Use sun, food, and stress to improve energy production where it counts—at the subcellular level
Nutrition and lifestyle expert Ari Whitten has provided a collection of key insights to explain and address low energy levels in his new book, “Eat for Energy: How to Beat Fatigue, Supercharge Your Mitochondria, and Unlock All-Day Energy.”
Whitten also has written an excellent book about infrared light exposure or photobiomodulation as a healing modality, called “The Ultimate Guide to Red Light Therapy: How to Use Red and Near-Infrared Light Therapy for Anti-Aging, Fat Loss, Muscle Gain, Performance, and Brain Optimization.”
As you might guess, the focus of his latest book is fatigue, and the foundational core for addressing that is to improve mitochondrial energy production. Mitochondria are the energy generators in your cells. They play a key role in converting energy from food into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the energy your cells need for everything from muscle contraction to generating nerve impulses. Your circadian rhythm also plays an important role in this process.
Whitten explains the premise of the book:
“It’s a collection of science-based strategies as far as what to eat, how to eat, and when to eat, that can be tied in with any particular dietary pattern that you’ve already adopted. So, I’m not asking if you’re paleo or vegan or keto or Mediterranean. I’m not asking you to change that.
“It’s dozens of strategies that you can incorporate into the dietary pattern of your choosing. So, I feel like it’s a really key piece of the puzzle for a lot of people. They can just immediately plug in with pretty minimal effort and get big results …”
Whitten is writing in reaction to a stark increase in dozens of diseases over the last 100 years. These diseases aren’t the result of random reactions to the environment or genetics, he said.
“It’s because the modern world changed in very fundamental ways, as far as diet, the modern lifestyle, as far as being sedentary, being in climate-controlled offices, losing all these forms of hormetic stressors, sleeping less, disrupting our circadian rhythm—these are the main drivers of pretty much all of these different chronic diseases.”
Hormetic stress is good stress, the kind that makes you stronger. Examples include physical exercise that stresses your muscles and causes them to strengthen, or the impact that walking and moving has on your bones, which spurs them to increased density. To resolve this increase in disease, it’s critical we address the root causes that are driving this disease, Whitten said.
“That’s where you have to start.”
A New Understanding of Mitochondria
In high school and college biology courses, we’re taught to think of mitochondria as mindless energy generators that take in the food we eat, mostly carbs and fats, and then pump out cellular energy in the form of ATP. However, in the past five to 10 years, we’ve gained a whole new understanding of mitochondria, largely because of the work of Dr. Robert Naviaux, who runs a mitochondrial medicine lab at the University of California, San Diego.
“Naviaux, I think, is one of the most brilliant scientists and has created one of the biggest breakthroughs in medicine in the last century, arguably. He figured out that mitochondria have a second role, other than energy production, and that is in cellular defense,” Whitten said.
“In his words, mitochondria are the central hub of the wheel of metabolism. They are not just energy producers, but also environmental sensors, and they are constantly sampling the environment around them, figuring out what’s going on in the body.
“They’re asking one fundamental question: Are we under attack? Is there something we need to defend against?”
These dual roles of energy production and cellular defense are mutually exclusive, Whitten notes. That’s a key point because it means that when mitochondria are responding to dangers in their cellular environment, they downgrade their energy production.
And because human beings are a collection of trillions of cells, when those cells stop producing the energy we need, fatigue sets in.
“We can think of our energy levels as largely a function of the degree to which our mitochondria are detecting the presence of dangers or threats in the body,” Whitten said.
Common threats your mitochondria might be responding to if you feel fatigued include oxidative stress, poor nutrition, environmental toxins, psychological stress, and sleep deprivation, just to name a few.
What’s Your Resilience Threshold?
Most if not all stressors can be boiled down to oxidative stress, reactive nitrogen species, inflammation, and purinergic signaling (a situation in which energy molecules leak out of the cell). Even something like psychological stress can cause this kind of reaction. But whether the stressor is serious enough to cause fatigue depends on your resilience threshold. What wipes one person out might not affect another.
“I like to think of fatigue as having two fundamental causes,” Whitten said. “One is all of these different kinds of environmental and lifestyle stressors. The other thing that interplays with, and is often left out by a lot of people, is what is happening at the cellular level inside of your body.
“The key thing to understand here is that our cells can either be filled with big, strong mitochondria, and lots of them, or weak, fragile, shrunken, broken, dysfunctional mitochondria, and very few of them.”
Research shows our mitochondrial capacity—the extent to which they can carry out their dual duties of cellular defense and energy production—declines by about 10 percent for every decade of our lives, Whitten notes.
“If you look at older people, they generally have somewhere between 50 percent to 75 percent lower mitochondrial capacity than a young person.
“But it’s not a natural function of aging, because we know from other research that when they look at mitochondrial capacity of healthy 70-year-olds, who are lifelong athletes, they don’t have lower mitochondrial capacity than an adult at 40 years old.
“What that tells us is the loss of mitochondria is not a function of aging, per se. It’s a function of lack of hormetic stress in your life. Mitochondria have to be challenged and stimulated in order to stay big and strong.”
