Optimising energy in our body is important for health of mind and body, in adding life to our days as well as days to our life. Current and recent research discussed here seems to be moving into more alignment with traditional and holistic approaches to healing and medicine. Also, some key aspects to health are becoming more clearly the leverage points to focus our efforts on for optimum health.
Mitochondria and micro-biome (our bodies micro-organisms) are two of these key aspects to total health throughout life. They are both impacted by our outer environment and inner environment which includes lifestyle, diet, our mental states and levels of stress. In this article we take a look at new insights and practical things we can do for mitochondrial health and functioning.
Mitochondria are more than just the power plants for all of the cells in our body. They are key players in a busy two-way exchange of information with each other, other organelles, other cells and a multitude of regulating systems throughout the body. There are thousands in each cell. They have evolved from bacteria and have many similar types of behaviour, including their life cycle dynamics, reproduction and migration based on demand for their functionality and the suitability of their micro-environments.
Maintaining youthful energy, appearance and body function is very much reliant on these little cellular power houses. In their role as energy producers they utilise electrons from oxygen we breathe with nutrients we consume to generate ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which is the chemical and electro-charged packets of energy our cells use to remain animated, alive and do pretty much anything. The liver, kidneys, heart and brain have some of the highest concentrations of mitochondria in the body. We want an abundance of mitochondria that are healthy and efficient for every function of our body to be operating well, including our metabolism, immunity, heart and brain health along with our body’s ability to keep adapting to stressors and rebuild itself continually.
Mitochondria have a lot to do with your biological age which can be radically different to your chronological age. Biomarkers for biological age also include telomere length (ends of DNA strands), cholesterol LDL, glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity. Mitochondrial functioning has much to do with cognitive and other brain functioning as much as every other active process in the body including all metabolic and neural processes. Maintaining high functioning and numbers of mitochondria ensures ample energy for body functioning, dealing with oxidative stress, immunity and keeping cell life cycles (cell death and cell reproduction) up with the body’s wear and tear from ageing and stressors.
A Systematic View – Stress and Mitochondria
In recent decades, biology and epigenetic (the study of organism changes in relation to modifications of genetic expression) research is looking at the body and the living environment as interrelated and interdependent communities on a cellular level. Stressors and health conditions are relative to adaptability and interactions between systems rather than just two isolated players being a single stressor and the effected organs. Stressors don’t cause disease, but our response to stressors on every level, including our psychology, can set up systemic changes that can lead to disease.
Mitochondria are important players in most of the systems in the body. In terms of energy they are integral aspects of heat, ATP production, membrane potential of cells and are substrates for epigenetic modifications. Research at the Philadelphia Hospital, has been developing understanding of a relationship between mutation variations of mitochondria in response to mental and environmental stressors with body and brain illnesses.
In terms of the highly complex bio-chemical and bio-electrical information highways of the body, mitochondria also play key roles in responding to and impacting circulation, activation and cross-over of information between hormones, DNA, epigenomes (compounds that tell genes what to do) and proteins which include cellular memories of past exposure to physical and psychological, real or imagined stressors. These are at the heart of our adaptation to internal and external stress (Picard, McEwan, et al., 2018). Stress adaptation requires energy whether it is to adapt to physical, emotional or mental stressors. In a recent article ‘An energetic view of stress: Focus on mitochondria’, Picard and McEwan comment that all energetic functions including neural pathways of the brain require mitochondrial energy which comes with a collaborative and two-way functional level of communication.
Gene expression, cell division, growth, death and regulation can be presumed to be coupled with mitochondrial metabolic signals. It’s all about communication and working together as a complex community as well has health and functioning of separate parts. Mitochondria are in the centre of the coupling of the energetic environment with cellular behaviour through a multifaceted set of mechanisms and pathways. These include epigenetic modifications at a cellular level and production of stress hormones as part of the body’s adaption to changes in conditions.
In the absence of real stress, these stress hormones can ‘dysregulate metabolism’ which is associated with conditions like insulin resistance and pre-diabetic states, weight gain due to metabolic disruption from high levels of insulin and leptin-hormones. This is why purely mental stress, especially if its chronic, can contribute and create havoc and chronic health conditions over time.
