Dr. Picard is an assistant professor of behavioral medicine in Psychiatry and Neurology at Columbia University. He obtained his Ph.D. in mitochondrial biology of aging in 2012. For over a decade, he has been studying mitochondria and has worked closely with leading experts in the field of mitochondrial research. In 2015 he joined the faculty at Columbia University where he established the mitochondrial signaling laboratory.
This article is derived from a previous podcast with Dr. Picard on The Stress-Mitochondria Link (And Why Your Mitochondrial Health Is The Secret Key To Energy And Longevity.)
The Link between Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Health
For years, it was believed that the mitochondria were nothing more than powerhouses whose job was to burn off carbs and fats for energy. Nowadays, the medical and scientific communities have found associations between mitochondrial dysfunction and disease.
If you Google for mitochondrial dysfunction alongside a particular disease such as Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, or cancer, you’ll find a lot of papers showing mitochondrial dysfunction as a significant factor in the disease.
So, is mitochondrial dysfunction the cause of disease, or is it the result of it?
In the 1980s, scientists found that mutations or deletions in the mitochondrial genome were the cause of human disease. That was the first documented evidence of dysfunctional mitochondria causing illness. Since then, hundreds of studies have backed these findings.
As Dr. Picard explains: “Every week here in the clinic, we see patients who walk in with defects in their mitochondria, and then you see the consequences. You see the consequences on their ability to exercise, to move, their ability to digest food, their ability to think and to process things. So, it is apparent now that when the mitochondria don’t work properly, they can cause disease, and they can precipitate a lot of age-related disorders.”
Key Point: Today, there are hundreds of studies linking mitochondrial dysfunction to any disease known to man. Numerous studies show that when you have mitochondrial dysfunction, your risk of disease increases.
The Top Two Approaches to Bolster Mitochondrial Health
Exercise and physical activity may be the absolutely best intervention against mitochondrial dysfunction. While there is no mechanistic understanding of why exercise is good for mitochondrial health, one thing is clear: exercise increases the number of mitochondria in your body. If you go from a mostly sedentary lifestyle to working out regularly, you can double the number of mitochondria in your muscle.
Similar benefits probably also occur in the brain. We at least know that the brain and muscles make more mitochondria the more physically active you are.
Another factor that has been shown to improve mitochondrial health is calorie restriction. But how do you best implement calorie restriction into your day?
There are some human studies underway that are examining the effects of chronic calorie restriction in people who try to eat less than they need. Unfortunately, the studies have shown that the subjects are not pleasant to be around as they are perpetually hungry. Another approach is intermittent fasting, where you skip meals for up to two days. Both methods are seemingly effective in boosting mitochondrial health. However, intermittent fasting may be preferred as it is easier to adhere to in the long term.
The key to improving your mitochondria through eating less is to feel hungry only once in a while. There are studies (both human and animal) which show that hunger stimulates many positive adaptive processes in the organism, similar to the response you get when you exercise.
Dr. Picard explains: “If you feel a little hungry, the body thinks, ‘Oh, there is no sugar around. I need to start using my mitochondria to utilize fats and proteins.’ And the mitochondria needed for this are not necessarily required to burn off sugar.”
Key Point: The two most powerful things you can do to boost your mitochondrial health are to exercise and restrict your calorie intake.
For years, it was believed that the primary function of mitochondria was to convert food to energy. However, it turns out that mitochondria have many more roles than energy regulation. We now know that mitochondrial dysfunction is likely involved in virtually all types of disease. If your mitochondria aren’t working optimally, your risk of disease increases.
Fortunately, the two best means to improve mitochondrial health—exercise and caloric restriction—are easy to implement and very cost-effective. Regular exercise has been proven to double the number of mitochondria in muscle and probably produces similar effects on brain tissue. Coupling increased physical activity with decreasing your feeding window through intermittent fasting will allow your mitochondria to increase in number and grow larger and stronger.