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Mitochondrial Health: Biohacking Strategies

Jonathan Vellinga, MD -

Mitochondrial Health: Nutrition Strategies & Supplements

Mitochondria are tiny powerhouses that create fuel for all the energy-consuming elements of human cells. Cells would die without the vital roles that mitochondria play. Insufficient or dysfunctional mitochondria are associated with difficult-to-diagnose symptoms that can negatively affect one's quality of life, including extreme muscle weakness, chronic fatigue, gastrointestinal disorders, and even neurological dysfunction (1).

In part one of this 3-part series, we covered what mitochondria are and why mitochondrial health is essential to the health of the whole human. We reviewed ways that mitochondria can become dysfunctional and why it matters. Part two reviewed nutritional strategies to counter mitochondrial dysfunction, including a brief review of various mitochondria-boosting nutritional supplements.

This third part of our mitochondrial health series examines biohacking strategies to boost mitochondrial function.

What is Biohacking?

Biohacking, also known as "human enhancement," is the conscious manipulation of the body's biology to achieve some improvement in "health, performance, or well-being” (2). It's an attempt to achieve change quickly, a shortcut to getting good results by knowing how the body works. As the understanding of the human body advances, the opportunity for manipulating outcomes has multiplied. Since mitochondrial health translates to a healthier human, are there specific biohacking strategies that can increase mitochondrial health, diminish mitochondria damage, or increase the number of mitochondria?

Biohacking Strategy #1: Temperature manipulation

Any energy expenditure from within the body creates heat, and because muscles are so big, they create a lot of heat when exercised. Metabolic heat helps the body maintain its core temperature in cold weather but can also be evaporated off the body's surface to cool it in hot temperatures. Notably, this mechanism which maintains temperature homeostasis can be manipulated to increase health benefits.

1. Heat Therapy

Therapeutic heat has been enjoyed in spas, saunas, and hot springs for thousands of years. The warmth of hot water or steam noticeably relaxes muscles. Modern electric heating pads are often used to help reduce the pain of stiff or sore muscles. However, heat doesn't just feel good.

Researchers have revealed heat to be a superb biohacking strategy for increasing the number and function of mitochondria.

Increased numbers of mitochondria result in the ability to create more energy for the needs of the cell, while the increased function of mitochondria provides an increase in performance.

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that lightly heating cultured muscle cells (muscle cells in a petri dish) created more mitochondria and increased the function of mitochondria's respiratory capacity (ability to generate ATP) (3). What's interesting about this study is that in the human participants, no exercise was performed, yet the applied heat still caused the increase in mitochondria numbers and function. This aspect makes it especially useful to those who are intolerant to exercise; that is, they have severe physical repercussions from attempting vigorous exercise. The implications are significant because heat therapy could increase mitochondria numbers and function even in those experiencing sarcopenia (wasting of muscles) or other conditions associated with mitochondrial deficits without the need for exercise (3).

Benefits of heat therapy:

  • Heat stimulation of muscles increases the number and function of mitochondria without exercise (3).

  • Sauna bathing reduces the risk of a particular type of blood clot (venous thromboembolism), in middle-aged male Caucasians (4).

  • Hot Finnish sauna bathing reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, lung diseases, skin diseases, headaches, arthritis, mental health disorders, and all-cause mortality (5).

  • Heat can help the body excrete toxic heavy metals such as lead and mercury through the sweat, resulting in detoxification (6).

How you can apply it:

1) A sauna is an easy way to increase your temperature and court mitochondria growth and strength. Please read our previous article about the different types of saunas and their benefits.

2) Hot baths (such as soaking in a hot tub for 20-30 minutes) can stimulate mitochondria. However, saunas are likely more efficient than hot baths. Saunas are whole-body, whereas, in hot baths, the head stays above the water. Also, saunas can employ different heat sources, such as infrared, which has shown multiple health benefits in human studies. If using a hot tub, be sure your hot tub is free of harsh chemicals.