Dysfunction of Mitochondria is the underlying factor contributing to broad range of degenerative disorders; ranging from diabetes, poor brain function to heart diseases.
Most of us have no idea that optimised mitochondria health is the key to our energy, focus, vitality, metabolism and general wellbeing.
Mitochondria – Body’s Energy Houses
In this article I am going to explain about mitochondria health and how to tune up the body’s quadrillions of “energy houses” so one can perform at peak capacity.
Mitochondria are the cellular organelles that convert food we eat and oxygen we breathe into energy. They produce 95% of the cellular energy and prevent the cells from oxidative damage. The number and functional capacity of mitochondria determine individual’s health and longevity.
In 2007, a group of researchers made a remarkable age-reversal discovery. According to them even the potentially dreadful defects in human mitochondria, including mitochondrial decay and membrane injury appears nearly a decade before the permanent damage of the DNA.
More importantly, this mitochondrial damage is reversible at the initial stages. The key lies in the early interventions to ensure optimal mitochondrial functioning, enabling the life and health of cells to be prolonged at the molecular level.
Why do we need Mitochondria?
Each of us has quadrillions of mitochondrion in our bodies. They are powerhouses of the cell and are the only organelle that has its own DNA- enabling them to divide and replicate on its own
Mitochondria produce energy in the form of ATP (energy currency required for biological functions), along with some byproducts, like carbon dioxide, water, and free radicals- explains Bruce H. Cohen, MD, a neurologist at Northeast Ohio Medical University and an expert in mitochondrial disease.
Free radicals possess a free electron, which makes them highly volatile and destructive. They attack our cell membranes, disturb DNA and RNA production and destroy cellular enzymes. They are also responsible for creation of mutant cells and are linked to cancer and cellular aging.
Evidence strongly indicates that the accumulated damage to the DNA of the mitochondrion leads to many metabolic (diabetes, cardiovascular disorders) and degenerative disorders (Alzheimer’s)
When we are young, certain substances protect mitochondria from the onslaught of free radicals. But with age, this protection wanes, setting a stage for diseases and age related deterioration.
Stress, deficiency in critical nutrients, blood sugar imbalances, sedentary lifestyles, proprioceptive deficiencies, free-radical damage, and exposure to infections, allergens, and toxins can all lead to mitochondrial diseases and damage.
But luckily, there are ways to halt and reverse mitochondrial damage and dysfunction. Below are a number of strategies you can try to support your mitochondrial health.
1. Mitochondrial repair diet
Blood sugar imbalances, fatty acid imbalances, and nutritional deficiencies (trace minerals, phytonutrients and anti-oxidants) are among the major reasons behind mitochondrial dysfunction.
The empty calories of sugars, refined flours and other processed foods create blood sugar imbalances, which by producing advanced glycolytic enzymes damage cell function and increase free radical generation. Fatty acid imbalances occur by overconsumption of processed meats & oils, trans-fatty acids, and omega-6 fatty acids.
In order to thrive, mitochondria need a lot of fresh nutrient dense whole foods, phytonutrients, antioxidants, healthy fats, trace minerals, proteins and fiber
Clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa, Dr. Terry Wahls, MD recommends eating six to nine cups of vegetables and fruits every day, including three green veggies (kale, spinach, artichokes), three deeply colored vegetables (beets, carrots, peppers), and three rich in sulphur (broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy) that help in producing glutathione, the key antioxidant.
She recommends eating 6 to 12 ounces of grass-fed meat or free range animals. Besides this, she also recommends limiting foods containing gluten, along with dairy products, eggs, soy, processed meats containing nitrates, and artificial sweeteners.
Free radical damage can be checked through heavy consumption of anti-oxidants. This can be accomplished by the use of lemon/lime, pink salts, dark chocolate, turmeric, rosemary, ginger, kidney beans, oregano, cinnamon, cloves, & cilantro in meals, soups, salads, and drinks.
2. Ketogenic diet
Not surprisingly, If followed strictly Wahls’s diet becomes “ketogenic” — a diet low in carb and proteins whereas high in fats, so that our body stops getting energy from glucose (mainly from carbs) and starts burning fat instead.
One of the leading advocates of ketogenic diet, neurologist Jong Rho, says that “in battling mitochondrial syndrome and mitochondrial dysfunction, ketogenic diets may rank among the most promising treatment strategies available”. “When mitochondria are fueled by fats instead of glucose,” Rho explains, “their ability to produce ATP is enhanced and free-radical byproducts are reduced.”
