The Sunday Times
IS CELL HACKING THE KEY TO AGEING WELL?
New research claims that boosting your cell health could be the answer to a long, healthy life. Helen Foster reports
What if how fast you age, or how healthy your later years might be, is controlled by something so small that thousands of them fit into a single cell? And what if you could hack the regeneration process of these tiny entities to help future-proof your health? That’s the premise of the latest anti-ageing research.
This cell ‘control centre’ is called the mitochondria, and there are about 10 million billion of them in your body. They’re in almost every cell, and your brain, heart and muscle cells can each contain thousands.
“The job of mitochondria is to use the oxygen you breathe to break down the fuel you eat to create energy that powers your body,” says Dr Lee Know, author of Mitochondria: The Future of Medicine.
The problem with this, he adds, is the process also creates highly reactive molecules called free radicals that can harm the mitochondria. If this damage accumulates faster than it can repair it, the mitochondria becomes dysfunctional. This reduces the energy it sends to the cell, leading to a decline in the function of the tissues or organs in which that cell resides – which has far-reaching effects.
SLOWLY DOES IT
“Most of the diseases of ageing can be linked to mitochondrial dysfunction,” Sydney-based integrative medical specialist Dr Jeremy Cumpston says. “Every cell in the body relies on the mitochondrial energy supply to function. If it declines, so does the body.”
Various clinical research has linked mitochondrial dysfunction to development of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease and muscular decline.
“At this point, improving mitochondrial function and slowing their decay appears to be a promising and realistic way to address both degenerative disease and ageing,” Know says. “It’s spine-tingling to think that we’re so close to potentially finding the answer to a long, healthy life.”
HOW TO HACK THEM
As more and more evidence stacks up to support the mitochondrial theory of ageing, there’s also increasing scientific interest in factors that might boost mitochondrial health.
“There are two main ways you might do this,” Queenslandbased exercise physiologist and scientist Naomi Ferstera says. “You want to slow the rate of damage within the mitochondria you have and increase the rate of new mitochondria you produce.”
Of the many suggested tactics to achieve this goal, exercise is one of the most important.
In fact, University of New South Wales professor Dr David Sinclair, who’s one of the country’s leading academics studying the science of ageing, says his best tip to improve elements of mitochondrial function is simply, “Exercise.”
And the more intense the workout, the better the results, Ferstera says. “When you put your body under pressure like you do with fast, high-intensity exercise, it has to find a way to keep up with those demands on energy – and its solution is to make mitochondria more efficient,” she explains.
A recent study from the Mayo Clinic in the US supports this view. It found that regular high-intensity interval training (HIIT) led to a 49-69 per cent increase in how well the mitochondria performed – and the biggest benefits were seen in older participants.
While this study might have found HIIT to be particularly effective, Ferstera says any exercise that challenges your body will do the trick.
“Lift a heavier weight or go for a longer run than normal,” she suggests. “Anything that increases the load on your body will boost the numbers and performance of the mitochondria.”
If that all sounds a bit like hard work, the good news is there are alternatives. Simply booking yourself a massage to recover after exercise will help. The Buck Institute for Research on Aging in the US recently found that a 10-minute massage after exercise further promoted the growth of new mitochondria.
Intermittent fasting – where you leave a long gap (at least 12, but ideally 16 hours) between meals at night, or cut your daily intake to about 2100kJ, two or three days a week – also seems to have a beneficial effect.
“Intermittent fasting is essentially a form of caloric restriction, which is the only proven method to extend life span across all species studied,” Know says. The restriction of kilojoules causes a corresponding reduction in free radicals, which protects the body from potential cell damage, he explains.
“However, it’s important that you still meet your nutritional needs,” Know adds. “Many vitamins and minerals are needed for optimal mitochondrial function, particularly the B vitamins – especially B3 – and magnesium.”
While all of the experts agree on the above tips, there’s one final matter of debate. Ferstera maintains that following a low-carb diet is another way to improve mitochondrial health. This is thanks to ketones, the by-products created when the body burns its own fat for energy in the absence of carbs. She says they may inhibit free-radical production in the mitochondria and lead to the production of new mitochondria.
Cumpston, however, suggests that diets with a high proportion of animal fats (which low-carb diets often have) can be harmful. And while Know believes that ketosis (the metabolic state caused by raised ketone levels) may play a role in mitochondrial health, he agrees that it has the potential to cause harm, so he advises only trying it under medical supervision.
That simple warning explains why mitochondrial hacking is so tricky to discuss emphatically for now – because we’re still learning what works and what hurts.
“But we know enough to know how important it’s likely to be,” Ferstera says. We’ll see you at the nearest HIIT class, then.
“We’re so close to potentially finding the answer to a long, healthy life”