If You Want More Energy, You Need to Optimize Your Mitochondrial Function — Here’s Why

Take charge of your mitochondrial function through diet, exercise, and supplements. It may help you lead a longer, healthier life.

Image of a woman sitting on a black yoga mat with her legs crossed and her eyes closed as she twists to the side in a relaxing stretch.
Exercise is one of the three ways we can improve our mitochondrial health for peak energy and longevity.Credit: Dane Wetton Unsplash

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “The mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell.” But what does that mean? Why should you care? I’m here to explain why our mitochondria function are vital to our health and why we should focus on them to increase longevity. 

What Are Mitochondria?

Your body is made up of trillions of cells that come together to make your tissues, organs, and more. Specific organelles exist within these cells to help them do their job. One such organelle is the mitochondrion, which you can think of as a little energy factory. That’s where the term “powerhouse” comes from — it’s quite literally a house to make power. The mitochondria produce 90% of the energy used by our bodies.

To produce this energy, our mitochondria need fuel. They use oxygen from the air we breathe and nutrients from the food we eat to create adenosine triphosphate (ATP), our body’s energy currency. In other words, the carbohydrates, proteins, and dietary fats you consume are absorbed and converted by the mitochondria into energy. Your cells and tissues use that energy to function.

The various tissues within your body have differing quantities of mitochondria in each cell. The tissues that require the most energy to function, such as your heart, liver, brain, muscles, and brown fat, contain the most mitochondria. For example, an active muscle cell contains up to 3000 mitochondria per cell. Unfortunately, mitochondria do not function optimally forever. Over time, they become dysfunctional, and this decline is a hallmark of aging1

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How Can I Keep My Mitochondria Healthy and Vibrant?

When mitochondria become too damaged to produce energy in the way we need them to, they begin to break down into fragments. To preserve the energy production process and keep overall mitochondrial efficiency as high as possible, our mitochondria then undergo a recycling process called mitophagy. Mitophagy is a type of autophagy, or a process that allows our body to reuse unnecessary cellular components to rejuvenate itself. During mitophagy, our bodies clear out these broken mitochondria fragments and recycle them into fresh mitochondria that are capable of producing energy efficiently again. This production of new mitochondria is called mitochondrial biogenesis. 

Unfortunately, mitophagy becomes less efficient as we age and experience stress from our environments. We accumulate more mitochondrial debris and have overall lower energy production. Luckily, researchers have found three avenues to stimulate mitophagy. 

This is not a substitute for professional medical advice. See your primary care physician when making changes to your lifestyle.

The Three Ways We Can Improve Mitochondrial Function Health

1. Exercise

Image of a woman in exercise clothing jogging on the side of a road with a chain link fence and trees in the background.
Regular exercise can increase mitochondrial density, which enhances our body’s ability to produce energy. – Credit: Andrew Tanglao Unsplash

You already know that there are many reasons to engage in regular exercise, including benefits to your cardiovascular, pulmonary, mental, and metabolic systems. But did you know that many of these benefits are actually due to exercise improving our mitochondrial function?

For example, endurance training induces mitochondrial biogenesis, which subsequently increases mitochondrial density (more mitochondria per gram of tissue) 2. Greater mitochondrial density means an enhanced ability to produce energy. In addition to promoting mitochondrial biogenesis, exercise triggers mitophagy3 to remove the buildup of damaged mitochondria, making space for the regeneration of higher-functioning organelles. 

2. Diet

Image of a table covered with a colorful and nutrient-dense assortment of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and meats that can improve mitochondrial function.
Nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables can promote mitochondrial health. – Credit: Yu Husoi Unsplash

The first way to promote mitophagy through diet is to use a strategy called intermittent fasting (IM) or time-restricted feeding (TRF). This requires specifying a window of time each day for fasting. Although the evidence has been mixed on the efficacy of IM/TRF for health4, weight management5, and athletic performance6, there is overwhelming evidence that suggests IM/TRF induces mitophagy7. This suggests that IM/TRF could be a beneficial strategy to promote longevity through your mitochondria. 

