Curebiome Naturopathic

What are Mitochondria, what do they do, where are they found

You might remember mitochondria from science class back in school, where you drew pictures of the anatomy of a cell. The mitochondria looked like little sausages with squiggly lines inside of them (tk image). Most of us don’t remember too much about what they actually do, but you might remember the phrase “power houses of the cell.” This hints at their main function, which is to create energy through production of the molecule ATP.

Mitochondria are really fascinating when you start to understand they are necessary for us to function as an organism made of millions of cells. Mitochondria take our energy output and multiply it by 16 fold. While the base 2 ATP that primitive metabolism extracts from glucose, the mitochondria increases production to 32 ATP! Without this many of our cells would either starve or we would have to eat dramatically higher amounts of food to survive. This is really what lets us be a large, complex organisms with many organs. This includes our muscles and a big energy hungry brain that allows us to think the way we do.

How the mitochondria accomplish this is through the electron transport chain. The electron transport chain is a team of proteins inside the mitochondria which allows the mitochondria to extract multiple times more energy than our cell could otherwise.  The process is called cellular respiration and works with the Krebs cycle, and together forms a highly efficient system. The electron transport chain is important because it’s very sensitive to nutrient deficiencies and chemical toxins, which reduce function and lead to low energy.

Mitochondria enable us to be a large, intelligent person through the enhanced production of energy we’re talking about. When mitochondria function decreases, we function less well, when mitochondrial function stops completely many of our cells will die from starvation. We see this in cases of cyanide poisoning, because cyanide actually binds to part of the electron transport chain and shuts down energy production completely which leads to death within hours to days.

There are a lot of other jobs our mitochondria do, like cell signaling, calcium homeostasis, apoptosis (programmed cell death) and much more. The point is, mitochondria are found in most cells in your body and they help everything work better. They are present in the highest levels within the muscles and brain where we have higher energy needs.  Remember this because anytime there is fatigue, low energy or any sort of brain fog or cognitive issues mitochondria are a big part of correcting the issues.

Mitochondria aren’t the only thing to consider, but in a lot of situations they are a big part of the solution. If we don’t think about or even know about mitochondria, then we’re leaving a major part of our health on the table.

The role of mitochondria in health and disease

Mitochondria are probably a part of almost any disease that’s going on, but very rarely are they the main component. The more common signs and symptoms of poor mitochondrial health is seen in fatigue and weakness. Since mitochondria are found in such high levels within the muscles, if there are too few or the mitochondria present aren’t working quite right then you’ll feel tired and weak. If the problem is more widespread it may affect the brain and nervous system, which can cause brain fog, trouble concentrating, clumsiness and memory problems.

The more problems the mitochondria have, the more intense symptoms you start to notice. Mitochondrial function is a component in diabetes and heart disease, which often come together. Considering mitochondria help us burn off the energy from sugar, it makes sense. In diabetes we commonly see that mitochondria are both smaller than normal, and there are less of them. Another common problem is that it’s difficult for diabetic individuals to make new mitochondria, all of which comes together to further aggravate a system that is already under heavy stress. In cardiovascular health mitochondria are extremely important. Remember the heart is a muscle that has to function all day every day, so if the mitochondria of the heart are deficient then the heart won’t be able to function well.

A major disease where mitochondria play a role is cancer, as almost every cancerous cell tends to carry abnormal mitochondria. There are a few exceptions, but the exceptions tend to be less severe forms of cancer. There is a lot of interesting research that shows these diseased mitochondria are a major component in cancer cells creating more cancerous offspring cells. When mitochondria can be restored, the cell tends to destroy itself for it’s malfunctions.

The last area we’ll touch on is the health of the nervous system. Mitochondrial dysfunction or inhibition in the brain and nervous system directly correlates with how well our brain can function. There is research directly into how mitochondrial function in the brain relates to Parkinson’s and Alzheimers disease, giving a new target to help slow down progression and even restore function in these diseases.

To sum everything up, mitochondria play a role in most of the major diseases we deal with today – specifically chronic diseases that present later in life. This means focusing on mitochondrial function is an enormous opportunity to prevent and improve these diseases. Just as important for those of us not dealing with these problems, is that improving mitochondrial function will ultimately improve our health and functions so that we think, feel and act optimally.

