Energy enhancement is big business. Because we all want to feel better and have enough energy to meet life's demands, our society has made it so. Consequently, there's no shortage of "expert" suggestions for how to boost energy (just look online!). Yet too many of us are still dragging ourselves around. With so many fatigue solutions to choose from, why are we still tired?
According to Ari Whitten, B.S., CES, PES, author of Forever Fat Loss and creator of The Energy Blueprint system for overcoming fatigue and increasing energy, we can simplify the reasons for fatigue into two "big picture" categories: (1) allostatic load, which is the sum of all types of stressors we experience, and (2) resilience, or our body's capacity to handle that stress load and still maintain health.
In other words, our energy level is directly affected first by the stress load (from all sources – mental, emotional, physical, spiritual) in our lives, and secondly by how our bodies are equipped to handle that stress. As natural health practitioners, we know there are multiple ways to minimize the drain of chronic, harmful stress and bolster our ability to manage it. One such natural approach for boosting energy that's been garnering a lot of attention lately is maximizing our mitochondria.
What are mitochondria, and why do they matter?
Mitochondrial health is at the core of our capacity to handle stress. Mitochondria are tiny cell components that perform a complex process known as the Krebs cycle. During this process, mitochondria convert chemical energy from food into adenosine triphosphate or ATP, an energy currency all your cells can use. Some high-energy producing areas of your body have a greater concentration of mitochondria than others - such as your heart, brain, skeletal muscles, and liver - but most cells, except for red blood cells, contain mitochondria. Scientists once believed that bacteria outnumbered mitochondria in our bodies, but we've recently learned that isn't true. We have around 35 trillion bacteria and about 500,000 times as many mitochondria!7 So, it's pretty important for these energy centers to stay healthy.
Research by Robert Naviaux, M.D., Ph.D. reveals an expanded role for mitochondria8. According to his study, not only are mitochondria the energy powerhouses of cells, but they also influence how we use the energy they make. For instance, whether to devote energy resources to "peacetime" metabolism or shift to "cellular defense." Naviaux calls this ability "The Cell Danger Response." He explains that mitochondria are danger sensors, and the more they sense danger (e.g., dietary inadequacies, sleep deprivation, toxin exposure, inflammation, chronic psychological or mental stress, pathogens, etc.), the more they "turn off" peacetime or regular energy metabolism and shift resources to protection or cellular defense. This shifting to defense mode means that the more energy mitochondria spend defending against danger, the less we'll have for anything else.
Whitten suggests we think about this mitochondrial balancing act as a "Resilience Threshold" – that is, how difficult or easy it is to overwhelm your mitochondria and shift them into defense mode. Your Resilience Threshold is controlled by the strength and number of your mitochondria. The more and stronger mitochondria you have, the higher your Resilience Threshold is and the greater your capacity to adapt to high-stress loads while still maintaining health and a high energy level. Conversely, the fewer mitochondria you have and the weaker or more fragile they are, the lower your Resilience Threshold or capacity to handle stress and maintain a healthy energy level.
How to keep mitochondria healthy and strong
The goal, then, is to have a high Resilience Threshold with thriving mitochondria and high energy. Many factors contribute to mitochondrial health, but two of the most important are high-quality nutrition and healthy stress. Healthy stress differs from harmful stress in various ways, but a primary difference is the duration. Healthy stress generally comes in short, abbreviated bursts, whereas harmful stress is generally chronic and ongoing.
Regarding nutrition and mitochondrial health, most experts agree that appropriate nutrition, both from food and from high-quality supplements, is the most important thing you can do to bolster your mitochondria. We've all heard the old saying "you are what you eat," but the importance of nutrition in all aspects of health, your mitochondria included, cannot be overstated. "Cellular fuel comes from the food you eat," says Terry Wahls, M.D., author of The Wahls Protocol: A Radical New Way to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions Using Paleo Principles13. (Wahls is also a multiple sclerosis survivor who brought herself back from the brink using the protocol in her book.) This link is so strong and concrete that it's no exaggeration to say your diet directly affects your cells' ability to function. And, a huge part of cell function is dependent on your mitochondria.
So let's examine what kind of fuel your mitochondria need:
Wahls recommends working up to nine cups of a variety of organic fresh, colorful vegetables and fruits daily: three cups of green, three deeply colored, and three rich in sulfur (e.g., broccoli, arugula, asparagus, red cabbage). The key point here is variety – not nine cups of one or two foods. Get as many different colors in as you can since each color represents specific nutrients. If you aren't eating much fresh produce now, that may sound like a lot, and if it does, start with three cups and do your best to work up to nine. The vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber you'll get from this one dietary change may be the single most important thing you can do for mitochondrial health, according to Wahls.
In addition to a variety of fruits and vegetables, get plenty of omega-3 fatty acids to build and fortify mitochondrial membranes. Good sources include low-mercury wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, avocados, nuts, seeds, and fish oil supplements.
For general health as well as specific mitochondrial health, Wahls also suggests minimizing or eliminating foods she considers toxic to mitochondria, such as gluten, processed flours, all sugars and refined sweeteners, trans fats, and dairy products.
