Dr. Lee Know
Dr. Lee Know, author of “Mitochondria and the Future of Medicine,” argues that declining energy levels in cells may trigger many diseases of aging, including heart disease and dementia. Image credit: Dr. Lee Know

If you’ve ever marveled at the boundless energy of little kids, you may have wondered why you don’t have the same vigor. Part of the reason is a decline in your mitochondria.

Tucked away in your body’s cells, mitochondria convert the food you eat and the oxygen you breathe into energy.

As you age, the amount of mitochondria you have tends to decline. So does their ability to function. This results in less energy, but that’s not all.

“The latest research strongly suggests that the vast majority of age-related degenerative diseases have tangled roots in dysfunctional mitochondria,” Dr. Lee Know, author of “Mitochondria and the Future of Medicine,” told Healthline. “This is because everything that happens within the body’s cells requires an input of energy, and it’s the mitochondria that produce over 90% of that energy.”

Know explained that if our mitochondria can’t meet the energy needs of our cells, things start to fall apart, setting up a downward spiral that can eventually show up as diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, among many others.

“By maintaining or improving the health of the mitochondria, we could potentially improve health across many body systems and organs,” Know said.

Fortunately, scientists are finding there are many things you can do to keep your mitochondria in good repair. Not surprisingly, that includes many of the same things recommended for good health in general — like eating right and exercising.

Eating for healthy mitochondria

“The main mitochondrial toxins in our diets are excessive free (refined) sugars, like high fructose corn syrup and table sugar, and excess carbohydrates in general,” said Dr. Bruce H. Cohen, an expert in mitochondrial disease and director of the NeuroDevelopmental Science Center at Akron Children’s Hospital.

“Who doesn’t like a cupcake or a bowl of cereal?” Cohen remarked. “But, if you’re not burning up carbohydrates with physical activity, they’re going to have a cumulative damaging effect over time. Excess carbs trigger increased production of free radicals and other intermediary toxins that result in mitochondrial dysfunction. In many cases, that leads to type 2 diabetes.”

Recently, scientists in Italy put rats on a diet that was 30% pure fructose (sugar) for eight weeks and compared it to a diet matched in calories and carbs but without the fructose. They found that the fructose-rich diet led to significant damage of the DNA of mitochondria in the liver (where fructose is processed). The fructose-rich diet also significantly reduced the animals’ ability to repair the damage and make new mitochondria.

Avoiding sugary drinks and cutting back on other refined carbs, like those in white bread, crackers, baked goods, and sweets is a simple thing everyone can do to support their mitochondria and overall health.

"Don’t use a ketogenic diet as a license to eat all of the bunless, high-fat bacon burgers that you want." – Shawn Talbott, PhD

More extensive carbohydrate restriction is part of the popular ketogenic diet.

Ketogenic diets lead your body to produce ketones. These are made in the liver from fats when carbohydrate intake is very low. Preliminary research has shown that ketones can scavenge free radicals in mitochondria and decrease oxidative damage.

In some cases, the ketogenic diet also has been found to promote the creation of new mitochondria.

“A ketogenic diet to promote mitochondrial health needs to be a healthy one,” Shawn Talbott, PhD, a nutritional biochemist and author of “The Secret of Vigor,” cautioned. “Don’t use a ketogenic diet as a license to eat all of the bunless, high-fat bacon burgers that you want.”

Instead, he encourages people to eat plenty of healthy fats — like avocados, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, and seeds. And, eat a moderate amount of healthy proteins, like grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, and organic chicken and eggs.

Being overly strict on healthy carbs — particularly colorful, non-starchy vegetables and whole fruits — could leave you short on important plant-based nutrients and fiber.

Studies show that a certain group of plant-based phytochemicals called polyphenols may help improve mitochondrial function and promote the creation of new mitochondria, as well as help protect them from damage.

Some especially good sources of polyphenols are blueberries, plums, sweet cherries, blackberries, and globe artichokes.

Most importantly, regardless of what diet you follow, avoid overeating.

“Simply eating too much can be problematic for mitochondrial function,” said Joel Meyer, PhD, an associate professor of molecular environmental toxicology at Duke University. “Excess energy in our bodies (from overeating or inactivity) can result in oxidative stress, which causes damage in the mitochondria.”

“There’s evidence that if you restrict calories (within reason), mitochondria respond by making more mitochondria and removing damaged ones,” Meyer said.

An increasingly popular approach to calorie restriction is intermittent fasting. That can be as simple as narrowing the window of time during the day in which you eat to an eight-hour period, such as between 11 am and 7 pm.

Supplements for healthy mitochondria

Although healthy eating is an important foundation for supplying basic nutrients like B vitamins and magnesium needed for mitochondria to function, certain supplements may help, too.

Cohen cautioned that supplements generally lack rigorous double-blind, placebo-controlled studies to prove they work. Despite that, he noted that some individuals may find them helpful.

Talbott recommends supplements that naturally activate the body’s own defenses against mitochondrial damage. On this list are polyphenol extracts. These are more concentrated forms of the polyphenols that you naturally get in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and other foods from plants.

Scientists are starting to test the effects of polyphenol supplements on mitochondria in clinical trials.