Stressors and Inhibitors of Mitochondria

it’s important to understand what’s holding the mitochondria back from functioning optimally. This can range from nutrient deficiencies, chemical toxins, lifestyle, stress and more.

Nutrient deficiencies are extremely common, for a number of reasons. First, processed foods pull all nutrients and vitamins that can degrade out to trade for a long shelf life. Processed foods might be fortified again with some nutrients, but typically it’s not enough and there is still a lot missing. Other causes of nutrient deficiencies are poor variety in diet, lack of plant-based foods and fatty acid deficiencies. Refined sugar is another cause, which causes loss of nutrients like minerals to compensate the pure sugar.

There are a number of chemical toxins which affect mitochondrial function, each of which comes with other problems. A common class of mitochondrial toxin are pesticides, found on non-organic/conventional produce, in waterways and around agricultural areas. Pesticides interrupt normal function of the electron transport chain leading to inhibited function. Herbicides also have similar effects, which are common contaminants in certain grain products like wheat. Multiple heavy metals like lead, mercury and cadmium harm and inhibit mitochondrial function also. These are found in multiple sources ranging from high fructose corn syrup, fish, food grown in polluted areas, cigarettes and many other places. Finally, and surprisingly, many pharmaceuticals are mitochondrial toxins.

Certain personal lifestyle habits can also decrease mitochondrial function. Specifically, a sedentary lifestyle removes all signals to mitochondria to increase efficiency and produce more mitochondria. Lack of sleep will also decrease mitochondrial function, among other problems. Finally stress and lack of stress management will also affect how well your mitochondria, and cells in general, can function.

These are just a few of the things that have a negative impact on mitochondrial function. There are many more, but the good news is that each of these can be addressed and minimized to help preserve and support mitochondria health.

Mitochondrial Support and Rescue

Fortunately there are a lot of measures you can take to support your mitochondria. To know where to start we have to consider all the causes of mitochondrial inhibition. We’ll cover a general approach, beginning with supporting deficiencies then removing problem makers.

It’s generally best to begin by addressing any deficiencies, as this will support all of the other forms of support. Some of the things to consider, without going into too much detail, are healthy fats, and nutrient dense foods. Specific foods to consider are colorful plant-based foods, wild caught fish and natural/organic meats, nuts and seeds. Specific nutrients are omega 3 fatty acids, B vitamins and antioxidants like Coenzyme Q10, resveratrol, Alpha Lipoic Acid and others.

Avoidance and detoxification of harmful compounds is a great benefit to mitochondrial function, as well as whole body health. The first place to start is identifying your exposure to harmful compounds and decreasing those exposures as much as possible, which I discuss in detail in other places (TK link to avoidance). Once avoidance measures are in place, then mild detoxification support is a great next step with nutrients that support glutathione production and recycling like N-acetyl cysteine and many of the same nutrients that directly support mitochondrial function. In some situations more intensive detox approaches need to be used, including but not limited to sauna, heavy metal chelation and IV nutrients like glutathione.

There is also very good research and clinical results to support a ketogenic diet and fasting as aids in mitochondrial health. Ketogenic diets involve very low carbohydrates, moderate proteins and high fat intake. This balance of macronutrients leads to body to produce ketones, which are energy dense antioxidant molecules that our brain, muscles and most of our tissues use as energy. There is lots of information about ketogenic diets available, so I won’t go into details right now but it’s very helpful in addressing blood sugar problems, insulin resistance, weight problems and more. Fasting will similarly produce ketones, and is more commonly used intermittently.

Finally there is a more potent nutrient based compound which produces dramatic improvements in mitochondrial function. It is a lipoic acid mineral complex which can be taken orally or administered intravenously, and alongside these other supportive therapies helps to further augment and improve mitochondrial function. It is sold as Poly-MVA and is best taken with CoQ10 and Vitamin A, as both improve it’s function. While the average person will likely notice benefits, we rely on it for support in various chronic illnesses which have a mitochondrial component.

This is just a brief intro into the therapies I have found to be most effective to improve both mitochondrial function and health. All of these are not required, and it’s not unusual for some therapies to disagree with people who is why I included a few options. There is more than one path to health, and while it might be tempting to jump right in it is very important to work with a knowledgeable health practitioner who can guide you towards the most beneficial therapies and away from the least helpful, and possibly harmful ones for your individual situation.