The more I understand the science behind why certain diet and lifestyle interventions work, the more excited I get about trying them, sticking to them, and sharing my results with friends and family (good or bad!).
That’s why I’m super pumped to talk to you today about a biological mechanism that’s linked to everything from optimizing your energy levels to maintaining a healthy weight to enhancing your overall health and longevity.
It’s called mitochondrial uncoupling, and I first heard about it from Dr. Steven Gundry, when I had him on my podcast to talk about his most recent book, Unlocking the Keto Code.
In his book, Dr. Gundry talks about why the ketogenic diet works—and it’s not for the reasons we originally thought! Based on his review of the research, he believes that the reason why ketogenic diets work is because they activate this mitochondrial uncoupling pathway.
This week’s newsletter isn’t about following a ketogenic diet, though. It turns out there are plenty of other ways to activate your mitochondrial uncoupling genes, which is what we’re going to cover today.
What Is Mitochondrial Uncoupling?
Our mitochondria are the fascinating little energy-producing powerhouses inside our cells that have evolved to make and store energy as efficiently as possible. But this is not a fool-proof system.
As we age, our mitochondria start to get worn out and don’t make as much ATP (the fuel for life). On top of that, there are a bunch of additional factors that affect our mitochondria’s ability to produce energy. Some examples include:
- Environmental toxins
- Processed foods
- A high-sugar, high-starch diet
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Chronic stress
All of the above stressors damage our mitochondria and increase the production of harmful free radicals that create oxidative stress, inflammation, and tissue damage, which eventually leads to chronic disease.
This is where mitochondrial uncoupling comes in. Its job is to help to protect our mitochondria from free radicals and to streamline energy production to be as efficient as possible when energy demands are high or when faced with a potentially life-threatening situation.
More on this next, but if you want to dig deeper into the many functions of mitochondrial uncoupling, check out this clip where Dr. Gundry explains the findings of a paper that reveal uncoupling as a survival mechanism in more detail.
How Does Mitochondrial Uncoupling Work?
When a certain stimulus or stressor is introduced (e.g., fasting, extreme hot or cold temperatures, exercise, or phytochemicals), our mitochondria respond by opening up their membranes, or “uncoupling,” and allowing hydrogen atoms to escape, resulting in fewer free radicals and less damage but coming at the cost of a net loss in ATP-producing potential.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Doesn’t it seem a little counterintuitive to waste fuel? Didn’t our ancestors need all the fuel they could get to find food in times of famine?”
Well, it turns out that in addition to helping protect mitochondria from damage, mitochondrial uncoupling allows healthy mitochondria to take the energy they do make to create more mitochondria (mitogenesis). These new mitochondria are stronger and more resilient fat-burning machines.
According to Dr. Gundry, this is why ketogenic diets are so effective—not because ketones are a “good” fuel source, but because ketones trigger mitochondrial uncoupling and mitogenesis, which “wastes” fuel while simultaneously revving up energy production.
And the more healthy, strong mitochondria we have, the more efficient we are at making energy and generating heat, which is especially critical for our fat tissue. Mitochondrially dense adipose tissue turns white adipose tissue (WAT) into brown adipose tissue (BAT), which has a higher resting metabolic rate, produces fewer free radicals, and creates less all-around damage and inflammation.
Today, I’m giving you some strategies you can try to unlock your mitochondrial uncoupling genes. And if you’re already doing them, you can continue to do them knowing why they make you feel amazing and how they lower your risk for chronic disease.
But let’s learn what mitochondrial uncoupling is first so you can understand (and get excited about) how to tap into this biological mechanism and harness your energetic potential.
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- Cold therapy. Immersing yourself in cold temperatures activates mitochondrial uncoupling genes and the browning of adipose tissue. One study found that mild cold exposure increased 24-hour energy expenditure by nearly 3 percent via activating the mitochondrial uncoupling mechanism (1).And you don’t need a cold plunge or cryotherapy to get these results. You can simply make the water in your shower cold enough to where it feels a little uncomfortable and let the water run on you for a few seconds. Gradually increase your time as your tolerance increases.
- Heat therapy. Hot temperatures can also activate mitochondrial uncoupling proteins. Because our mitochondria are responsible for producing most of the heat in our bodies, they do some of their best work under high temperatures.Studies show that this heat-induced uncoupling effect can improve cognitive function by stimulating adaptive stress-response signaling pathways like brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which acts as Miracle Grow for the brain, promoting the growth of new neurons (2)(3).If you have access to a sauna, this is a great way to emerge yourself in an intense heat environment that stimulates mitochondrial uncoupling. If not, taking a steamy hot shower can have a similar effect.Or, you can try an infrared sauna blanket to get a more affordable sauna experience from the comfort of your own home. My favorite is HigherDose (use the code DHRU15 at checkout for 15% off).
- Exercise. One of the ways exercise exerts its countless benefits is by inducing mitochondrial uncoupling. Exercise puts mild stress on the body and stimulates the generation of more mitochondria in our muscles and fat tissue, thus increasing our metabolic potential both during and after workouts.This is why adopting a new exercise routine can be tough at first but gets easier as we stick with it—your mitochondria are multiplying and becoming stronger, more resilient, and capable of enduring harder workouts.
- Red light and near-infrared light therapy. Research shows red light therapy may be an effective stimulus that drives mitochondria to uncouple, activates mitogenesis, promotes tissue regeneration, and has anti-aging, anti-inflammatory benefits. (4)(5).If you’re interested in trying red light therapy, my wife and I have a Joov light that we use at night before bed, and we love it! Click this link and use the promo code DHRU to receive $50 off your first Joov purchase.
- Dietary inputs. In his book, Dr. Gundry goes deep into his version of the ketogenic diet and its effect on mitochondrial uncoupling. (Spoiler alert: it’s totally different from what most of us know as traditional keto.)We won’t be breaking that down in detail today, but below are a few other dietary inputs that can help unlock the power of mitochondrial uncoupling. If you’re interested in learning more about the impact of these dietary inputs on your mitochondria, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Dr. Gundy’s book. His book goes into it much deeper, but some of these dietary inputs include:
- Intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating
- Dietary fiber
- Fermented foods
Researchers and scientists in the anti-aging and longevity fields are drawing attention to the many different therapies that can help us stay younger longer. But what we don’t hear about as much is that so many of these techniques come back to the power of mitochondrial uncoupling.
When we have a general understanding of how the core process behind something works, it makes it so much easier, more fun, and more sustainable to implement change.
Here’s to your health,