Mitochondria Supplement and Lifestyle Guide (and What Not to Do)

After being in the nootropics industry as an educator for 6 years I have seen far too many nootropics and supplements touting cognitive benefits and especially improved “energy”.

Most of these supplements are filled with caffeine or other stimulants, but true energy comes from mitochondrial support.

Despite what many supplement companies might have you believe, there are many lifestyle habits and tactics that support mitochondrial health.

This is the first comprehensive look at all of the science currently available on the subject.

We’ll break down the piece into the following:

  • Supplements (Nootropics)
  • Light
  • Heat / cold therapy
  • Miscellaneous (breathwork, wild plants etc)
  • Food, sleep, and exercise will each get their own sections. These “boring” lifestyle sections will not simply regurgitate the basics found across the net.

How to Use this Guide

Before we dive right in, I want to provide some context on how best to use this guide.

Use it to educate yourself.

Do NOT use it to bludgeon yourself with things you have to do and create shame for not starting off your day with 23 different mitochondrial support habits and supplements.

Be kind to yourself when implementing a few of these at a time and where possible.

Mitochondria: A Two Sentence Primer

Our body is made up of different types of cells and they function because the mitochondria produces energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

Because mitochondria are the “powerhouses of the cell,” the healthier our mitochondria, the more energy they provide, which means healthier cells and a healthier organism (you).

Nootropics for Mitochondrial Support

I’m not an expert in anything I will be writing in this piece, but I am an obsessed enthusiast, which provides great context for our learning together.

Using nootropic supplements to improve mitochondrial health is one of my favorite topics. Understanding some aspects of the science, I’ve realized that the mitochondria are really at the root of our performance (both long and short term).

This means that focusing on mitochondria is a sustainable way to use nootropics.

There are various substances and nootropics that improve mitochondria; some are natural compounds, some are synthetic derivatives of what we already produce, and others are simply man made inventions that work well for mitochondrial support.

We’ll break down some of the more well-studied mitochondrial supplements and then go into some of the newer compounds with less data.

Well Researched Mitochondrial Supplements

Numerous supplements that improve mitochondrial function are well researched and some of them might even be surprising to you. First up:

Creatine monohydrate – the main purpose of creatine is to increase cellular ATP and creatine does this very well.

More energy seems to indicate more ability to do “work” that leads to decreased fatigue [1], increased neuron growth [2], and drastically improved cognitive performance especially in vegans and vegetarians [3].

Gotu kola – traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic compounds are rich with mitochondria supporting plants.

Gotu kola has been researched to increase mitochondrial biogenesis (making new mitochondria) [4] and reduce cognitive deficits in those who already have impaired mitochondria [5].

This is one of the main reasons gotu kola is a main ingredient in our mitochondrial booster called Elevate.

mitochondria supplement

As you can see from Elevate’s ingredient deck, much of the well-researched list is on here.

Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) – this co-enzyme helps reduce inflammation [6], increase blood flood to the brain [7], and general quality of life [8], but all of that comes from repairing mitochondrial function in the cells so they can do more work.

As with many nootropics, the studied benefits are primarily downstream effects of better mitochondria (showing it is a catch-all!).

Cannabidiol (CBD) – this constituent molecule from cannabis has a lot of research and applications. It does not have a lot of research in the mitochondrial support realm, but a few particular studies are interesting.

One from the Journal of Neuroscience showed CBD helped regulate Ca2+ levels in the mitochondria, which supported their functioning [9].

Acetyl-L-Carnitine – odd name, simple compound. It’s an amino acid called carnitine, but in a specific version that the body can utilize well for a number of reasons.

There is plenty of evidence ALCAR can support protecting mitochondria and preventing damage [10], but other evidence suggests it can help produce more energy when oxygen is scarce [11].

Piracetam – when we formulated Elevate a part of me wanted piracetam to be included. It’s a synthetic substance, but one of the most well-researched compounds since the 1960s.

One particular study showed that piracetam could improve mitochondrial function after oxidative stress [12]. For legal reasons we decided to opt away from it (though it is a fantastic substance).

Butyrate – the reason butyrate is well-studied is because it is mainly found in products like butter, but the benefits for cellular health and mitochondria are clear [13].

This is one of the reasons Dave Asprey is so pro-butter coffee (what he’s dubbed Bulletproof coffee).

dave asprey

Moderately Researched Mitochondrial Support

Some of the “latest and greatest” compounds used to support mitochondrial health are by no stretch well-researched.

However, many of them have just enough research for people to take a leap of faith and anecdotes begin piling up.

Glutathione – according to Dr. Mark Hyman this is the “mother of all antioxidants” and it is a compound we have floating through our system constantly.

By adding extra glutathione (especially in a world where things in our surroundings are toxic), we can protect and support the mitochondria even more [14].

It’s valuable to get a certain type of liposomal glutathione if you are going this route (oral versions don’t absorb well).

