We all want to feel great, optimally perform (mentally and physically), age gracefully, and experience the best quality of life. Luckily, we live in an age of biomedical innovations which allows us to enhance these processes through nutrition, diet, supplementation, and even some medical interventions, safely. Sometimes these enhancements are called bio-hacking. Biohacking often focuses on enhancing metabolism and decreasing inflammatory processes that accelerate cellular aging.
At the very heart of biohacking is a cell organelle called mitochondria. Your mitochondrial health drives your entire well-being. Mitochondria are small but mighty, and ridiculously important powerhouses that reside in cells. You can think about mitochondria as the engines of the cells. Most cells consist of a cell membrane, a nucleus that contains the DNA, and several different organelles that help the cell produce the things it needs to function. One of the most important organelles is the mitochondria. These organelles occur mostly in the heart, brain, and muscles, but also in nerves, kidneys, and liver. Cells contain anywhere from 1000 to 2500 mitochondria. Their primary function is as energy factories of the cells. Essentially they process breakdown products of glucose metabolism through something called the Krebs cycle and make it into the energy, ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate), that we depend on daily for function, repair, and prevention of disease. This process is enormously complex and intricate, and if not properly functioning can lead to a build-up of debris and oxidants that damage mitochondrial function and health, sometimes leading to something called secondary mitochondrial dysfunction. Dysfunction can be a result of inherited hereditary information, drugs, stress, and nutritional deficiencies. Scientists and medical professionals can measure mitochondrial function and health and use these as determinants for the prevention of chronic health issues, and anti-aging. Let’s stop and review some terms we’ve thus far used:
Biohacking – a term referring to human augmentation or human enhancement, is a do-it-yourself biology aimed at improving performance, health, and well-being. Biohacking ranges from efforts to improve brain function to faster weight loss.
Organelle – any number of organized or specialized structures within a living cell
Mitochondria – an organelle in large numbers in most cells, in which the biochemical processes of respiration and energy production occur.
Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) – a compound present in all living tissue. The breakage of one phosphate linkage provides energy for physiological processes such as muscular contraction.
Secondary Mitochondrial Dysfunction – refers to any abnormal mitochondrial function other than primary mitochondrial dysfunction. The process is caused by dysfunction in the genes
encoding for the electron transport chain (ETC) proteins directly or indirectly, or impacting the production of the machinery needed for ETC; these can be inherited or acquired due to adverse environmental conditions.
Mitochondrial health – refers to the overall state or condition of the mitochondria; takes into account the health of the structure of the mitochondria, the integrity, and overall functioning.
Mitochondrial function – refers specifically to the ability of the mitochondria to carry out its essential functions within the cell which includes energy production, regulation of calcium levels, reactive oxygen species (ROS) production, and signaling pathways related to cell survival and death.
Let’s dive deeper into what happens when we consume food. We’ll skip a couple of steps and start from the point where all food is converted to glucose. All food that we consume consists of carbon backbones. This is true of polysaccharides (sugars), proteins (amino acids), and fats. These macromolecules are broken down into micronutrients and all are converted eventually into the energy currency of all cells, glucose.
Glucose makes its way into the cell via insulin and glucose channels, and then enzymes involved in glycolysis and the Krebs cycle break down these carbon backbones and extract and transfer this energy to special carriers, the electron transport chain (ETC) through a process called oxidative phosphorylation or cellular respiration. The final result is the production of the energy we use called ATP. The amount of ATP we generate goes to repair and restoration processes that determine our quality of life and our risk of developing disease.
In our next blogs, we’ll take a deep dive into what exactly happens in the mitochondria.
Carbon bonds – a covalent bond between two carbon atoms.
Polysaccharides – a carbohydrate whose molecules consist of a number of sugar molecules bonded together.
Proteins - any of a class of nitrogenous organic compounds that have large molecules composed of one or more long chains of amino acids and are an essential part of all living organisms.
Fats – a natural oily or greasy substance occurring in animal bodies; long chains of carbons.
Insulin – a hormone produced in the pancreas by the islets of Langerhans, which regulates the amount of glucose in the blood.
Enzymes – a substance produced by a living organism that acts as a catalyst to bring about a specific biochemical reaction.
Glycolysis – the breakdown of glucose by enzymes, releasing energy and pyruvic acid.
Krebs cycle – the sequence of reactions by which most living cells generate energy during the process of aerobic respiration. It takes place in the mitochondria, consuming oxygen, producing carbon dioxide and water as waste products, and converting ADP to energy-rich ATP.
Electron transport chain – the sequential transfer of electrons especially by cytochromes in cellular respiration from an oxidizable substrate to molecular oxygen by a series of oxidation-reduction reactions.
Oxidative phosphorylation – is a cellular process that harnesses the reduction of oxygen to generate high-energy phosphate bonds in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
Mitochondrial health and function are at the heart of quality of life, decreasing disease risk and anti-aging. It is important to understand what health and function is. Our understanding can help us use this information to positively affect our lives.
Mitochondrial health refers to the overall state or condition of the mitochondria and includes several factors such as structure, integrity, and overall function of the mitochondria. Mitochondria function specifically refers to the ability of mitochondria to carry out their essential functions within the cell. Mitochondrial function is not limited to energy production alone. Mitochondrial function also includes other cellular processes including the regulation of calcium levels, reactive oxygen species (ROS) production, and signaling pathways related to cell survival and death – the function of mitochondria extends way past energy production.
When mitochondrial health and function are disturbed or impaired, it can lead to various diseases and conditions, including mitochondrial disorders, neurodegenerative disease, metabolic disorders, and age-related decline. The decline in mitochondrial function and the accumulation of mitochondrial damage contribute to the aging process. Understanding the mitochondria may provide insights into potential interventions (bio-hacking) to promote healthy aging and prevent or slow down age-related diseases.
Reactive oxygen species – a type of unstable molecule that contains oxygen and that easily reacts with other molecules in a cell.
Cell signaling pathways – a series of chemical reactions in which a group of molecules in a cell work together to control a cell function, such as cell division or cell death.
Neurodegenerative disease – a type of disease in which cells of the central nervous system stop working or die.
In our next blog articles we will dive deeper into what happens during oxidative phosphorylation to generate energy, what are essential components, and how we define aging in relationship to mitochondria. We will also begin to talk about ways to support mitochondrial health that involve maintaining a balanced and healthy lifestyle, regular exercise, a nutritious diet, minimizing factors that can cause mitochondrial damage, and supportive supplementation.
Nunnari, S et al Mitochondria: In Sickness and in Health Cell 2012 March 16; 148(6):1145-1159
Cooper, ID et al Bio-Hacking Better Health – Leveraging Metabolic Biochemistry to Maximize Healthspan. Antioxidants, 2023 Sep 12(9):17449
Annesley, S et al Mitochondria in Health and Disease. Cells 2019 Jul 5; 8(7)
Dr. Lisa Price is a licensed Naturopathic Physician with expertise in complementary cancer care, and culinary nutrition during cancer treatment through survivorship.
A National Institute of Health (NIH), National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Research Fellow (2005-2010), she is also an author, radio host, lecturer, and adjunct faculty member at Bastyr University. She studied microbial biochemistry as an undergraduate and as a Master of Science student in New York, and graduated from the prestigious Bastyr University in 1998, with honors in counseling.
With an NIH research fellow in immunology and oncology, Dr. Price has published peer-reviewed scientific papers and abstracts, written many articles on health and nutrition, and presented her findings at scientific conferences.