When it comes to aging, research finds that most people fear issues such as losing physical function, experiencing memory loss or getting a chronic disease. Although the market is rife with strategies to slow down aging and restore the fountain of youth—with most products taking aim at physical appearance—researchers say healthy aging actually comes down to something much more cellular.
Enter mitochondria, the little batteries inside each cell of our bodies that generate more than 90 percent of our cells’ energy needs. “They are organelles in the cells responsible for producing energy” in the form of adenosine triphosphate or ATP, says Joseph E. Pizzorno, Jr., N.D., and founding president of Bastyr University, the first fully accredited, multidisciplinary university of natural medicine. If mitochondria stop working, he adds, the cells start dying within a few minutes.
Mitochondria are hands down the best measure of physiological age, according to Pizzorno, and also of disease resistance, because they are now linked with major illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and mood disorders. “[Diseases] have as one of their principal defects loss of mitochondrial function, so anything that can maintain or restore mitochondrial function can reduce the severity of many of the symptoms of these diseases,” says Garth Nicolson, Ph.D., a mitochondria researcher.
Besides aging and disease, exposure to chemicals and toxicants like pollution and certain pharmaceuticals can also negatively impact mitochondria, says Sarah Tindall, N.D., a resident at the National University of Natural Medicine. On the flip side, the following nutrients can provide essential support.
Coenzyme Q10 (coQ10)
CoQ10 is an antioxidant that your body produces naturally, and your cells use it for growth and maintenance. But as we age, levels decrease, so supplementation can be beneficial. In an article in Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal, Pizzorno writes that coQ10 deficiency “means not only decreased ATP production but also increased electron loss, causing oxidative damage, [and] research has shown a strong correlation between a species’ ability to produce coQ10 and their longevity.”
Because B vitamins are cofactors (needed to make chemical reactions happen) in cellular energy production, it’s important to ensure they are available in abundance so that ATP production can occur with ease, Tindall says. It’s well-established that B vitamins are crucial for energy in general, and multiple recent studies show that they directly regulate the metabolism of mitochondria.
Magnesium is critical for a multitude of biochemical processes, including normal cellular and mitochondrial function, so supplementing with it can be helpful for mitochondria, which are considered magnesium “stores,” Tindall says. Up to 50 percent of the U.S. population is deficient in magnesium, and deficiency has been linked with diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease and high blood pressure.
Alpha-Lipoic (α-Lipoic) Acid & Acetyl- L-Carnitine
Studies show that these supplements reduce oxidative stress, and they also, Pizzorno writes, increase ATP production. One study found benefits of these supplements in subjects with heart disease, and ongoing studies with the National Institutes of Health are looking at their neuroprotective effects and how they improve cognition in patients with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and dementia.