Mitochondrial Support Supplements: A Complete Guide
Mitochondria are microscopic structures that reside in your cells, but don’t let their size fool you. These tiny but mighty power generators create 90% of your body’s energy.
But when your mitochondria don’t function normally, it can impact your health. In fact, mitochondrial dysfunction can influence the way you age.
Luckily, along with good diet and exercise habits, mitochondrial support supplements can go a long way in keeping these tiny generators healthy and happy.
There are many options that provide an array of benefits, so understanding just how mitochondrial support supplements work can help you see why paying attention to these cellular mechanisms is a worthwhile investment.
What causes mitochondrial dysfunction?
Before you get into what can help your mitochondria, it’s helpful to understand why mitochondrial dysfunction happens in your body.
When mitochondria produce energy, they also generate free radicals. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that can cause damage to cells and tissues, including your mitochondria.
Usually, the body can balance this normal production of free radicals to reduce the risk of cellular damage. But as illustrated in The Journal of Internal Medicine, when mitochondria aren’t functioning properly, they can generate even more free radicals, making things worse.
As more free radicals are created, the cell can become overwhelmed, leading to mitochondrial dysfunction.
Exercise and diet can help support your mitochondria.
Exercise and lifestyle changes can help give your mitochondria an extra boost.
For example, when we are less active, our cells figure we need less energy to get through our day-to-day. In effect, our bodies reduce the number of mitochondria we need. One way to signal to the body that more energy is needed is to start demanding more power from your cells through exercise.
Research from York University reveals that exercise can trigger mitochondrial biogenesis, the process of creating new mitochondria.
Another way to maintain healthy mitochondria is to eat a healthy diet rich in antioxidants (fruits and veggies) and low in high glycemic foods (refined carbohydrates and sugars).
Eating processed junk food produces more free radicals than a healthy cell should have, weakening and destroying mitochondria.
How can mitochondrial support supplements help?
Sometimes drastic lifestyle changes can be difficult due to injury, frailty, or pre-existing conditions. Along with a healthy diet and exercise routine, mitochondrial support supplements are an accessible alternative for individuals looking to take additional care.
Mitochondrial support supplements can include:
These supplements act as free radical scavengers and help prevent oxidative damage to cells.
Specific vitamins, minerals, or amino acids act as mitochondrial support staff, so supplementing may help improve energy production or other processes impacted by mitochondrial dysfunction.
Some herbs have been shown to benefit conditions associated with mitochondrial dysfunction in the body.
These nutrients may be necessary for healthy mitochondrial function, supporting optimal function while reducing the impact of cellular stress. They don’t necessarily change the structure of your mitochondria, but they may help support your health by helping them work more efficiently.
What are examples of mitochondrial support supplements?
Some of the most common mitochondrial support supplements include:
CoQ10 is an antioxidant that helps protect your mitochondria against free radical damage. CoQ10 plays double-duty by helping produce cellular energy and protecting tissues from mitochondrial decline.
Your body can make CoQ10, but production decreases as you age. Certain medications like statins can also deplete CoQ10 levels.
While you can find small amounts of CoQ10 in foods like organ meat, fatty fish, and broccoli, many people choose supplements to adequately raise levels in the body.
Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA)
Like CoQ10, ALA is another powerful antioxidant. Although a relatively lesser-known micronutrient, a study published in Neurochemical Research posits that ALA’s main function is to prevent the release of bad oxidants and alleviate mitochondrial dysfunction.
As discussed in Pharmacological Research, ALA helps improve levels of antioxidants in the cell and promotes healthy energy production in the mitochondria. ALA may also work synergistically with another supplement, L-Carnitine (see below), to increase the number of healthy mitochondria.
ALA is found in foods, especially organ meat, but also in vegetables like spinach and broccoli. However, the amount found in foods is much lower than supplements.
There are several unknowns with ALA, but studies from the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute show that an ALA supplement may slow mitochondrial aging.
Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+)
NAD+ is a critical molecule for mitochondrial metabolism and energy production. It works with CoQ10 to improve mitochondrial energy production needed for all functions in your body.
It also acts to facilitate energy production by the mitochondria.
Like CoQ10, the body's production of NAD+ decreases with age, making it more difficult for your cells to produce energy efficiently. It's also influenced by environmental factors like metabolic stress, diet, or lack of exercise, but supplementation can help support cellular energy.
Taking supplemental NAD+ appears to be ineffective for raising levels in the body. However, a study published in Nature Communications showed that NAD+ precursors, specifically nicotinamide riboside (NR), effectively stimulated the production of NAD+.
Carnitine refers to a group of compounds derived from amino acids that collectively support healthy energy production. Some of the most common supplement forms include L-carnitine and acetyl-L-carnitine.
As reviewed in Translational Research, L-carnitine helps mitochondria convert fat into energy while cleaning up the free radicals generated by mitochondria.
Without enough carnitine, energy metabolism is impaired. According to the same review in Translational Research, supplementation with carnitine can help improve age-related decreases in carnitine levels and support improvements in mitochondrial health.
As aging is associated with a decline in mitochondrial health and cellular energy production, animal models suggest that carnitine may help slow this process by supporting fatty acids that protect the enzymes and functions of mitochondria.
A meta-analysis from International Clinical Psychopharmacology also found that carnitine supplements can support improvements in cognitive function.
Glutathione (GSH) is often called your body's master antioxidant because it is such a powerful defender against free radical damage. It's also crucial for the body's natural detoxification processes and immune support.
The Foundational Medicine Review argues that glutathione may be the best oxidative stress supplement. It protects the cell’s biomolecules by taking on excess oxidizing agents such as free radicals, peroxides, lipid peroxides, and heavy metals.
Glutathione also helps keep the mitochondrial membrane intact, preventing it from releasing proteins into the cytoplasm that trigger cell death.
Production of glutathione naturally decreases with age and is impacted by stress or poor nutrition.
Like NAD+, taking glutathione as a supplement isn't always effective. It breaks down quickly but taking supplements that support production (like N-Acetyl Cysteine or L-Glycine) can help effectively raise levels in the body.
Schisandra is a berry traditionally used in Chinese Medicine. Although more research is needed, several small studies suggest Schisandra preparations may help support mitochondrial function.
It acts as an antioxidant, reducing free radical damage and oxidative stress that can impair mitochondrial function. A study from Nutrients found that in combination with vitamin C, Schisandra supported improvements in mitochondrial function in animals.
Schisandra may also increase the cellular mitochondrial antioxidant response, as discussed in the Indian Journal of Pharmacology.
A study in Biofactors also found that Schisandra helped improve energy production in the mitochondria of animals, helping to slow the aging process.
Do mitochondrial support supplements have side effects?
In general, mitochondrial support supplements appear to be safe when used as directed. Of course, any vitamin or supplement has the potential for side effects if not taken as directed or in excess. But generally, most of these supplements have minimal side effects.
Nourish your curiosity too.
Mitochondrial support supplements are one of the best ways to help improve the way you age.
However, it’s up to you to take charge of your own body, listening to it for cues, and checking in with your health practitioner regularly before making any significant changes in your lifestyle.
Most importantly, be diligent with following the science. Proactively learn about the supplements you take and the regimen you follow. Although mitochondrial support supplements are a great place to start, knowledge is the best nutrition. Dig deeper into the clinical studies behind any supplements you are considering.
Meticulous research on the things you put in your body is never a waste of time.