Recent discoveries show how mitochondria are connected to the aging process. Mitochondria play an important role in how much energy is available for our muscles and every organ and system in our body.6
You might be familiar with mitochondria as the “powerhouse of the cell.” This is because they’re energy-producing structures, found by the thousands, in just about every cell in your body. They’re responsible for making your whole body function as it should.
The health of your mitochondria is linked to just about every age-related health condition from heart health to brain health to immune health.3
Mitochondrial dysfunction happens when your mitochondria are weakened by oxidative stress over time. From environmental sources of free radicals to elevated reactive oxygen species (ROS), oxidative stress really takes a toll on your cells. As you age, there is often progressive damage to impair your mitochondrial function.12
ROS are constantly being made by your body. They’re byproducts of normal metabolism and cellular energy production.13 Your trillions of mitochondria generate a lot of ROS because of the incredible amount of work they do to produce energy all day, every day. Problems occur like accelerated aging when you have faulty mitochondria and more ROS than your body can handle.
Here’s a visual to help you understand how oxidative stress affects your body. Think about what happens to an apple once you slice it. After a while, it begins to turn brown as the oxygen in the air causes the exposed flesh to oxidate. Over time, it will continue to break down because of the oxygen, slowly rotting and shriveling up.
A similar thing happens when our organs and tissues are exposed to too much oxidative stress—too much free radicals and too little antioxidants. Our normal cellular processes such as our natural defenses and detoxification systems begin to break down.
Your body is working all the time to create the energy it needs to keep you moving, breathing, thinking and digesting, among other things. And you naturally create some free radicals to carry out all the production of energy by mitochondria.
Unfortunately, the combination of higher free radicals and lower antioxidants (when glutathione levels are low) increases oxidative stress in our bodies. As you age, oxidative stress goes up and mitochondrial function goes down. Your mitochondria are left struggling to defend your body from this toxic overload and they can’t keep up.19
Over time, oxidative stress accumulates and destroys our cells and function as damage caused by ROS affects the lipids, protein and DNA of our cells, tissues and organs.20 For example, a build-up of damaged beta-amyloid and tau proteins in the brain is one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.21
Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant responsible for safeguarding your cells from oxidative stress caused by free radicals. Adequate glutathione levels are vital to health, to detoxify your body, to neutralize free radicals, to keep inflammation under control, and to protect the integrity of your DNA.
Normally, adequate glutathione is made and recycled inside the cells. But, as you age, glutathione levels tend to get lower and lower.
When free radicals deplete glutathione levels, your cells may be defenseless and vulnerable to accelerated aging and age-related disorders or chronic conditions like diabetes, heart attack and stroke.
Although your body has the ability to make its own glutathione inside the cells, it needs the right ingredients--the right forms and amounts. Older adults are often deficient in both cysteine and glycine, making glutathione deficiency very common, yet actionable. Your body can use nutrients to empower glutathione to fight the aging process, including glycine and cysteine in the highly absorbable form of N-acetyl cysteine (NAC).
Damage to your cellular DNA can be caused by ROS. Damage to mitochondrial DNA also occurs. Under elevated oxidative stress, more mutations in your DNA are likely. And then, when your DNA replicates itself, more damaged DNA is produced. Over time, the portion of damaged cells can build up and the amount of healthy mitochondria can diminish.
While the normal mitochondrial life cycle aims to regularly degrade and replace mitochondria, the ability to clear damaged mitochondria, a process called mitophagy, is often reduced with age or in disease conditions22. Damaged DNA is a big contributor to health conditions like cancer and diabetes, and also mitochondrial dysfunction and related AACD.3
How robust your mitochondria are, how well they’re able to produce energy and how many healthy ones you have, impacts how your whole body feels, and how fast you age.
As your body accumulates damage from oxidative stress, more of your mitochondrial DNA mutates. Damaged mitochondrial DNA can still replicate, but what it creates is often abnormal and inferior.14
This cycle continues until you’re left with a decline in the integrity of your mitochondrial DNA. All of this damage has a domino effect, eventually knocking down your body’s ability to effectively produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for cellular energy.
Cells with ample amounts of well functioning mitochondria produce the energy to keep all systems in your body running well. For healthy aging, you want healthy mitochondria that are able to sustain a steady flow of energy throughout your body all day.
Because the health of your mitochondria is so closely connected to how fast you age, it’s especially important to maintain healthy and robust mitochondria as you age.
Your mitochondria produce energy in the form of ATP. ATP is the primary energy currency your cells run on. When your mitochondria have impaired function, they aren’t able to efficiently generate enough ATP to keep your body performing well.
A healthy person produces their body weight in ATP every day.16 Your body should make the high amount of ATP you need to function at an optimal level. But, as you age, the amount of ATP your body can produce decreases by about eight percent each decade.14 This deficit really adds up over time.
ATP is considered a short-lived, unstable energy source. The body is designed to produce ATP to meet immediate energy demands. Because of ATPs structure, your body isn’t capable of storing more ATP than it can use in less than a 10 second burst of activity. Thus, your body uses up ATP nearly as fast as you can make it. And you need to make ATP all day, every day to keep every system in your body well functioning.17
There are some bodily systems that require more ATP than others. For example, of all the ATP your body generates, your brain uses about 20 percent of it.18 Healthy mitochondria are clearly important for adequate brain energy and AACD can lead to neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease are more common in older adults.
As you age, more mitochondria become faulty and they create less ATP and symptoms of fatigue, weakness, and reduced activity and functionality are common concerns. This creates a lot of oxidative damage in our cells.