|Dr. Angie Martinez, M.D
Functional Medicine Doctor
Mitochondrial Health Expert
What Are Mitochondria | Dysfunctions | Tests | Diet | Supplements | Lifestyle
Known as the batteries that power almost every cell in our body, there’s much more to the mitochondria than energy production. The more we research the mitochondria, the more we learn how deeply they are involved in our health, well-being and our risk of chronic disease.
In this article we’ll cover the importance of the mitochondria to our health, how to know if your mitochondria aren’t working properly, and natural ways to optimize mitochondrial function.
What Are Mitochondria?
You may remember your high school biology teacher defining mitochondria as the powerhouse of the cell; an oval shape organelle that produces cellular energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate).
There’s much more behind this simple explanation, however. Emerging research suggests that the mitochondria are essential to almost every cellular activity in the body. Just to give you a few examples, the mitochondria play a key role in:
- Muscle contraction, including important muscles like the heart. Every heartbeat is possible thanks to the mitochondria.
- Brain function
- Energy that nerves need to pass information
- Cellular repair and healing by coordinating the death of weak cells
- Hormone signaling
- Aging & longevity, protecting the DNA integrity.
So while normal mitochondrial function is essential to good health, when the mitochondria do not function optimally, multiple body systems may be affected leading to chronic disease.
From Ancient Bacteria to our Modern Health Partner
It is believed that the mitochondria evolved from ancient bacteria alongside other organisms millions of years ago. Simple organisms ingested the ancient bacteria, but instead of digesting them, they chose to live with them symbiotically. The organisms protected the mitochondria from the outside world and in turn, the mitochondria provided energy for the organisms.
Fast forward to today, the mitochondria still act in many ways like bacteria. This means that factors that influence bacterial health, can also disrupt or support mitochondrial health. For example, when you take antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection, your mitochondria can be affected as well.
I often like to refer to the mitochondria as “she”. The mitochondria have their own DNA, separate from our own, which we inherit from our mother. Just like a mother supports and takes care of her children, our mitochondria provide our cells with the energy they need to live.
Causes of Poor Mitochondrial Health
In some rare cases, mitochondrial dysfunction is caused by genetic disorders. For most people however, mitochondrial issues evolve over time as a result of poor health, usually with inflammation.
Uncontrolled inflammation can spread in the body just like a forest fire, leading to excessive oxidative stress. The mitochondria sense there is danger, and downregulate, going into hibernation. While hibernating, they function at a much lower level and will intentionally stay this way until the environment becomes safe again.
Mitochondria and the Cell Danger Response
Dr. Robert Naviaux, MD, coined the term cell danger response to describe the behavior of the mitochondria against potential threats. According to Dr. Naviaux, the problem is that this hibernation response often continues even after the initial danger has passed. As a result, the mitochondria continue to function sub-optimally. Due to their importance in so many cellular activities, compromised mitochondrial function can lead to chronic diseases.
Common issues that can trigger the cell danger response include:
- Toxins exposure such as mold
- Physical trauma or injury
- Psychological stress
- Leaky gut.
Symptoms of Poor Mitochondria Health
Mitochondria dysfunctions often evolve along with other chronic conditions. For this reason, the symptoms may be different from one person to another.
With that said, there are some commonalities. I often see a similar pain-brain-drain pattern, with a group of symptoms that include:
- Pain: chronic pain issues such as fibromyalgia
- Brain: depression, “brain fog”, sleep issues, ADHD, memory issues
- Drain: chronic fatigue and low energy (both physical and mental)
Additional symptoms that are also common with poor mitochondrial health include:
- Nerve issues
- Having difficulty maintaining lean muscle mass
- Chronic diseases such as metabolic issues, cancer, PCOS, diabetes, autoimmune disease, heart failure.
Chronic symptoms that have been unresponsive to treatment may be a hint that the mitochondria are involved, as they play a key role in the body’s ability to heal and repair.
Tests for Mitochondrial Health
Certain tests can help to evaluate the mitochondria function and identify potential factors that contribute to poor mitochondrial health. While the tests can be different from one patient to another and may depend on their individual condition, some of the common tests include:
- Organic acids test: assesses carbohydrate and fatty acid metabolism to determine how well the mitochondria process them
- Mitochondria nutritional support: checks levels of key nutrients the mitochondria need, including vitamin D, vitamin E, B vitamins, and antioxidants such as coQ10. Deficiencies in these nutrients may lead to poor mitochondrial health.
- Oxidative stress & inflammation markers: measures markers of these known risk factors that affect mitochondrial health.
- Toxin screenings such as mercury and mold that can trigger the cell danger response.
- Hand grip strength: poor hand grip strength and unusual low lean muscle mass may indicate low mitochondrial function.
- Related chronic diseases: a full health evaluation to diagnose chronic metabolic issues and other health concerns that can play a key role in mitochondrial function.
Improving Mitochondrial Health: Tapping into Mother Nature’s Ancient Wisdom
Optimizing mitochondrial function may require a personalized approach to address individual issues that can trigger the cell danger response. The goal is to identify and treat the underlying causes and promote a healthy environment in the body, so the mitochondria can feel safe again.
With that said, some of the key steps to support mitochondrial health, require natural lifestyle and dietary changes, bringing us back to the ancient healing wisdom of mother nature:
Diet for Optimal Mitochondrial Health
Your diet plays a key role in mitochondrial health. Certain foods contain nutrients that support the mitochondria; while others can trigger inflammation and oxidative stress or may contain toxins that can cause more damage.