In a 12-week double-blind trial published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers gave 38 overweight adults (ages 20 to 50) a daily polyphenol supplement or a placebo pill. The polyphenol supplement contained 282 milligrams EGCG (epigallocatechin-3-gallate, found in green tea) and 80 milligrams resveratrol (found in grape skins). People taking the polyphenol supplement had a significant increase in the function of mitochondria in their muscles compared to people given a placebo.

Another polyphenol supplement that may help protect mitochondria is PQQ (pyrroloquinoline quinone).

You probably eat a little PQQ every day. It’s found in small amounts in many foods like spinach, green peppers, kiwifruit, tofu, natto (fermented soybeans), green tea, and human milk.

However, we generally don’t get a lot of PQQ from food — just an estimated 0.1 to 1.0 milligrams (mg) per day. Dark chocolate lovers likely get more. “Cocoa is suggested to be, by far, the best source of PQQ,” Know said.

In a small study at the University of California at Davis, scientists gave people in their 20s to early 30s a PQQ supplement based on how much they weighed. (A typical daily dose is 10 to 20 mg.) After just three days of taking the PQQ, tests showed the people had an increase in mitochondria-related functions. Although encouraging, this doesn’t prove PQQ helps people feel better or regain health.

Garth Nicolson, PhD, founder of the Institute for Molecular Medicine, has been studying supplements of glycerophospholipids (GPLs) for mitochondrial health. That’s a big word for fat-containing compounds that are building blocks of the membranes of our body’s cells.

GPLs are also found in the inner membranes of mitochondria. Nicolson told Healthline that taking GPLs as a supplement may help with repair of these mitochondrial membranes, which are continually subjected to damage.

In a small trial, Nicolson and his colleagues gave older adults (ages 61 to 77) with moderate fatigue a specially formulated, patent-protected GPL supplement (unlabeled, NTFactor®) for 12 weeks, and then discontinued it. After the first 12 weeks on the supplement, the people reported an average 35.5% reduction in overall fatigue.

During the next 12 weeks off the supplement, the people’s fatigue returned toward pre-trial levels. These changes in fatigue were consistent with changes in mitochondrial function measured in their white blood cells.

Similar results have been found in other studies of the patented GPLs (a 2- to 4-gram daily dose is generally used in adults). In some cases, the GPLs were combined with other nutrients thought to support mitochondrial function, such as CoQ10, NADH, L-carnitine, and alpha-ketoglutaric acid. As with other supplements, larger and more rigorous clinical trials would be helpful in confirming the benefits.

Exercise for healthy mitochondria

You already know exercise is good for you. With the study of mitochondria, the reasons why exercise is so good for us are becoming even clearer.

“Exercise is the single greatest therapy for mitochondrial health,” Know said. Regular exercise can significantly improve mitochondrial function, including as you get older.

Endurance (aerobic) exercise is especially good for triggering the body to make new mitochondria, as well as improving their function. Endurance exercise includes activities like walking, bicycling, and jogging.

Some research shows resistance exercise (such as weight lifting) also may help increase mitochondria mass and function, although possibly to a lesser extent if using lighter weights (low-load resistance training).

“It was recently discovered that even though exercise mainly causes the mitochondria in your muscles to work harder, it somehow improves the function and amount of mitochondria in other areas of your body, too,” Meyer said. For example, exercise has been found to stimulate the creation of mitochondria in the brain and liver.

He said scientists aren’t entirely clear how exercise can have this type of general, body-wide impact on mitochondrial health. But, it’s a very active area of research.

Shield mitochondria from environmental toxins

“The idea of our mitochondria being a target of environmental toxins is relatively new,” Meyer said. “Research shows mitochondrial function can be impaired by toxins such as tobacco smoke, pollution, and heavy metals like arsenic.” But, he noted there are many environmental toxins that still need to be tested for their effects on mitochondria.

“Both air pollution and cigarette smoke are incredibly complex chemically,” Meyer said. “They both have toxic components, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide, that can cause damage in the mitochondria (as well as in other parts of the cell).”

Meyer said that in the US, the EPA does a lot to protect us from air pollution. But, we need to encourage our legislators to continue to support these efforts.

As for smoking, even if you don’t smoke, you may spend time around people who do. This passive cigarette smoke also decreases mitochondrial function.

Fortunately, studies have shown that stopping smoking (whether active or passive), improves various aspects of mitochondrial function.

Even with clean living, you may overlook some toxins.

“There are a number of heavy metals and pesticides that clearly affect mitochondria,” Meyer said. “For example, arsenic (found in some well water) inhibits the function of some of the enzymes that are involved in producing energy in mitochondria.”

“Certain pesticides also inhibit enzymes that are involved in producing energy in mitochondria,” Meyer said. “And, some pesticides cause uncoupling, which is a little bit like poking holes in mitochondria, making them very leaky.”

“I think it’s probably more important to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables than to eat 100% organic,” he added. “But given the choice, I would try to limit ones that have a lot of pesticide exposure.”

Consulting the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list can help you prioritize which fruits and vegetables may be worth spending more for organic.

Living an overall healthy lifestyle, including following a healthy eating pattern and getting regular exercise, may help minimize the impact of environmental toxins on our mitochondria and the rest of the body, Meyer concluded.