Your mitochondria are key to your health. They are literally the power plants of your cells, generating the energy they need to function. As we age the density of mitochondria in our cells starts to drop and with it our capacity to generate the energy. Luckily there are some simple things you can do to boost your mitochondrial production. We recently listened to a Max Lugavere podcast, in which healthspan expert Molly Maloof talks about mitochondrial health and shares some basic recommendations that we can all follow.
She starts with a basic framework that seems useful:
“What I’ve really learned is that to understand what damages mitochondria, you have to think about how we were originally designed and then how does modern life not match up to that design.”
Thinking about longevity in the context of humans’ evolutionary timeline seems to make logical sense and is a structure used by many thought leaders in the field. Using this approach Maloof identifies three fronts of action:
Sounds obvious, but we have to admit that we live fairly sedentary lives. The mechanics of the benefits of exercise are simple: as we consume more energy through physical effort we send a signal to our bodies to generate more mitochondria to service the higher energetic demand. When we are stuck in our desks, commuting or hanging out on our couches at home, we are not moving enough, which tells the mitochondria that we are OK with lower energy levels. Two activities that she points out as being particularly effective at boosting mitochondrial production: weight lifting and high intensity interval training.
Increase your metabolic flexibility
If you grow your body accustomed to “flipping the metabolic switch”, meaning that you go from burning carbs as a fuel source to burning fat, you can increase your mitochondrial health. You can do this by periodically following a ketogenic diet or doing some intermittent fasting. According to Maloof, this creates two effects: (1) it increases the rate of mitochondrial autophagy which is the process by which the body gets rid of aging mitochondria no longer functioning optimally, and (2) it triggers the creation of new mitochondria. In her opinion:
“it’s not about..choosing one dietary lifestyle over another necessarily. It’s about cross-training your metabolism. As in the case with different types of fitness regiments, our body will adapt to different demands. And so we want our body to be metabolically flexible. And if we do that and we do things that generate that, we get more energy.”
If you eat too much food in one sitting, especially if you are consuming processed, high fat, high sugar foods, you are basically creating a metabolic logjam in your body. This sets off a cycle: the carbs burn very fast, spiking your blood sugar levels; and then the fats can cause some insulin resistance boosting sugar level even higher. This double whammy stresses both your pancreas and your mitochondria because they have to process all this fuel. It’s as if your body was being powered by poor quality batteries that gradually store less and less charge.
It is normal to want to overeat when we are stressed. From an evolutionary point of view, we are programmed to eat when we are stressed because we don’t know when we might be able to eat again. So when Maloof feels stressed out, she reaches for the vegetables and eats as much as she wants. This sends the right signals to your body that you are “safe” while sparing your mitochondria.
Chronic stress is damaging to the mitochondria, so we need to be cognizant of both conscious and unconscious stressors that we are subject to. Our bodies are designed to handle intermittent stress. Unfortunately, with the accelerating pace of daily life and the always-on news cycle on social platforms. we are spending more and more time in a heightened state of stress response. Maloof also mentions two factors that we don’t normally think of as stressors and are becoming more widespread: loneliness and social isolation. Becoming aware of this “always-on” stressors is key to identify the lifestyle adjustments you need to make to improve your healthspan.
Try things for yourself
Maloof is passionate about this point. She urges folks not to follow “one-size-fits-all” advice without doing your own research:
I could give an entire lecture on this because this is one of the core skills you need to learn as a modern thinker: how do you learn to question everything you read online? And how do you learn to sort through evidence…some of these really famous bloggers and famous people on the internet, you go to their articles and then you actually start looking at the links and then you start reading the papers and you realize, this is bad science… And so unless you’re able to actually sift through it all, just blindly trusting health gurus is just a huge problem.
We also need to remember that not everything is going to apply to us. We are each unique, with our own bodies and unique physiology and we need to take that into account. So we need to experiment and personalize.
- On intermittent fasting:
- longer fasts are great for stimulating autophagy (cellular cleansing). She recommends doing one every quarter as a cleansing pause. Women should be aware that too many longer fasts may throw off their periods.
- Shorter fasts (eg. 16/8) works to lower your fasting glucose, it gives you gut a rest, and improves your focus and attention.
- She wears a continuous glucose monitor and puts them on her clients to determine if their blood sugar is normal. There are many factors that may be elevating blood sugar, nutrition being only one of them. So having that visibility through a continuous glucose monitor really helps define a strategy.
- She expresses her skepticism around some of the keto food products out there, asking: She is trying to figure out for herself: are these refined fat flours doing us any favors or are they replacing the refined flours that we’ve been consuming with refined fats?
- Best diet to follow if you want to lose weight? Eat whole foods, fast and exercise.
- To extend your healthpsan, focus on the basics:
- 5 servings of fruit & vegetable per day;
- drink plenty of water;
- walk 10K steps per day;
- do some high intensity interval training,
- get outside in nature,
- spend time with friends and family.
- Butter coffee: you have to look at your labs. Not everyone processes fats the same way. In her case, butter coffee shot up her LDL particles.
- She is a big fan of adaptogens (Ayurvedic herbs, Chinese Jing herbs). Even though there isn’t a lot of research, she points out that almost every culture in the world has them and they’ve been around for thousands of years. “If humans have coevolved with these plants over thousands of years and every culture in the world has one that they’ve turned to for helping them cope and adapt, I don’t need to see research to try them.”
- Specific products she mentions (no commercial affiliation):
- TOP TIP: eliminate sugar. Start counting your sugar calories per day. Shoot for 25gms per day