There is a strong laboratory and clinical evidence for ketogenic diet, showing it protective role in diseases where mitochondrial dysfunction is the key cause, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy, autism and even cancer.
3. Eat more essential fats
Up your omega-3 fatty acids (help in building mitochondrial membranes) intake by consuming 6-12 ounces of grass-fed meat or low-mercury wild-caught fish each day as recommended by Dr. Wahls. Taking a fish-oil supplement, avacodos, sea foods, soybeans, nuts and seeds are a good idea for most people.
4. Brew up bone broth.
Compromised mitochondria increase the risk of autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis and leaky gut. Dr. Wahls recommends taking bone broth as it is rich in glutamine and other amino acids that help in healing a leaking gut and other disorders.
Resveratrol, group compounds of polyphenols, not only enhances mitochondrial efficiency and increases BNDF levels, but also activates SIRT1 genes- genes which encode proteins required to boost cellular function. Both calorie restriction and intermittent fasting can also stimulate SIRT1 genes production.
In 2006, Harvard Researchers found that resveratol can increase longevity by protecting mitochondria. It has been shown to protect against many cardiovascular and degenerative diseases, boost antioxidant status and reduce inflammation. In animals, resveratrol has shown to extend life span and retard age-associated deterioration.
6. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
CoQ10 is an antioxidant molecule that safeguards mitochondria from age-related decay and dysfunction. It acts as a powerful free radical scavenger, nullifies lethal action of free radicals and protects mitochondria against oxidative damage
In absence of CoQ10, our body cannot synthesize ATP because CoQ10 plays an essential role in the mitochondrial electron transport chain (chemical reaction by which mitochondria synthesize energy).
Since birth, CoQ10 levels steadily increase in our vital organs like heart, brain, kidneys and liver and peak at about 20 years of age. Thereafter, it undergoes a continuous decline.
In preclinical studies, CoQ10 supplementation is seen to protect against DNA damage and increases longevity. In animal studies, its supplementation boosts mitochondrial function, decrease oxidative stress, increase native antioxidants, and favorably modify age-related changes in muscular energy metabolism
CoQ10 levels are significantly lower in the patients suffering from depression, chronic fatigue, Alzheimer’s and brain fog
Until 2007, ubiquinone was the only available form of CoQ10, but was not widely used because of its limited absorption in human body. Recently, ubiquinol, another form of CoQ10 has been discovered which stays in the blood for up to 8 times longer than ubiquinone.
Food sources rich in CoQ10 include organic red palm oil, sardines and grass-fed beef heart.
7. PQQ (pyrroloquinoline quinone)
PQQ is an essential micronutrient that plays a critical role across a range of basic life functions. It is an ultra potent antioxidant and provides extraordinary defense against mitochondrial decay and related ailments.
The chemical structure of PQQ enables it to withstand exposure to oxidative stress up to 5,000 times greater than vitamin C. Research shows that along with CoQ10, just 20 mg per day of PQQ can significantly preserve and enhance memory, attention, and cognition in aging humans.
The most exciting revelation on PQQ appeared in 2010, when researchers found that PQQ not only protect mitochondria from oxidative damage but also stimulate growth of new mitochondria!
PQQ deficiency in animals results in a 20-30% reduction in mitochondrial number, along with impaired blood sugar regulation and oxygen metabolism- hallmark indicators of mitochondrial dysfunction (Journal of Nutrition 2006).
Reactive nitrogen species (RNS) and reactive oxygen species (ROS) arise spontaneously following stroke and spinal cord injury and causes severe stress on brain cells and mitochondria. PQQ supplementation has also been shown to suppress RNS and ROS production.
PQQ stimulates production of nerve growth factor in the brain and supplementation of 20 mg per day resulted in improvements on tests of various brain functions in a group of middle aged and elderly people. (Food Style 2009)
An important and often depleted vital mineral, magnesium is essential for your mitochondria in maintaining calcium balance.
Mitochondria are considered as “storage units” of magnesium. Magnesium helps in production and transfer of ATP. And evidence suggests that magnesium deficiency leads to fewer and less healthy mitochondria. That is why at least 200 mg of magnesium per day is required for optimal brain health.
Food sources rich in magnesium include- Green leafy vegetables, fish, nuts or seeds and starchy tuber.
9. Acetyl-Carnitine (ALCAR)
Acetyl-Carnitine (ALCAR), an acetylated form of the amino acid Carnitine, helps in the transportation of fatty acids into the mitochondria of the brain cells, where they burn as fuel. The level of carnitie reduces with age, which can be further deteriorated by overeating and diabetes.
