Mitochondria: Beyond Just a Powerhouse

What are mitochondria?

Mitochondria are organelles that exist inside of most of your cells.  What is so special about them?  They are the literal powerhouses of your cells.  Your mitochondria are responsible for turning the fuel that you put into your body into a form of energy that allows your body to run all of its different processes.  Mitochondria are like the engine of your car, they run you.  So, the vitally important process of cellular respiration and ATP (energy) production occurs in the mitochondria.  ATP (or adenosine triphosphate) is an energy currency inside of your cells that is involved in various cellular processes.   Further, mitochondria are free-radical scavenging which reduce your oxidative stress and play a critical role in determining how you age.

The number of mitochondria vary depending on the energy demands of each cell.  For example, your red blood cells do not have mitochondria, however your heart and liver cells have a lot of them.  Did you know that your heart, kidneys, liver and brain combined are less than 10% of your body weight but consume about 60% of your body’s energy?  These organs have the most number of mitochondria, which means if your mitochondria are not functioning optimally they are going to be impacted the most.

What leads to mitochondrial dysregulation and dysfunction?

Mitochondria, like cells and other organelles, begin to age and break down, a normal process called mitophagy.  It’s when the damaged mitochondria hang around in our cells that we can start to have problems.  Your body needs to be able to robustly recognize and remove damaged mitochondria and replace them with new and healthy ones.  Lingering damaged mitochondria impact your energy level, increase the production of reactive oxygen species, age you faster and cause inflammation.  In turn, the process of aging, micronutrient deficiency, oxidative stress, and inflammation themselves can lead to mitochondrial damage.  So, understanding this crosstalk is important in order to avoid the vicious cycle.

What is the outcome of mitochondrial dysfunction?

Allopathic medicine is just catching up with and recognizing the role of mitochondrial dysfunction in most all metabolic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.  In naturopathic medicine we have been emphasizing the importance of the health of your mitochondria for some time and now we have the research to back it up.  So, lets delve into a couple of these a bit more.

Cancer: Mitochondria are important enough that they have their own DNA: you have nuclear DNA inside of your cells as well as mitochondrial DNA.  Mitochondria are controlled by both.  “Mitochondrial dysfunction induced by chemical depletion of mitochondrial DNA or impairment of mitochondrial respiratory chain in cancer cells promotes cancer progression to a chemoresistance or invasive phenotype”. (1) What does this means in plain English?  Cancerous cells have an altered metabolism through increased glucose uptake and damaged mitochondria that allows them to grow, proliferate and become invasive in the presence of free radicals and oxidative stress.  The metabolic/mitochondrial dysregulation is believed to be responsible for cancer cells becoming invasive as well as unresponsive or resistant to treatments such as chemotherapy.  This field is showing enough promise that doctors and researchers are now using metabolic therapy as an effective form of adjunctive cancer treatment. (1,2)

Neurodegeneration: Mitochondrial dysfunction has also shown to play a critical role in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and others.  We now understand and know that with many of these neurodegenerative illnesses the disease process began 2-3 decades prior to the onset of symptoms, partially due to life-style and other factors (epigenetics) that ultimately adversely impact your metabolic and mitochondrial health .  Oxidative damage as well as structural changes in mitochondria are factors that result in mitochondrial dysfunction and ultimately cell death. (3,4)

Depression, headaches and migraines, fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, chronic pain and hormonal imbalances could also all be signs, symptoms and manifestations of mitochondrial dysregulation. (5)

How to enhance and improve mitochondrial function?

So, how worried should you be about the health of your mitochondria?  Not too worried if you are in the camp that believes in epigenetic and life-style factors that can positively impact your susceptibility to these diseases and if you are taking active steps in educating yourself on ways to prevent chronic and metabolic diseases and optimize your health.

Epigenetic factors: Since we have used the term epigenetics a couple of times in this article lets define it.  Epigenetics refers to factors that can modify your gene expression without changing your genetic code.  They are mainly your environmental and life-style factors that play a crucial role in your mitochondrial health as well as your overall health.  They are sleep, exercise, diet (especially one focused on using fat for fuel vs sugar) or fasting, stress management, and healthy and nurturing relationships.

I place lifestyle factors at the top of this list because they are that important and you have the power to make significant impact in this area.  Lets take sleep for example — sleep is perhaps the most undervalued aspect of health.  Do you view sleep as a waste of time or something for lazy people?  Or even feel guilty for getting a full night of restful sleep?  Your body heals and regenerates during sleep.  It’s during a deep and restful night of sleep that your brain gets to process the waste and detoxify.  Chronic sleep deprivation will lead to systemic inflammation and add to your oxidative stress which will in turn make your mitochondria suffer.  Sleep is crucial for brain health, for proper functioning of your immune system, for preventing excess release of stress hormones, for regulating your blood sugar levels and energy.  We will discuss other life-style factors in more depth in future articles.

