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Mitochondria and the Evolution of Human Longevity

February 2006

Coenzyme Q10 Boosts Mitochondrial Energy

Coenzyme Q10 is one of the most important nutrients for the heart and brain. Since it was first introduced it to the United States in 1983, there has been an explosion of research into its many benefits. We now know that the ability of cells to utilize energy substrates declines precipitously without adequate supplies of CoQ10. And because 95% of cellular energy is produced within the mitochondria, it is clear that CoQ10’s ability to help restore mitochondrial function has a profound impact on one’s overall health.36

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides some fascinating insight into the many benefits of this nutrient.37 After two months of CoQ10 supplementation, mitochondrial energy expenditure in the brains of rats increased by 29% compared to non-supplemented controls. The equivalent human dose to achieve these results is 100-200 mg per day. CoQ10 administration to middle-aged and old rats raised CoQ10 levels by 10-40% in the cerebral cortex region of the brain. This increase was sufficient to restore CoQ10 levels to those seen in young animals. Numerous other studies have confirmed CoQ10’s benefits for the brain and cardiovascular system.

Benfotiamine, Thiamine Support Healthy Metabolism

One of the most deleterious effects of so-called “normal” aging is rising glucose levels in the body. Failure to control this excess sugar can lead to life-threatening diseases such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Although there are many problems associated with hyperglycemia, they all stem from the root problem of glucose flooding into cells and overwhelming their metabolic machinery. High glucose levels are responsible for increased mitochondrial free radical production and other complications.38 One of the body’s proteins, an enzyme called transketolase, is critical in the metabolism of sugars. But to do its job, transketolase, like many enzymes, requires a co-factor. In this case, it needs assistance from thiamine. Unfortunately, thiamine is water soluble, which makes it less available to the interior of the cell.

Benfotiamine is a slightly altered form of vitamin B1 (thiamine). This alteration renders it fat soluble, allowing it to enter areas of the body where water-soluble thiamine cannot penetrate. Used for more than a decade in Germany, benfotiamine is considerably more available to the cells than thiamine. A landmark study, published recently in the medical journal Nature Medicine, found that benfotiamine increases transketolase activity in cell cultures by an astounding 300%. By comparison, thiamine added to cell cultures raises transketolase activity a mere 20%. Benfotiamine’s robust activation of transketolase was sufficient to block three of the four major metabolic pathways leading to blood vessel damage.39

Additionally, benfotiamine blocked activation of the pro-inflammatory transcription factor, nuclear factor-kappa beta (NF-kB).39 NF-kB has been implicated in inflammation, tumor formation, and the age-related disorder macular degeneration, as well as retinal disease in diabetics.40 It regulates both cell proliferation and cell “suicide.” Blocking NF-kB may also improve the prognosis of arthritis patients.41 All of these findings suggest still more benefits of benfotiamine therapy in the future.

Rhodiola Boosts Mitochondrial Energy

One of the best herbs for enhancing mitochondrial energy production is Rhodiola rosea. Also known as golden root or Arctic root, rhodiola has been used in traditional medicine for centuries. It has been studied extensively by Russian scientists, who have dubbed it an adaptogen. This term refers to the herb’s ability to increase resistance to numerous chemical, physical, and biological stressors, including strenuous exertion, mental strain, and toxic chemicals.42

A recent study in rats that were trained to exhaustion found that rhodiola significantly boosted the synthesis and resynthesis of ATP in the mitochondria, which enabled the rats to swim for 24% longer.43 Rhodiola also reduces fatigue under stressful conditions and exerts an anti-inflammatory effect.44,45 Richard Brown, MD, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and author of The Rhodiola Revolution, recommends it as an energy booster and treatment for depression, chronic fatigue, and anxiety.46

In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial with medical students, Russian researchers showed that rhodiola extract improves the capacity to perform mentally demanding tasks under conditions of extreme stress and fatigue.44 A similarly controlled trial conducted on students during a stressful examination period found that objective and subjective measures of physical and mental performance were significantly superior among subjects who took rhodiola extract compared to placebo.47 It is believed that rhodiola’s beneficial properties stem in part from its ability to influence the activities and levels of brain chemicals such as serotonin and norepinephrine, as well as natural “feel good” opioids such as beta-endorphins.48

Luteolin: Mitochondrial and Immune Benefits

Luteolin is a plant flavonoid found in various herbs and vegetables, including parsley, olive oil, rosemary, and celery. Its benefits include neutralizing free radicals in the mitochondria as well as modulating the immune response.

Luteolin has also been shown to inhibit immune system cytokines implicated in the development and propagation of inflammation, including tumor necrosis factor alpha and interleukin-6.49 Researchers in India have shown that luteolin reduces some of the inflammatory processes responsible for the airway constriction associated with asthma.50 Still more interesting, Chinese researchers recently demonstrated that luteolin binds with the surface spike proteins on the deadly SARS virus, blocking its entry into the host cell. As a result, say the researchers, luteolin may represent an effective means of developing new drugs for the prevention of viral infections such as HIV, hepatitis C, and SARS.51

Wheat Sprout Enzymes: Enhancing Mitochondrial Energy

Wheat sprout enzymes are another source of bioactive plant flavonoids. Their potential benefits range from improving the symptoms of fibromyalgia and joint pain to increasing mitochondrial energy and relieving symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. These benefits are related to the presence of several potent natural antioxidant enzymes—including superoxide dismutase (SOD), glutathione peroxidase, and catalase—that offer powerful protection against the scourge of oxidative stress that can damage mitochondria, DNA, and cellular components, as well as contribute to the onset of disease.

Scientists have known for some time that inflammatory diseases are often associated with a decrease in antioxidant enzymes. For example, Korean researchers recently demonstrated that the activity of SOD and glutathione peroxidase is significantly lower among rheumatoid arthritis patients than among control subjects. The patients’ dietary intake of antioxidants was also lower, the researchers discovered.52

Stanford University scientists recently noted a correlation between the presence of superoxide anion and the development of a wide range of degenerative diseases, including atherosclerosis, stroke, heart attack, chronic and acute inflammatory conditions, and “a variety of age-related disorders.”53 The pro-inflammatory superoxide anion is scavenged and neutralized by SOD.

The relationship among superoxide, SOD, and disease processes is so compelling that scientists attempted years ago to intervene in diseases such as osteoarthritis by injecting SOD derived from livestock blood cells directly into diseased joints. While the inflammation relief was often dramatic, the technique was somewhat impractical and has not been embraced as a treatment for human patients.54

Wheat sprout extract, on the other hand, represents a far more acceptable means of increasing one’s levels of natural antioxidant enzymes. Italian researchers recently published an analysis of the antioxidant content of wheat sprout extract and found that the catalase and peroxidase activity appears to be very strong.55 Another team of Italian scientists compared the antioxidant activity of wheat sprout extract to such antioxidants as ascorbic acid, quercetin, and reduced glutathione, and found that the “oxygen superoxide scavenging activity performed by wheat sprout extracts . . . is comparable to that shown by these pure compounds.”56


Science has revealed that the mitochondria not only function as energy factories, but also play a vital role in the aging process, helping to determine the speed at which it progresses and influencing our health status along the way. Appropriate use of the nutrients shown to affect mitochondrial function therefore helps to maximize the body’s defenses, positively influencing our longevity.


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