However, fasting is not always appropriate or sustainable for everyone. Professional athletes, for example, have grueling schedules with high training loads that require a more consistent intake of nutrients and calories to keep up with energy expenditure and promote recovery. 

The second strategy to improve mitochondrial health is to emphasize nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables in your daily eating habits. These are high in polyphenols, antioxidants, and other essential nutrients that promote mitochondrial health. They are also low in saturated fats and added sugar, both of which can damage your mitochondria and be harmful to your overall well-being. 

Of course, there can be issues with diet-based strategies. For most people, following a healthy diet is a challenge. Second is the issue of bioavailability, meaning your body’s ability to absorb the nutrients from the food that you eat. For example, the bioavailability of polyphenols has been shown to vary greatly8,9, so it’s possible to eat a diet full of polyphenols and antioxidants while only absorbing a small fraction of those nutrients. In these cases, supplementation may be necessary.

3. Supplements

Within the last 20 years, there has been a novel discovery when it comes to optimizing mitochondrial health: a nutrient derived from pomegranates called Urolithin A (UA). UA is beneficial for mitochondrial health because, like exercise and intermittent fasting, it stimulates mitophagy10,11

UA is a postbiotic, meaning your gut microbiome naturally produces it when you eat its precursor foods. These precursor foods include pomegranates, walnuts, and certain berries, which are all high in ellagitannins (a type of polyphenol). However, like the aforementioned bioavailability issue, research has shown that only about 30% of people have the appropriate gut microbiome to convert ellagitannins into UA12. And even among those who can produce UA, most don’t regularly eat enough of the precursor foods to see the benefits. This leaves supplementation as the best strategy for most of us.

Through mitophagy mechanisms, UA supplements have been shown to improve muscular strength and endurance in both older13 and middle-aged14 adults. Additionally, there is emerging evidence in pre-clinical models for its positive impact on cartilage degeneration15 and immunity16, as well as brain health17.

Prioritizing Mitochondrial Function

Most of us don’t give much thought to our mitochondria, but they play a vital role in our muscular health and longevity. Anyone looking to optimize their health or performance should think about how to support these energy-producing organelles. By utilizing targeted exercise, diet, and supplementation strategies, you can keep your mitochondria and muscles vigorous.

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12. Singh A, D’Amico D, Andreux PA, et al. Direct supplementation with Urolithin A overcomes limitations of dietary exposure and gut microbiome variability in healthy adults to achieve consistent levels across the population. European journal of clinical nutrition. 2022/02/01 2022;76(2):297-308. doi:10.1038/s41430-021-00950-1
13. Liu S, D’Amico D, Shankland E, et al. Effect of Urolithin A Supplementation on Muscle Endurance and Mitochondrial Health in Older Adults: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Network Open. 2022;5(1):e2144279-e2144279. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.44279
14. Singh A, D’Amico D, Andreux PA, et al. Urolithin A improves muscle strength, exercise performance, and biomarkers of mitochondrial health in a randomized trial in middle-aged adults. Cell Rep Med. May 17 2022;3(5):100633. doi:10.1016/j.xcrm.2022.100633
15. D’Amico D, Olmer M, Fouassier AM, et al. Urolithin A improves mitochondrial health, reduces cartilage degeneration, and alleviates pain in osteoarthritis. Aging Cell. Aug 2022;21(8):e13662. doi:10.1111/acel.13662
16. Denk D, Petrocelli V, Conche C, et al. Expansion of T memory stem cells with superior anti-tumor immunity by Urolithin A-induced mitophagy. Immunity. Nov 8 2022;55(11):2059-2073.e8. doi:10.1016/j.immuni.2022.09.014
17. Ballesteros-Alvarez J, Nguyen W, Sivapatham R, Rane A, Andersen J. Urolithin A reduces amyloid-beta load and improves cognitive deficits uncorrelated with plaque burden in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. Research Square; 2022.

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Dr. Emily Werner, PhD, RD, CSSD is the Team Dietitian for the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA. She is... More about Dr. Emily Werner, PhD, RD, CSSD