Mitochondria and glucocorticoids are an example of chaotic loops we can get into. Glucocorticoids are powerful hormones with many roles including how we use sugar and fat and curb inflammation. In a reciprocal sense mitochondria are not only the source of systemic signalling molecules like glucocorticoids but are also affected by them. Therefore, certain degenerative cycles can develop as well as healthy functional ones. Leaving out much of the scientific detail, mitochondrial energetics may be tied in with functional or dysfunctional epigenetic regulation of the brain, food and energy seeking behaviours, along with psychological states such as depression and complex social behaviours.
Systemic and environmental factors in relation to gene expression and cellular function is a more recent specialised field. This research is pioneering stuff, the latest paper only out a month ago. It is shedding new views on the relationship of mitochondria and stress, exploring the mechanisms of a highly complex interaction of systems that ties stress and mitochondrial disease in a viscous circle that unchecked is related to inflammatory, metabolic, and neuroendocrine conditions that we are seeing more and more in the modern world. These insights are shedding new light on stress influences with cancer and metastasis; diabetes; neurogenerative disorders as well as cell ageing and age related physical and cognitive decline. The implication is understanding and scientifically refining holistic approaches to disease including consideration of mitochondrial function.
As a final note, it is interesting that females and males have qualitatively different mitochondria. Mitochondria inheritance in both sexes is from the mother’s lineage only, but there is gender variance because sex hormones also regulate mitochondria throughout life from conception. Picard and McEwin conclude that studies must differentiate and include both sexes based on the sex differences in mitochondria, stress physiology and disease risk.
Key aspects to healthy functioning mitochondria are:
- Lifestyle, mental and physical health
- A healthy diet, predominantly plant-based, which includes Intermittent Fasting
- Exercise and exposure to acute temperature changes
- Supplementation if needed
Brief intermittent fasting and caloric restriction can help activate mitochondria, because during fasting the body relies on lipids and stored fats for energy, and this is the role of your mitochondria. Twelve hours plus of no food intake between dinner and breakfast can be sufficient to trigger many healthy responses to fasting. However, if fasting also includes some daily activity time, so energy levels need boosting by demand in activity, then NAD+ levels will increase to assist production of ATP in the mitochondria. Stimulation of NAD+ is also good for the many anti-ageing and metabolic functions it is crucial including improving mitochondrial functioning (Houtkooper, Auwerx, 2012). Thus a weekly, fortnightly or monthly day time or even 36 hour plus Fast, can be great to boost health and years to your life as well as dealing with any unhealthy fat.
Also during fasting, autophagy (cellular death) increases as the body goes into clearing out damaged cells and consuming those for added energy, so that dysfunctional mitochondria are reduced and mitochondrial synthesis is stimulated.
Exercise has similar benefits to fasting, in terms of energy demand activating and improving mitochondrial function. In addition, exercise increases the need for oxygen throughout the body and provides it through the heavy breathing of high intensity exercise, increasing the number and functioning of mitochondria in muscles and metabolically related organs (Menshikova, Ritov, et al., 2006).
Acute cold temperatures seem do do a lot of good things for the nervous system and cells. Tests on mice shows a profound effect on mitochondrial generation and numbers by increasing a protein for mitochondrial synthesis (Chung, Park, Lim, 2017). While we may not want to do it, another study showed prolonged cold produced significant benefits in smooth and skeletal muscles and vital organs. Nonetheless, this shows acute and prolonged adaptation to changes in temperature is good for our mitochondria. So end a shower with a burst of cold. Don’t loose the ability to enjoy an invigorating dive into a cold ocean or river and bracing yourself against a brisk wind! Maintaining resilience and robustness from exposure to natures elements is inherent in our evolution and hard wiring.
