10 minutes and back to work. For those who aren’t in a rush, I still recommend the chest freezer method above.
#3. Heat Therapy
If cold therapy is useful for increasing the number of mitochondria (via mitochondrial biogenesis), then heat therapy is useful for increasing the efficiency of those mitochondria.
When we are undergoing heat therapy in a sweat lodge or sauna, the energetic needs of our mitochondria go up and they respond by using oxygen in the blood more efficiently.
When we are undergoing heat therapy in a sweat lodge or sauna, the energetic needs of our mitochondria go up and they respond by using oxygen in the blood more efficiently. This process is called oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS). In one study, repeated exposure to heat stress for 6 days increased mitochondrial function by 28%, among other advantages.4
Heat therapy is usually 15 - 30 minutes of exposure to temperatures ranging from 105 - 170 °F (the latter being quite extreme).
In a popular post on Tim Ferriss’ blog, Dr. Rhonda Patrick identified a litany of health benefits of heat therapy: she also made suggestions depending on your desired result.5 For example, two sessions per week of 30 minutes in duration increased endurance by 32% in runners over a three week period.6
If mitochondrial health and general longevity are of interest, an epidemiological study in Finland following 2,300 men found increased heat exposure reduced the rate of all-cause mortality.7 Over the course of the study, 4 - 7 weekly sauna sessions from 11 - 20 minutes had the lowest all-cause mortality, but even 1 session per week could have serious benefits.
I try to do 2 - 3 sauna sessions per week at my gym for both enjoyment and the many purported health benefits. Typically, I’ll stay for 15 minutes, get a good sweat, and then move on. The sauna is also one of the few times I can listen to podcasts. I simply leave my phone in my locker, use my airpods, and listen to a podcast without overheating my phone. This technological convenience makes using the sauna for to boost your mitochondria a habit that’s easy to maintain.
Even though I’m a fan of heat therapy, I’d be remiss not to make a note on men’s health and mention a warning for males who are of the age and disposition to reproduce.
A study with 10 male participants in their 30s found that using a sauna 176 - 194 degrees F (very hot) twice per week for only 15 minutes negatively affected sperm parameters.8 Sperm count, motility, histone/protamine ratios (sperm quality measurement), and sperm mitochondrial function were all negatively affected by this heat therapy after 3 months of use. The good news is, after 6 months of no sauna, the effects returned to baseline. If you are a male trying to conceive, consider taking a 6 - 12 month break from the sauna.
#4. Near Infrared / Red Light Therapy
Red and near infrared light are specific wavelengths of light that that impact physiology and specifically enhance mitochondrial health. The red and near infrared light activates cytochrome C oxidase (CCO) in our mitochondria9, which increases ATP (energy) production.
In this image, you will notice that the wavelength of light in the mid-600 nm to low-to-mid-800 nm range activated CCO most robustly:
The boost in mitochondrial health (and energy production) allows the cells to do more work. The downstream results in performance gains include better reaction time10, support against chronic inflammation11, and balanced testosterone.12
The most reliable way to utilize infrared and near infrared light is the Joovv light. When I first started using this, my father was a bit concerned. He is one of the foremost biochemists and researchers on how red and near infrared light influences cells. His work in a petri dish didn’t prepare him to see his son using such a device:
I’ve been using the Joovv light for years. Each day I stand in front for 10 minutes while listening to a podcast. The device I have costs $500, but smaller devices work well. Ben Greenfield helped popularize the concept by focusing the light on his testes for testosterone production.
Chasing the Perfect Mitochondria
We've talked about numerous novel methods of improving mitochondrial function, but the best way to be successful is through consistency. Pick a few of the methods we have described and ensure they fit within your schedule and environment. Even a couple of these will provide some health benefits and boost your mitochondrial function.