Mitochondria May Be the Key to Healthy Aging, Part 2

Jennifer Brix, ND
Grandfather with grey hair plays with his grandchildren on the swings

In Part 1, we learned that mitochondria are the mini turbines responsible for generating the energy that powers our cells. We also discussed that like a car that produces exhaust when its engine is running, so too do mitochondria, and that their emissions, when uncontrolled, can cause damage to our cells.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are free radicals produced during the production of adenine triphosphate (ATP) [1] – the energy currency of our cells. As we age, our cells collectively produce more ROS, and this increase can cause damage to DNA, RNA, and proteins. In this Part 2 article, we’ll discuss how to quench this oxidative stress and support overall healthy aging.

The Free Radical Theory of Aging

Senior man takes a break from his run to admire the sceneryFor many years we have known that oxidative damage results when the levels of generated ROS exceed the antioxidant capacity of a cell, and that this damage is inversely correlated with lifespan. [2] The accumulation of oxidative damage translates into mitochondrial dysregulation. [2] This notion creates the backbone of the “free radical theory of aging,” which is widely accepted.

However, it has also been shown that small amounts of free radical stress may be beneficial to our cells as it provides resilience, can increase stress resistance, and may also extend longevity. [3] With these contradictory findings, we can safely say that the relationship between ROS and aging is complex.

So, the question remains: are antioxidants – the nutrients that quench free radical damage – actually good for us? The answer is yes. But it depends on several factors, including the type of antioxidant and the health (and foundation) of the individual.

  • Engage in daily physical exercise
  • Choose to eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, high-fiber foods, and lean sources of protein, such as fish and legumes
  • Don’t smoke
  • Cut back on alcohol
  • Manage stress levels
  • Consume foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as cold-water fish and nut and seed oils
  • Continually challenge the brain by playing intellectual games like crosswords and Sudoku

Specific Support for Aging

Senior man and his son play chess 

When it comes to antioxidants and nutrients that support healthy aging, understanding how they function, where they work in the body, and what forms humans benefit from are critically important.

Three main groups of nutrients include enzymatic antioxidants, non-enzymatic antioxidants, and mitochondrial-supporting nutrients. These are all important in the balance of ROS to promote healthy aging, while also supporting stress resistance.

Enzymatic Antioxidants

Enzymatic antioxidants are enzymes that catalyze chemical reactions to support the quenching and reduction of free radicals. One of the most powerful of these is superoxide dismutase or SOD. Just like lemon juice on an apple slice prevents the apple from browning, SOD is an important defense in preventing oxidation in living cells exposed to oxygen.

Unfortunately, SOD found in food is broken down upon ingestion, but it can be extracted from certain plants and delivered to our cells in supplement form. One clinically studied extract is S.O.D. Extramel® complex, which comes from a unique variety of cantaloupe melons.

Non-enzymatic Antioxidants

Non-enzymatic antioxidants are antioxidants in and of themselves. They act as molecules that scavenge free radicals directly. One that you likely already have in your cabinet is vitamin C. Others include vitamin E, N-acetyl-L-cysteine (NAC), and glutathione. NAC is a precursor to glutathione, and glutathione is known as our body’s “master antioxidant.”

Glutathione plays key roles in detoxifying compounds, including heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and it directly scavenges free radicals. Low levels of glutathione have been associated with chronic exposure to chemical toxins and alcohol, macular degeneration, and neurodegenerative disorders. [4]

Anti-aging Nutrients for Mitochondrial Health

Senior woman with her two adult daughters walking on the beach 

Further to antioxidants are nutrients that have been identified to support mitochondrial function. Here are some nutrients that support mitochondrial function:

1. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is a vitamin-like essential nutrient and a critical component of the mitochondrial electron transport chain that is part of generating ATP. Because of its role in ATP synthesis, CoQ10 affects the function of all cells in the body, making it essential for the health of all tissues and organs.

CoQ10 is particularly important as we age, making it crucial in supporting age-related changes to support immunity, cardiovascular performance, and liver and kidney health. CoQ10 is also an intracellular antioxidant that protects cells from free-radical-induced oxidative damage. [5]

2. Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC) is the most important derivative of the amino acid carnitine and occurs naturally in the body. It plays a key role in cellular energy production and is critical for mitochondrial metabolism. Because it can cross the blood-brain barrier, supplementation with ALC may be useful. [6]

ALC also has antioxidant activity and has been shown to support heart function, muscle movement, and numerous other body processes.

3. Resveratrol, specifically trans-resveratrol, is a potent antioxidant that protects cells and tissues from oxidative damage that causes premature aging. Its protective effects have been linked to its ability to increase the expression of mitochondrial superoxide dismutase (SOD2) and subsequently reduce mitochondrial oxidative stress and damage. [7]

Resveratrol may therefore offer significant support for cardiovascular health, cognition, healthy aging, and mitochondrial function, making it a superstar compound for whole-body health and longevity.

As our cells age, our mitochondria age, so supporting these critically important cellular powerhouses is central to aging well. By optimizing diet and activity levels, avoiding toxins, and supplementing with specific nutrients, you are helping your body’s foundation and targeting mitochondrial function for healthy aging.

Jennifer Brix, ND
Dr. Brix completed her professional training at the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine.
  1. Roth LW, & Polotsky AJ. Can we live longer by eating less? A review of caloric restriction and longevity. Maturitas. 2012; 71(4):315-9.
  2. Shields HJ, Traa A, Van Raamsdonk JM. Beneficial and detrimental effects of reactive oxygen species on lifespan: A comprehensive review of comparative and experimental studies. Front Cell Dev Biol. 2021; 9:628157.
  3. Ristow M, Schmeisser S. Extending life span by increasing oxidative stress. Free Radic Biol Med. 2011; 51(2):327-36.
  4. Pizzorno J. Glutathione!. Integr. Med (Encinitas). 2014; 13(1):8-12.
  5. Lee B, Tseng Y, Yen C, et al. Effects of coenzyme Q10 supplementation (300 mg/day) on antioxidation and anti-inflammation in coronary artery disease patients during statins therapy: A randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Nutr J. 2013; 12(142):1-9.
  6. Malaguarnera M, Cammalleri L, Gargante M, et al. L-Carnitine treatment reduces severity of physical and mental fatigue and increases cognitive functions in centenarians: A randomized and controlled clinical trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007; 86(6):1738-44.
  7. Fukui M, Choi HJ, Zhu BT. Mechanism for the protective effect of resveratrol against oxidative stress-induced neuronal death. Free Radic Biol Med. 2010; 49(5), 800-13.