Nicotinamide riboside – the darling of biohackers in Silicon Valley, nicotinamide riboside is a supplement that converts into NAD+, which is said to have powerful mitochondrial effects that impact longevity and anti-aging.

Evidence is far from conclusive, but what does exist is compelling [15]. The anecdotal accounts are where this gets really interesting and requires further research.

Note for those who have money, it is possible to do NAD+ injections directly, which is more efficient.

nadplus

Methylene blue – in a conversation I had with Dr. Francisco Gonzalez-Lima, he shared all of the effects this compound (mostly used as fish tank cleaner) had on the brain.

Improved memory retention by 66% (compared to 31% control) and reduced cognitive decline in elderly [16]. All of that comes directly from support of mitochondria producing more energy.

PQQ – this synthetic molecule has some evidence, the most compelling of which is a study that showed PQQ and CoQ10 could improve verbal memory performance whereas either alone could not [17].

This suggests possible synergies for mitochondrial health.

Finally, there are a series that receive “honorable mention”, but I don’t particularly find compelling for the sole purpose of mitochondrial function.

These include things like alpha lipoic acid, astragalus root, omega-3 fatty acids (DHA / EPA), magnesium, and exogenous ketones.

If you are really interested in the nitty gritty of these supplements, buy them online from reputable vendors.

I’ve compiled what I believe to be the most valuable stack of mitochondrial nootropics in the Elevate supplement by Oyasin. Shameless plug, but it is relevant!

Light Improves Mitochondria

In the right wavelengths, light stimulates significant changes in the way our mitochondria function.

One such wavelength is sunlight (duh), which helps produce a specific charge inside our cells that activates mitochondria.

According to Dr. Gerald Pollock, this is akin to “stored energy” [18]. A photosynthesis for humans of sorts.

Scientists are using different types of light in order to alter mitochondrial health as well. We are big believers in the ancestral way of living (sunlight), but also the modern technology known as photobiomodulation.

As the name implies, changing light can change our biology. Two specific types called red and near infrared light can be used to activate something called cytochrome C oxidase (CCO) in our mitochondria [19].

This produces more energy for the cell, which provides more energy for the organism. Here is a graph showing the spikes in CCO for specific wavelengths (red and near infrared):

red near infrared

As with all mitochondrial support, this has positive downstream effects. A 2017 study showed that near infrared light therapy could increase reaction time and obviously had no adverse effects [20].

Using the red and near infrared light also supports mitochondria by reducing inflammation. In one study, biomarkers of inflammation were lowered after only 30 minutes of light therapy [21].

Here is a picture of me using the Joovv light device (about $595 – $2695 depending on the model):

joovv mansal

I may look happy, but I’m really wondering why my girlfriend was taking pictures of me naked.

Using red and infrared light therapy directly on the skin is great, but targeting specific regions of the body with other forms of light can be even more helpful for our mitochondria.

Mitochondria: Low Level Light Therapy and Intranasal Light Therapy

This gets geeky fast. Low level light therapy (LLLT) is used to directly utilize light with the brain and there is plenty of evidence in humans and animals.

One 2016 study found that LLLT could not only increase reaction time, but also improve correct responses and cognitive performance more generally [22].

Ben Greenfield is a proponent of using intranasal light therapy via the VieLight, which shoots light directly into your nostril. Ben has some reading material on the subject here and a podcast as well here.

While anecdotes are never the first place to go for scientific inquiry, the online Reddit community is filled with positive reports of LLLT. One user wrote:

…the crazy effect is when you shine the IR lasers on your head. Even while I am applying the IR, I notice a distinct effect: a ‘sharpening’ of sight. But like paints on the surface of the water clearing up and turning into an image. It becomes more ‘developed’. It’s difficult to explain, but it’s very cool – and the main and most important effect is that my brain finally does what I expect it to! I am really hyped.” [23]

Hot and Cold Therapy

Using light to boost mitochondrial function and performance may seem one of the oddest applications, but hot and cold therapy (also known as thermogenesis) is another well researched method (that feels great).

The good news about cold and hot therapies (and light for that matter) is that they are all relatively well studied.

Because there are few (if any) side effects compared to some of the nootropics we’ll discuss in the next section, funding and research has been thorough.

Starting with cold, polar plunges, Wim Hof ice baths, and all manner of cold showers have increased in popularity.

Cold therapy increases mitochondrial biogenesis meaning that unlike some other methods that make our mitochondria work more efficiently to create energy, this simply makes more of the mitochondria.

wim hof

Heat is equally as valuable for our mitochondria, but for different reasons.

Similar to exercise, the energetic needs of our mitochondria go up, which makes the mitochondria increase efficiency in order to meet the demand.

The mitochondria start utilizing oxygen in the blood more efficiently in a process known as “oxidative phosphorylation”.

Cold therapy creates more mitochondria, heat therapy increases the efficiency of our mitochondria.

That’s a bit simplistic and reductive, but a general guideline that helps.