Other Factors That Influence Energy Levels
While mitochondrial dysfunction is a central issue in fatigue, other factors also come into play, including:
- Low muscle mass: Greater muscle mass contributes to metabolic flexibility and health, because muscle acts as a sink for glucose, thereby reducing your risk of insulin resistance. Low muscle mass, on the other hand, is a leading contributor to early death, and it’s a major contributor to low energy and fatigue
- Elevated blood sugar and insulin resistance: This primarily goes back to a poor diet high in processed foods and constant grazing throughout the day. Eating a whole food diet and implementing TRE can go a long way toward normalizing your insulin and blood sugar
- Lack of hermetic stress such as insufficient amounts of exercise
- Poor gut health
How Your Diet Influences Your Energy Level
Naturally, your diet has a central influence on your energy level. One key driver of low energy and ill health is excessive omega-6 linoleic acid (LA) intake. LA contributes to insulin resistance, obesity, and chronic inflammation, and as mentioned earlier, when mitochondria detect inflammation, they dial down energy production to shift resources toward self-defense.
High LA consumption has also been implicated in neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, and many other chronic diseases. Processed food, which is not only high in LA but also sugar, can also considerably impact your energy levels by impairing your hormone regulation.
Circadian Rhythm Disruption Is Common Culprit
According to Whitten, arguably one of the most important things you can do to improve your energy level is to optimize your circadian rhythm by going to bed at the same time each night and rising at the same time each morning. Another crucial factor is to get plenty of daytime sunlight exposure and minimize artificial light exposure at night. As explained by Whitten:
“The circadian clock in your brain learns to distinguish what is day and what is night based on the differences in light intensity, along with the color of the wavelengths of that light. When you start your morning in indoor environments, under indoor lighting, looking at screens, and end your day in indoor environments with indoor lighting, looking at screens, you don’t have a big [light intensity] differential.”
Your circadian rhythm is also influenced by nutrient sensors throughout your body. In other words, when you eat will affect how your body manages the sleep-wake cycle. This is why eating late at night can upset your sleep. While you use light to optimize the central clock in your brain, you use nutrition to optimize the peripheral clocks and sync them with the central clock. One way to do this is through time-restricted eating (TRE), where you eat all your meals within a six- to 10-hour window.
The Importance of Sun Exposure
Light deficiency is another extremely common cause of fatigue. Sun exposure triggers vitamin D production, which is important, but it also has many other functions and benefits that can directly impact your energy level.
For example, in the past three years, it has been discovered that “mitochondria produce melatonin in many cells in quantities which are orders of magnitude higher than that produced in the pineal gland,” as noted by a 2019 paper published in Melatonin Research. Some researchers now hold that the vast majority of melatonin, some 95 percent, is produced in your mitochondria in response to sunlight (specifically red near-infrared light, which is what provides warmth). Melatonin is a potent anti-inflammatory, so sunlight allows you to target oxidative stress right where it’s needed the most.
“Melatonin is absolutely vital for protecting your mitochondria from harm and preventing them from accumulating damage as you age,” Whitten said. But swallowing melatonin is useless for this, as oral melatonin can’t reach the mitochondria.
Sunlight also allows for the conversion of retinol (vitamin A) to retinoids, which are crucial for the function of vitamin D, and interact with your melanocortin system, which involves alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone that helps regulate inflammation and appetite.
Sunlight also creates a surge of nitric oxide, which helps normalize your blood pressure and reduce your cardiovascular disease risk. Whitten cites a Swedish study that showed women with the lowest sun exposure had a cardiovascular disease risk equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. Red and infrared light also have a long list of other health benefits.
Importantly, red and infrared light directly stimulate ATP production at the mitochondrial level. These wavelengths also create a transient increase in reactive oxygen species, which are signaling molecules that instruct the mitochondria to grow bigger and stronger.
Red and infrared wavelengths also stimulate tissue-specific growth factors. So, in muscle cells, it increases insulin-like growth factor 1, which is a key growth factor for muscle growth. In your thyroid, it stimulates growth factors that help regenerate thyroid gland tissue in the brain.
In your skin, fibroblasts are stimulated by red and near-infrared light to increase collagen production. So, essentially, red and infrared light act as signals that trigger growth and regeneration at the cellular level, throughout your whole body.
Just as the hermetic stress from exercise makes the body stronger and helps our cells and mitochondria better adapt and withstand the stress of that exercise, so too does sunlight trigger adaptations in the body that protect it from the stress that sunlight can cause. The increase in melatonin production is a key example.
“This is something critical for protecting our mitochondria from a broad range of, basically, every type of stressor. You got to have those melatonin levels charged up, and that’s a function of exposing your body to light.”
To learn more about how to energize your body, pick up a copy of “Eat for Energy: How to Beat Fatigue, Supercharge Your Mitochondria, and Unlock All-Day Energy.” The book addresses several foundational nutritional causes of fatigue and how to fix it, including:
- The influence of your circadian rhythm and how to optimize it via nutrition
- Time-restricted eating and how to sync your eating window with your waking-sleeping cycle
- Calorie stacking — how stacking more of your daily calories towards the earlier part of the day results in increased energy levels (in part by enhancing neurotransmitters and hormones that are synced with the circadian rhythm)
- How to optimize your body composition
- How to optimize your gut health
- Superfoods and supplements to optimize energy levels
You can also learn more by tuning into Whitten’s popular podcast, “The Energy Blueprint,” where every week he delves into a wide variety of health-promoting strategies.