The above title could have easily stated “fix your mitochondria, fix all the cells in every organ of your body”, because mitochondria are these little organelles in every cell in our body, serving as the battery inside the cell. They are little but powerful engines that produce energy for the cells to live and run on.
I want to keep our focus on the brain cells or neurons, for purposes of this article, however, but what you learn may very well have an impact on every other cell or tissue of the body.
Scientists and doctors have noted ,over the last 70 years ,that mitochondrial function is very much affected by 3 major factors:
- The aging process
- By environmental factors and epigenetic factors (things that influence gene/DNA expression) like illness, stress, diet, lifestyle, medications
- By genetic dysfunctions (hereditary snips or mutations)
We inherit our mitochondrial DNA from our mothers (This is separate from our cell nucleus DNA which is a combo of maternal/paternal DNA). So Anything that may have affected our maternal great grandmother, maternal grandmother, or mother, good or bad, can be passed down to us, and if we are female, also passed down to our children. Let this sit with you for a moment, because that means, for example, that if your great grandmother was exposed to starvation, and her mitochondrial DNA changed to adapt to that starvation, that gene can be passed down for 4 generations, triggering obesity in each one of these !
Mitochondria produce reactive oxygen species (ROS) or free radicals, when the cell is under attack. These ROS damage the mitochondria and trigger a self-destructive process of the mitochondria and its parent cell (this is referred to as apoptosis). This is Nature’s way of eliminating sick or damaged cells in order to renew itself. However if that process of apoptosis runs without check, we can have significant organ damage, and when it comes to the brain, we know we cannot afford to lose too many cells at a rapid rate! The brain has plasticity, and does regenerate, but very slowly….
Organs in the body that have the most density of mitochondria include the brain, the liver, the heart and the kidneys, as these organs require and utilize the highest energy to function. Mitochondria produce as much energy as your body weight in pounds every day! Did you know that your heart beats north of 100,000 times/day, and that is all energized by the mitochondria?
The brain is the master organ responsible in directing all the body functions, in sending and receiving thoughts, neurochemicals and hormones, and in responding to environmental signals and stressors. If the brain malfunctions for any reason, you’ll have trouble in your life. You need good blood flow to the brain to give it the resources it needs. Every neuron or nerve cell (and we have trillions of them) has many mitochondria that produce energy for that nerve cell. Without the right vitamins, minerals proteins, sugars, fats and oxygen, the brain cells can’t function well (Remember the brain is 90% fat). Negative thoughts also impact the brain cells by creating a stressful reaction and triggering brain inflammation.
You may have studied the Krebs cycle in High-school Biology, but if you’ve put it out of your head, no worries, I will give you a quick recap here because it is important to understand mitochondrial energy production at a general level, so you can apply what you learn to keep your mitochondria healthy and your energy level optimal.
The Krebs cycle is the chemical pathway that the mitochondria run to produce ATP, a unit of energy. The mitochondria take sugar ( glucose), fat ( fatty acids) and protein ( amino acids) from the blood stream and cells, to run them as substrates through the Krebs cycle and electron transport chain , to eventually generate ATP. Deficiencies of certain key vitamins, minerals and amino acids can halt the Krebs cycle, and without ATP, the person can start to feel sluggish, unfocused, and very tired all day. You see, the chemical reactions inside the mitochondria that create ATP depend on a lot of co-factors, like magnesium, B vitamins, L-Carnitine, CoQ10 and several amino acids.
When the mitochondria get damaged, sick or rusty ( oxidized by the free radicals) the energy production of ATP slows down, stops or leads to numerous chronic conditions like cancer, Autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s, to name a few. The DNA inside the mitochondria is very sensitive to environmental toxins, and becomes easily damaged with oxidation and stress.
Recent studies have shown new mutations in mitochondrial DNA of autistic kids and in schizophrenia, proving that these disorders are developed in utero or after birth, not only inherited. The altered mitochondrial DNA leads to a disturbance in the brain cells of these autistic and schizophrenic individuals, whereby, if they are unable to utilize the glucose or fatty acid substrates for example, it causes an excess of unwanted byproducts that build up in the mitochondria and nerve cells, and are toxic to the brain and nervous system. To make matters worse, as the mitochondria build up these reactive oxygen species (ROS), they start signaling for cell death or apoptosis, and we can’t replace nerve cells as easily as we do in other tissues of the body.
Free radicals and ROS are produced when mitochondria are overloaded with UV radiation, air pollution, ionizing radiation, smoke (are you still smoking cigarettes?), inflammation, and even routine functions of metabolism. These ROS/free radicals damage the mitochondrial DNA as stated above, and leads to eventual cell death. Other environmental factors that influence the mitochondria negatively include medications like NSAIDS ( ex: ibuprofen), antidepressants, anti-seizures medications, certain antibiotics, anti-diabetic medications amongst others. A healthy body can usually recover from these momentary injurious agents, but a weak body, or a body already overwhelmed by excessive production of ROS, triggers the body’s inflammatory response and chronic disease cascade.
So what’s a person to do in this modern age to keep the cell mitochondria healthy? And if you have Autism or another chronic condition, what can you do to turn your health around? There is hope, and there are lots of steps you can begin to take to on your own.
Start by reducing your stress reactions by controlling your thoughts and having an attitude of gratitude, practicing meditation, getting adequate sleep, and avoiding stressful situations when possible. Take leisurely walks in Nature (woods) and get good clean air away from the smog of the city. Filter the air in your home to keep the pollution out. Leave your shoes by the door so you don’t drag residue into your home. Maintain an ideal weight for your body type. Eat 5-7 servings daily of foods that are rich in antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E, OPC’s (oligomeric proanthocyanidins) a type of plant polyphenol and flavonols . These compounds are found in strongly pigmented foods like blueberries, red grapes, green tea and dark chocolate. Eat healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, omega-3 fish oil, omega-9 primrose oil, about 4tsp per day total. Eat lean protein from organic sources as much as possible. Exercise daily to get plenty of oxygen to the mitochondria, as oxygen primes the mitochondria’s pump.
In addition to your self-care and healthy lifestyle, find an integrative or functional medicine doctor, or naturopath, to test your mitochondrial function, and determine where the problems lie in the Krebs cycle, and get you on the right nutrients and supplements in a targeted way. Many supplements are on the market now, and you are much better served by having a trained doctor guide you through the maze of which supplement to choose, at what dose, what combination of ingredients, and for how long you might need them. Your functional doctor will sort out if you need CoQ10, L-carnitine, Ribose, NAD, amino acids ,Lipoic acid and many other vitamins and minerals ,and in what doses.
If you have a child with autism, ADHD, depression, fatigue, or a known inflammatory disorder, inquire about the specialized tests that we can run that will help to determine exactly what we can do to correct the mitochondrial dysfunction, and ease the body burden of free radical damage.