While the diet should always be tailored to the individual, here are some of the most common guidelines that may help to promote mitochondrial health:
Avoid Excess Carbs and Calories
Excess carbs and calories can be toxic to the mitochondria. The average person in America eats 200-300 grams of carbs per day, way too much for most people. I generally keep my patients below 100 grams of net carbs per day. Keep in mind however, that this amount is going to vary from one person to another. It’s always best to work with a qualified health provider to determine the right amount of carbs and calories your body needs.
Avoid Dairy and Gluten
Dairy and gluten can trigger an inflammatory response even in healthy people without mitochondrial issues. Most people simply don’t tolerate these foods. So it is better to eliminate these in your diet, especially if there’s already cognitive or digestive issues present.
Foods to Eat
Foods to promote a healthy gut and microbiome: Research has shown a connection between the health of our gut microbiome and the mitochondria. According to recent studies, they actually communicate directly with each other.
Just like a farmer that composts and maintains the soil to support the growth of healthy crops, you want to build a healthy ecosystem in your gut to promote a healthy microbiome.
Leafy greens and colorful vegetables are high in nutrients that support gut health. Fiber powders like flax, chia and psyllium seeds offer an easy way to provide your body with different types of fiber that feed the good bacteria in the gut. Most people do not get enough fiber from their diet.
Related post: Functional Medicine Approaches to Gut Health Issues.
Colors of the rainbow: Naturally colorful foods are high in phytonutrients, antioxidants, and nutrients that can nourish our gut bacteria, lower oxidative stress and support our body’s daily needs.
Healthy fats are needed to maintain the health and fluidity of the mitochondrial membrane. As a part of the cell danger response, the membrane can tighten up and prevent nutrients from coming in and out. With a lack of proper nourishment, the mitochondria can’t work optimally. Good options for healthy fats include:
- Coconut oil
- Avocado oil
- Clarified ghee
- Fish oil omega 3’s (DHA, EPA)
- Flaxseed oil
- Healthy omega 6’s such as evening primrose oil.
Note that heating certain oils, even healthy ones such as olive oil can make them become rancid. If you want to use an oil for cooking, stick with coconut oil, which is more heat-stable.
Clean proteins are important to support a healthy mitochondrial growth. When choosing protein sources select clean options to avoid toxins or chemicals that can damage the mitochondria. Good options include:
- Grass-fed organic beef
- Pasture-raised organic chicken or turkey
- Wild-caught fish like salmon
- Plant-based proteins: legumes, non-GMO organic soy*
A note about plant-based proteins: If you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, there are a few concerns to take into consideration and share with your health provider.
- Mitochondria-supporting nutrients: plant-based proteins may not provide enough important mitochondria-supporting nutrients such as B vitamins and carnitine.
- Watch your carb intake: in general, plant proteins tend to be on the higher carbohydrate side, which can make it difficult to maintain a low carbohydrate approach.
- Digestive issues: legumes and beans may be hard to digest for some people, leading to digestive issues.
Supplements for Mitochondrial Health
I find that certain supplements can help support mitochondrial health and optimize energy production, although they should always be used in addition to a healthy diet and personalized treatment program. It usually takes much more than supplements to treat cases of sub optimally functioning mitochondria.
While the exact protocol may be different from one person to another, here are some of the common supplements that can help:
- Vitamin D: supports mitochondrial health and is a common deficiency in North America
- B Vitamins: play a key role in energy production
- Magnesium: supports mitochondrial health; another common deficiency in North America
- Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10): a key antioxidant that can protect the mitochondria from free radical damage
- L-carnitine: an amino acid that is essential for the transport of fatty acids into the mitochondria to be used for fuel
- Probiotics: a critical part of the dietary approach to promote a healthy gut microbiome
- Phosphatidylcholine: supports the mitochondrial membrane structure. Also important for brain and liver health.
- Alpha-lipoic acid: a key antioxidant that may help in cases of brain inflammation
- Fish oil: a rich source of omega 3’s fatty acids that can help reduce inflammation and build the mitochondrial membrane
- Molecular hydrogen: a potent antioxidant that can pass through the mitochondrial membranes and reduce oxidative stress.
Challenge Your Mitochondria
Introducing controlled mild stress to challenge the mitochondria is a known strategy that can help strengthen the mitochondria.
This phenomenon called Hormesis, where exposing the body to low-dose intermittent stress trigger an adaptive response that benefits the cells and enhances their resilience.
Some of the best ways to challenge the mitochondria include:
- Intermittent fasting (16 hours): can also help to control extra calories and carbohydrates
- Cold showers
- Infrared sauna
- Morning sun exposure: promote a healthy sleep-wake circadian rhythm, which further support mitochondrial health.
Watch for extra stress: While low grade stress can be very helpful, ongoing stress can lead to poor mitochondrial health. Healing and repair only occur when the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system is on.
Finding the balance between stress and relaxation can be challenging in that driven fast pace world we live in. If needed, introduce mediation and other practices that help calm the nervous system.
Embrace the Power of the Mitochondria
This humbling organelle that has evolved from ancient bacteria comes with a natural old wisdom that we see in many traditional healing principles. The more we research the mitochondria, the more we learn how deeply they are involved in our health.
By restoring balance through a healthy lifestyle and diet, we can embrace the ancient healing power and wisdom of the mitochondria that can affect all aspects of our health.
- Mitochondrial Health: Ancient Wisdom in Your Body’s Cells - January 31, 2020
- Functional Medicine Approaches to Gut Health Issues - September 22, 2019
- The Surprising Connection Between Gut Health & Your Overall Health - September 22, 2019