Metabolic support: Refers to replenishing micronutrient deficiencies.  B vitamins, magnesium, CoQ10, vitamin C and other vitamins and minerals are all cofactors that are needed for biochemical processes to take place inside of your mitochondria.  Without adequate levels of these cofactors, pathways that determine your mood, energy and proper detoxification will be impaired.  A study, published in the American Journal of Cardiology showed that CoQ10, a strong antioxidant, lowers cardiovascular mortality as well as all cause mortality.  Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is another effective therapeutic modality being used, among other reasons, for its impact on metabolism.  During the treatment, you are breathing at an atmospheric pressure that is higher than normal and inhaling hyperbaric oxygen that increases tissue oxygenation by saturating the plasma.  HBOT in conjunction with other metabolic therapies is currently being researched for it’s anti-cancer effects. (6)

Lipid support: Mitochondria have two membranes and both the inner and the outer membranes of mitochondria are made of phospholipids and protein, similar to the phospholipid bilayer membrane of each of your cells.  Dietary fats change the chemical composition of these membranes, and the fatty acid composition of the membranes significantly impact your membrane function.  Therefore, both the quantity and quality of fats that you consume matter.  Bad quality, oxidized fats will add to your body’s oxidative stress and will damage your cell membranes as well as your mitochondrial membranes.  Stay away from rancid and hydrogenated oils, but even amongst the amazing and healthy polyunsaturated omega-3 fats the source matters, especially if you are consuming them at therapeutic doses.  Good fat sources include: olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, most nuts, like walnuts, almonds and cashews, grass-fed beef and grass-fed ghee.  Bad fat sources include: partially hydrogenated fats, trans-fats, margarine, canola oil, safflower oil and fat from non-grass fed animals.  We will dive into the importance of consuming good quality fats in future articles.

Oxidative stress mitigation: Antioxidants such as alpha lipoid acid (ALA), green tea (EGCG), N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), resveratrol, turmeric or curcumin, vitamin E, selenium, are all potent agents that can help lower your oxidative stress load.  Remember that mitochondria are free-radical scavengers, however increasing the rate at which these free-radicals are generated over what mitochondria are able to clean will lead to their damage.  Note that having a baseline (through testing) is important and we strongly advocate that you work with a healthcare professional to properly introduce and dose these antioxidants based on your needs.

Detoxification: Your ability to detoxify is directly correlated to how much energy you have and how resilient your immune system and overall body is when faced with stressors.  Remember that your liver is the master organ involved in both phase-I and phase-II detoxification and your liver also has an extremely high energy demand and need for optimally functioning mitochondria.  So, addressing life-style related chronic diseases such as type-II diabetes and metabolic syndrome, making sure you are breathing, sweating, moving your bowels regularly and adequately and staying away from environmental toxicants as much as possible are all ways that you can protect your liver and keep your elimination channels open.  At times, perhaps because of decades of unhealthy lifestyle or simply if you would like to expedite the process, intravenous and nebulized glutathione can be extremely helpful.  Glutathione is an amino acid and an antioxidant that plays a crucial role in your body’s detoxification pathways.

Take away message — optimizing your mitochondrial function is doable and it can start with practical life-style modifications.  Even proper breathing can help with proper oxygen transport and in turn healthy mitochondrial function.  So, lets start there.



1. Hsu, C. C., L. M. Tseng, and H. C. Lee. “Role of Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Cancer Progression.” Exp Biol Med (Maywood) 241.12 (2016): 1281-95. Print.

2. Liberti, M. V., and J. W. Locasale. “The Warburg Effect: How Does It Benefit Cancer Cells?” Trends Biochem Sci 41.3 (2016): 211-18. Print.

3. Lezi, E., and R. H. Swerdlow. “Mitochondria in Neurodegeneration.” Adv Exp Med Biol 942 (2012): 269-86. Print.

4. Reddy, P. H. “Amyloid Beta, Mitochondrial Structural and Functional Dynamics in Alzheimer’s Disease.” Exp Neurol 218.2 (2009): 286-92. Print.

5. Velarde, M. C. “Mitochondrial and Sex Steroid Hormone Crosstalk During Aging.” Longev Healthspan 3.1 (2014): 2. Print.

6. Poff, A. M., et al. “The Ketogenic Diet and Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Prolong Survival in Mice with Systemic Metastatic Cancer.” PLoS One 8.6 (2013): e65522. Print.


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