Harvard Health Ad Watch: Mitochondria do a lot for you — what can you do for them?

Ever see an ad for a product that sounds awesome and wondered if it was really that good? That happened to me recently. “How are you taking care of your mitochondria?” an announcer asked. Well, there’s a question I’m not asked every day. And it’s one for which I had no answer.

Your cells are aging: Can supplements keep them young?

This ad and an accompanying website describe their products this way:

  • “a breakthrough range of nutritional solutions”
  • supplements that “work in harmony with your body’s natural processes to rewrite the rules of cell aging”
  • “helps activate the renewal of mitochondria in muscles”
  • “targets age-related changes occurring inside cells”
  • “renews cells’ natural ability to produce daily energy”
  • “features cellular nutrients studied in more than 20 clinical trials in humans”

And just what is this miracle product? It’s food! Just kidding. These statements come from ads for Celltrient supplements made by Nestlé Health Science. Yes, from the makers of famed candy bars come supplements to improve your health and slow aging!

The buzz about mitochondria and cell health

The claims focus on two main areas of health that have been the subject of extensive research at the cellular level in recent years: aging and energy production.

You may remember from high school biology that nearly all human cells have a nucleus that contains our genetic blueprint (DNA). But do you remember much about the mitochondria? These so-called power stations of the cell convert nutrients into energy. They’re essential to the health of each cell — and to the health of the tissues and organs of the person in whom those cells reside.

When mitochondria aren’t working normally, debilitating, sometimes life-threatening conditions may occur, such as mitochondrial myopathies and a number of eye diseases.

An enormous amount of research in recent years suggests that mitochondria

  • play a key role in the aging process and most age-related diseases
  • are vital to cell health, including by regulating how nutrients get into individual cells
  • contain DNA that is easily damaged with age, is prone to mutation, and has limited ability to repair
  • play a key role in immune function.

These findings have led to speculation that treatments to maintain or improve mitochondrial and cellular health could lead to ways to slow aging.

What the ads gets right — and the rest of the story

It’s true, as noted above, that mitochondria are essential for the vital process of cellular energy production. And an increasing body of evidence suggests mitochondria are key players in aging and the development of chronic disease.

But the rest of the claims made by the makers of Celltrient should be taken with a hefty dose of skepticism. The evidence behind them is scant. Like all over-the-counter, unproven supplements and remedies, Celltrient carries this FDA-required disclaimer: “These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

What about the 20 human studies mentioned? Well, this refers to research on one or more of the ingredients found in these products, but not the products themselves. These studies can’t demonstrate that the claims made in the ad are true in humans.

For example, one study shows that one ingredient in Celltrient — niacin, a form of vitamin B3 — gets absorbed into the bloodstream. Also, it increases blood levels of a substance that mitochondria need to function properly, called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD).

Sound impressive? Keep in mind that taking a specific vitamin supplement may be useless if you already have enough of that vitamin in your body. So it’s not clear from the study that Celltrient actually “renewed” or “replenished” mitochondria in the cells of study participants. More importantly, there’s no proof that these supplements make people healthier or feel better, slow aging, or provide any other specific health benefit.

Considerable cost and key information lacking

The promotions also don’t mention cost. Prices on the product website range from about $60 to $130 per month. And there’s no mention of possible side effects, interactions with other drugs, or whether certain people are more likely to benefit from them than others.

Finally, these ads don’t tell you what your other options are for mitochondrial heath, assuming you’re concerned about this. For example, regular exercise may be the best treatment for mitochondrial aging.

The bottom line

Ads like the ones for Celltrient products are rampant. You’ll see supplements promoted for heart health, joint pain, memory loss, and a host of other conditions. Some have more scientific support than others. But beware of ads for drugs or supplements that promise vague and sweeping health benefits without actual proof that the product works. A statement that it’s “backed by science” — without explanation — is not enough.

For cell and mitochondrial health, you could accept the unproven claims in these ads and spend thousands of dollars each year on Celltrient products. Perhaps future studies will even prove these supplements work. Or you could take a chance on a more conventional source of nutrients needed by mitochondria: food. I guess I wasn’t kidding after all.

Follow me on Twitter @RobShmerling

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