Wahls recommends several mitochondria-protective and energy-boosting micronutrients such as acetyl-L-carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, N-acetylcysteine, NADH, D-ribose, resveratrol, and magnesium threonate.
There is such a thing as good stress
Earlier, we talked about allostatic load and how we need to minimize the harmful effects of chronic, negative stress, like long-term psychological stress or chronic physical stress from pathogens, toxins, or poor dietary habits. But, not all stress is bad. There are also types of good stress collectively known in scientific circles as hormesis. For example, exercise is a short-term healthy type of stress that, when performed correctly, makes us healthier, stronger, and more resistant to harmful stress. According to Whitten, hormesis can be defined as a transient good stressor that stimulates the body to adapt and grow more fit in order to be prepared for greater loads of that stressor (or any stressor) in the future. The key is the transient or short-term duration. Other examples of hormetic stress include extreme temperature exposure and fasting.
Hormesis strengthens the body in many ways. The more your body has been exposed to and adapted to hormetic stressors, the more stress-tolerant (or resilient) and energetic you become. Specific to mitochondria, hormesis works to stimulate fragile and weak mitochondria to become healthy and strong again. It can even stimulate mitochondrial biogenesis, the creation of new mitochondria. Any stress, including a hormetic one, stimulates the release of unstable molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS), free radicals, that can cause oxidative damage to cells. But ROS can have beneficial effects, too. For example, they signal cells to make more mitochondria to help deal with the stress7. When you increase the number, size, and power of mitochondria, you also increase your cells' energy-producing capacity and build your Resilience Threshold.
Combine the following hormetic strategies with the previous nutritional suggestions to have a greater chance of overcoming fatigue.
Researchers in a 2017 study published in The Journal of Physiology verified that the intensity does indeed make a difference in the effects of exercise on mitochondria. While even moderate-intensity exercise increases mitochondrial content, HIIT training produces mitochondrial changes far superior to moderate exercise3. In HIIT (high-intensity interval training), participants alternate short bursts of intense exercise (such as sprints) with short-duration rest, repeating this activity-rest cycle typically until exhaustion. Another 2017 paper published in Cell Metabolism found that HIIT stimulated cells to make more proteins for mitochondria, which meant the cell's energy powerhouse became more robust. HIIT resulted in a 49% increase in mitochondrial capacity for young, healthy adults in the study, while the older volunteers experienced a 69% increase10.
Here's a sample low-level HIIT workout: Start with a 5-minute brisk walking warm-up, then jog for 1 minute at a level 7 intensity (on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest)) followed by walking for 1 minute at a level 3 intensity. Repeat the jog-walk cycle 5 times and end with a 5-minute walking cool-down for a total workout time of 20 minutes. Any type of exercise is better than none; however, check with your doctor before performing any new exercise, especially if you have pre-existing health conditions.
Temperature Extremes Exposure
Severe heat injury, like heat exhaustion or heat stroke, is undoubtedly hazardous. But research shows that short-term mild heat stress, like what occurs when you exercise, get in a sauna or steamer, or even a hot bath, can improve mitochondrial health. By elevating your core temperature, this form of hormetic stress activates special proteins called heat shock proteins, which are involved in longevity and maintaining muscle mass. In fact, animal research has shown that when they're exposed to a sauna, rats increase their protein synthesis by up to 30%6,7. Authors of a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology also reported that as little as one hour of mild heat stress (104 degrees Fahrenheit) stimulates the creation of new mitochondria12.
Even though cold exposure is not nearly as pleasant as trips to the sauna (think ice baths, cold water swimming, or even cold showers), research shows that it also results in the creation of new mitochondria1. Cold exposure stimulates different special proteins called cold shock proteins, and it also stimulates an increase in the hormone/neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which, in turn, causes vasoconstriction to conserve heat. Stored fat is your energy reserve, and norepinephrine signals your fat stores to make more mitochondria to produce more energy and, therefore, make more heat. This new higher concentration of mitochondria in fat stores causes fat cells to appear brown, which is where we get the term "brown fat." Due to the higher concentration of mitochondria in brown fat cells, those cells become more metabolically active, thus creating more energy7.
Whereas fasting typically refers to abstaining from food altogether for an extended time, with intermittent fasting, there is not total abstinence from food within a 24-hour day. Rather the "feeding window," or the period of time during which you eat, is condensed, leaving more fasted hours during a 24-hour period. One of the most common intermittent fasting schedules is to eat during an 8-hour window and fast for 16 hours. For example, you may skip breakfast, eat lunch at 11:00 a.m., have a light snack in the afternoon, eat supper at 7:00 p.m., and not eat again until 11:00 a.m. the next day to repeat the cycle. Another option is to eat only one meal a day, two days a week. Choices abound, all with the idea to increase the number of hours within a 24-hour period where you are not eating.
What are the benefits of this eating schedule? As you might imagine, weight loss is common, but research has shown other benefits such as improvements in memory4, cardiovascular health2,5, and even anti-aging benefits11. Science also indicates intermittent fasting protocols activate pathways that support mitochondrial biogenesis as well as a process known as mitophagy9 in which damaged and dysfunctional mitochondria are "recycled." The bottom line is that intermittent fasting supports a high-quality mitochondrial system by removing damaged mitochondria and replacing them with hearty new ones.