Miscellaneous Mitochondrial Boosters

Before we jump into the basics of food, sleep, and exercise, there are a few straggler comments on boosting mitochondria.

Breathworth – in a recent Collective Insights podcast with Dr. Andrew Huberman and Brian Mackenzie, they discussed how breathwork could be quantified and utilized to increase the efficient use of oxygen [24], which we know helps the efficiency of mitochondria.

People have been using breathwork for thousands of years in Yogic traditions among many others. The other effects of breathwork can be profound in the short-term, but longer term there may be significant mitochondrial benefit.

Wild Plants – compared to our ancestors, modern urbanized humans consume about 30 different species of vegetables while they ate about 100 in a year.

In essence, we’re getting 30% of the nutrition of our ancestors and largely because we aren’t eating a broad range of edible plants and wildlife.

At this point edible wild plants are theoretical as it relates to mitochondrial health (though we may have overlooked some research on this), but at Oyasin we’re highly motivated to utilize ancestral wellness in order to maximize our human potential and genetic expression.

Using Food as Mitochondrial Support

Enough has been said about what constitutes a “good” diet and this is no place for rehashing the same information.

There are specific ways of using food to support healthy mitochondria and one of them is fasting.

Putting the body into a fasted state starts a natural process known as autophagy, which is a cellular waste disposal system. By clearing out dead elements of the cell, they can operate more efficiently.

Fasting (or caloric restriction) teaches mitochondria to utilize oxygen efficiently and reduces byproducts of oxidative stress [25].

When the cells have less, they get used to functioning with less, which makes mitochondria more resilient and efficient.

autophagy

If you want to start fasting search “Steve Kamb fasting” for a good guide from a friend.

Particular nutrients found in our diet support healthy functioning, but particularly important are things like magnesium and B-vitamins.

Both are found in food and supplemental form, but as Dr. Rhonda Patrick says:

I prefer to get as many micronutrients as I can from whole foods for a variety of reasons. One, they are complexed with fiber help with absorption. The nutrients are also in the right ratios. You’re not getting too much. The balance is right. And there are other components that are probably yet to be identified in there.” [26]

The final stand-out diet component is understanding how mitochondria uses carbohydrates versus fat to produce energy. Our mitochondria are adapted to use both, but they seem to prefer fat.

According to a 2016 study published in Cell, glucose (from carbohydrates) significantly alters the shape and function of mitochondria rendering it unable to adequately perform [27].

Reduce the sugar, increase the fat. Find the balance that’s right for you and develop healthier mitochondria from food.

Sleep and Mitochondrial Function

Without belaboring the point, sleep is incredibly important for mitochondrial health.

Specifically for the scientifically minded, sleep offers the brain an opportunity to remove cellular waste through what is known as the “glymphatic system” [28].

Another study published in 2014 in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine labeled their study “Sleep disorders associated with primary mitochondrial diseases” [29].

It’s obvious that adequate sleep matters to mitochondria (both in quality and quantity).

Exercise to Boost Mitochondria

Finally, let’s look at exercise. We all have been told exercise matters for looking good, but it is also one of the greatest tools for longevity and short-term performance as a whole.

Any kind of exercise is going to increase gene expression and performance, but high intensity interval training (HIIT) may have an even more profound impact.

In one study from 2006, only 2 weeks of HIIT significantly boosted mitochondrial function in participants (5 men) [30].

This type of exercise stimulants the mitochondria to work more efficiently with limited oxygen.

Piecing it All Together

Too often in the health world people read long-form content like this and assume they must try and achieve all of the “hacks” and “tricks” in order to optimize their life.

There is some value in spending time improving mitochondrial function, but with this content it is meant to be educational and provide you with a variety of options.

Given what you now know, what are some of the major things that you can do in order to improve mitochondrial function?

Maybe you go into a sauna 3 times per week, take creatine, and get Elevate. Maybe you add HIIT training and fasting into your regimen.

Pick a couple, stick to them, and be willing to change to best fit your needs and goals.

The worst thing you can do emotionally is let this (or any other informative piece) become a tyrant to your happiness and fulfillment.

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18053002
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18206856
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18579168
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4764102/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3100561/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22016358
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21388622
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21370966
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19228959
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20708681
  11. http://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/3/8/735/pdf
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21370966
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3678322
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12213605
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4963347/
  16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14724055
  17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2212345/
  18. https://ecee.colorado.edu/~ecen5555/SourceMaterial/Pollack13.pdf
  19. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005272806000223
  20. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27855264
  21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16706691
  22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27220529
  23. https://www.reddit.com/r/Nootropics/comments/43cgeo/anecdote_tulip_stack_is_a_mininzt_for_me/
  24. https://neurohacker.com/extinguishing-fear-when-it-really-matters-by-altering-breath-and-vision
  25. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1413655/
  26. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSGDd2uZL4Y&feature=youtu.be
  27. https://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(16)30112-X
  28. https://www.jax.org/strain/005866
  29. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25325607
  30. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1540458/