Andy De Santis, RD, MPH
The word "cell," derived from the Latin for cella or “small room,” describes the tiny biological structures from which all life is built. The human body consists of trillions of cells in total and hundreds of unique cell types, including muscle cells, bone cells, lung cells, and so on. Health and energy, as we experience it in our daily lives, has everything to do with how well our cells are operating. And how we outwardly feel has everything to do with what’s going on within.
Human cells have very specific machinery, known as mitochondria, that are uniquely responsible for producing the energy our body uses in daily life.
With age and stress, the efficiency of the mitochondria tends to decline, which can contribute to the feeling of fatigue and lethargy that so many of us experience. But can anything be done to slow down or reverse this process?
In 2017, the Harvard University Gazette published a feature article discussing research into the interconnection between intermittent fasting, mitochondrial health, and longevity.
Although intermittent fasting can be defined in a number of ways, it ultimately involves going without food for extended periods of time (usually at least 16 hours) on alternating days. Despite research in this area being relatively new, scientists have detected fascinating changes in the functionality of mitochondria in those who regularly engage in intermittent fasting.
One animal study of particular interest found that mitochondria in intermittently fasting mice showed decreased signs of cellular aging. Another study found evidence for improvement in the way energy was metabolized, and even measurable changes at the genetic level.
Although we don’t know exactly why the body responds in these positive ways to intermittent fasting, what we can see from the evidence is that it’s not only what we eat, but when and how we eat it that has potential to influence our health at the cellular level.
It might sound crazy to some, but intermittent fasting is an incredibly effective strategy on vacation. This is because most of us eat differently away from home, and we’re more prone to bloating, constipation, and higher caloric intakes. Incorporating some degree of intermittent fasting helps mitigate these issues while keeping hunger levels moderately high so we can enjoy what’s in store when we do eat.
It’s important to accept that, especially in life’s busiest times, we can’t always outrun or outeat poor lifestyle habits. Look to changes in the following areas to help bring your health and energy levels full circle.
Dealing with unnecessary stress is a massive waste of your energy and personal resources, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Simple activities such as meditation or yoga can go a long way toward restoring the balance.
There is an undeniable connection between sleep, energy levels, and perceived fatigue. Despite Health Canada’s recommendations to work toward seven to nine hours of sleep each night, at least one in four Canadian adults don’t get enough.
Alcohol, as much as it’s widely enjoyed, is a well-known depressant that can induce lethargy and reduced energy levels. Ask yourself how many drinks you enjoy a week, and if it’s above seven, work toward lowering it.
At the other end of the fatigue spectrum, those who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome (about one in 100 Canadians) may not benefit from the positive effects of intermittent fasting. Characterized by extreme fatigue or tiredness not explained by another medical condition and not improved with rest and recovery, CFS occurs most frequently in women over 40.
Extracted from the root of specific plants found in both Asia and America, some scientists consider ginseng a promising option to treat fatigue and enhance energy.
Extracted from the Withania somnifera plant and commonly used in Ayuverdic medicine, some evidence suggests it may help improve energy levels by improving resiliency to stress.
CoQ10 plays an important role in energy production. Researchers have found that it not only helped reduce symptoms in those suffering with chronic fatigue syndrome, but also improved cardiovascular performance.
Andy De Santis, RD, MPH, is a dietitian operating a private practice in Toronto and an avid blogger (andytherd.com) who also loves combining nutrition education and humour on Instagram @andytherd.
A version of this article was published in the December 2019 issue of alive Canada with the title “Improve Your Health at the Cellular Level.”