Key principles for a mitochondrial friendly diet is to:
Stay Away from Sugars, Processed Foods and don’t over do some grains: simple sugars lack nutrients and are absorbed too rapidly for mitochondria to burn them up efficiently causing increased fat and free radical damage. Highly processed sugars, such as white sugar, simple processed carbs and sweet soda’s, are treated as toxins in the body. Some grains turn to simple sugars quickly also, depending on your constitution, so be careful of overdoing grains. Get fibre and carbs through a range of foods – vary root vegetables through the week, include a variation of grains, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes.
Eating the rainbow: a broad range of colours each day means a broad range of phytonutrients for your cells and information exchange with your bacteria. Leafy greens and sulphur-rich veggies like cauliflower, cabbage, kale and spinach help your body produce glutathione which is a key nutrient in anti-oxidation which involves the mitochondria and directly affects cellular heath.
Fatty acids: Omega-3 (in coloured fish, and a broad range of plant based oils) provide more efficient energy production by mitochondria with less free radical by-products than fuelling them with high amounts of carbohydrates. Fatty Acids like Omega-3 are also important in reducing chronic inflammation in the body.
Balance is needed in any diet and many experts suggest the Mediterranean diet as a good guide. Carbohydrates like pasta and root vegetables (not over-cooked) are balanced with plenty of vegetables, small sides of meat for meat eaters (traditionally small serves of white meats or seafood), quality olive oil, avocado and oils from various nuts. Not too many rich dressings and sauces. High sources of Omega-3 are seafood such as wild salmon, sardine and mackerel. In meats, high cuts of grass fed beef have Omega-3. Nuts (walnuts, cashews and brazil nuts) and seeds like flax (fresh flax as it goes rancid quickly, especially once its grounded or extracted) and also chia seeds are excellent. Also high on the list include mustard oil, deep green seaweeds as well as wild rice. Mung beans are the best of the beans. Vegetables like leafy greens, winter squashes, the cabbage family (especially cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts) are excellent for Omega-3. Omega-3 containing fruits include most berries, mangoes, and Honeydew melons.
Diet is king as natural fresh foods contain countless combinations of micro- and macro-nutrients and important genetic information for our cells – especially our mitochondria and micro-biome.
Here are eight key supplements that have stood out in my research, that can assist mitochondrial function as a back up to dietary sources:
- BioPQQ (Polyquinoline Quinone) Human trials show some indications this can promote mitochondrial biogenesis (creation of new mitochondria).
- Magnesium This is an important mineral for mitochondria as well as for repairing damage to DNA and other aspects of longevity. Studies suggest 70-80% of people in developed western countries may be low in Magnesium. A quality supplement that includes quality natural nutrients to assist in its absorption is best. Eat plenty of deep green plant foods and berries.
- B-Vitamins (including riboflavin, thiamine and B6) The whole Vitamin B family are co-factors for mitochondrial efficiency and functioning (especially nicotinamide in the B-3 family) and so are also linked to healthy ageing. Some studies suggest that as we get older our cells don’t absorb certain B vitamins as well as they used to, so Vit-B supplementation may be more valuable as we get older.
- Nitric Oxides These are also linked to mitochondrial health as well as cardiovascular health, and certain amino’s like L-Arginine and L-Citrulline can help increase Nitric Oxide production in the body.
- Alpha Lipoic Acid ALA supports the functioning and healthy life cycle of mitochondria.
- CoQ10 (or ubiquinol – it’s active extraction) is suggested in some studies to support mitochondrial respiration and metabolic regulation in addition to supporting liver, heart and cardio-vascular health. It is fat soluble so take with healthy oils like coconut, sesame, olive or avocado. According to Dr.Mercola foods rich in C0Q10 include grass fed beef, sesame seeds, Herring, Broccoli, organic pastured chicken and cauliflower.
- L-Carnitine shuttles fatty acids to the mitochondria assisting with fat burning and mitochondrial functioning.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids supplements that are algae plant based can be helpful, especially where some food sources are limited. Fish Oil capsules are best used if you have a diagnosed deficiency because they can be too rich for some people, then act as immunity suppressants. Freshness needs to be checked for all oil supplements, even opening capsules before ingesting to check they are not rancid from months at room temperature is recommended.