ALC supplementation has been shown to boost mitochondrial health, mood, memory and energy levels. Red meat and poultry are the best dietary sources of ALC.
A review of clinical studies shows that ALC can retard the natural course of Alzheimer’s disease. It has substantially increased drug response from 38% to 50% in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in one study (Current Medical Research and Opinion 2003).
10. R-alpha-lipoic acid
It is the most stable and bioactive form of lipoic acid and a powerful mitochondrial enzyme. Get your supply from organic meats and vegetables like spinach and broccoli.
It’s been shown to improve mitochondrial function, protect existing mitochondria, decrease free radical damage, and increase metabolic rate – all of which otherwise deteriorate with aging.
11. B vitamins
Vitamin B 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, folate, and 12 all play an important roles in protecting and reversing mitochondrial dysfunction.
If you have deficiency of any of these B vitamins – which is common when you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, also if there is problem in absorption of these nutrients or when they are depleted by medications, such as birth control pills – consider taking multivitamin or B complex, which contain active forms of these vitamins.
12. Antioxidants from plants
Natural antioxidants and phytonutrients from plants such as curcumin, quercetin, resveratrol, ascorbic acid (citrus family), flavanoids, green tea extract, sulforaphane (broccoli, brussels sprouts), and pterostilbene (blueberries and almonds) can prevent mitochondrial diseases and cell damage.
13. Yoga and Meditation
In addition to nutrition and supplementation, mind body practices like meditation and yoga has been shown to support mitochondrial health.
A 2013 PLOS One study demonstrated the effect of meditation on gene expression and mitochondrial health in long term and short term practitioners.
The result? The relaxation response produced by meditation induces rapid change in gene expression among both long term and short term practitioners.
These genes have been linked to pathways responsible for mitochondrial energy metabolism, electron transport chain, biological oxidation and insulin secretion. All these pathways play central roles in mitochondrial energy mechanics and cellular aging.
Meditation also induces up-regulation of biological oxidation genes that enhance efficiency of oxidation-reduction reactions and thereby reduces oxidative stress.
In the PLOS One study, meditation also helped improve insulin function and increased the production of ATPase, an enzyme primarily responsible for mitochondrial energy mechanics and production of ATP.
Psychosocial stress can cause chronic mitochondrial oxidative stress and can lead to the metabolic syndrome (hypertension, obesity, insulin resistant diabetes mellitus, and hyperlipidemia). Chronic stress can lead to activation of pro-inflammatory factors like NF-κB, which in turn can worsen oxidative stress.
Yoga and meditation by down-regulating the NF-κB node and its associated genes, checks stress induced oxidative stress and metabolic syndrome.
14. Exercise can increase Mitochondrial density
Exercise by depleting stored energy stimulates AMPK. What’s AMPK? It is a metabolic regulator that accelerates mitochondrial synthesis.
Most of the research shows that long duration endurance training- jogging, cycling are the best ways to increase AMPK and mitochondrial levels. It’s quite basic, actually endurance training employ slow twitch muscle fibers that contain most of the mitochondria, so the training that recruits slow twitch fibers will also target more muscle mitochondria.
Type 2 diabetics and obese people require higher intensity of exercise (high intensity interval training or sprinting) to activate AMPK. As there mitochondria are slower to respond, may be because of blunted ability to tap into fat for energy
Hypertrophy training (higher reps, more volume, and less weight), decreases density of muscle mitochondria. This is because this training just expands size of existing muscle fibers without generating new mitochondria.
Casual walking is not physically demanding to force mitochondrial synthesis. But if walking around the block leaves you breathless, either you need medical intervention OR you might be tuning your mitochondria.
15. Caloric restriction and intermittent fasting
Restricting your calories is one the best actions you can take to tune up mitochondrial function.
Animal studies prove that calorie restriction increases lifespan, and population studies suggest that it holds true for humans as well.
Eating less food reduces the demand and dysfunction of your mitochondria. Albeit, reducing calories is tough to do and that is why I recommend intermittent fasting.
Intermittent Fasting activates mitochondria and triggers autophagy, a process by which mitochondria clean themselves by removing unwanted materials, debris, proteins and reactive oxygen species.
This process not only enhances mitochondrial efficiency but also activates SIRT1 genes, which has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer and neuro degenerative diseases.
Over time, if you follow these dietary and lifestyle strategies, you can improve your mitochondrial health, boost mitochondrial biogenesis, improve cellular function and slow down age-related brain deterioration.