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Introduction to mitochondria
Basic biology teaches that cells are the "building blocks of life" but a cell has building blocks too. These cell building blocks include organelles (organelles literally means little organs). In animal cells, mitochondria are among those organelles. Mitochondria are found in every cell that has a nucleus. In the human body, that means mitochondria are present in every cell except red blood cells.
Mitochondria (the plural of mitochondrion) are often referred to as the “powerhouses of the cell” or “the energy factories of the cell.” They create energy for the cell, thus for our bodies. Think of mitochondria as the digestive system of a cell: they take in nutrients, break them down, and keep the cell full of energy.
The energy that mitochondria create is called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Mitochondria make ATP through a sequence of reactions called the Krebs cycle, also known as the citric acid cycle or TCA cycle (tricarboxylic acid cycle). The final and perhaps most important step of this Krebs Cycle is called the electron transport chain where a majority of the ATP is created. Along with ATP, mitochondria also release byproducts like carbon dioxide, water, and free radicals. In moderation, free radicals can help us fight infection, but in excess they are injurious, they damage cell tissue and cause inflammation. ApoEε4s are already pro-inflammatory, so it’s in our best interest to keep free radical production, thus inflammation, down.
There are many mitochondria in the body, they make up 10% to 20% of the body by weight. Mitochondria are always working, at any given moment in time a person will only have 6 seconds of ATP left in the body. A person can go 3 days without water, but can’t go more than 6 seconds without ATP. That’s why cyanide is effective as a poison, it disrupts the electron transport chain of the mitochondria.
Mitochondria generate energy for the cell. Some cells need more energy than others, so those cells have more mitochondria. A cell can have hundreds to several thousand mitochondria depending on the function of the cell. The brain, heart, and retina have the most mitochondria and are the ones to suffer first when energy demand exceeds supply. Mitochondria lose their efficiency and become progressively dysfunctional with age. Mitochondrial dysfunction is a key factor in a myriad of diseases, including neurodegenerative and metabolic disorders.
The fundamental units of the brain and nervous system, neurons, require massive amounts of energy to function and can die if they don’t have a constant supply of ATP. To put things in perspective, the brain only makes up 3% of a body's weight, but it uses up 25% of the body's energy and it needs energy 24 hours a day. Anything that disrupts or impairs the brain’s ability to fuel itself has implications on cognition. The first priority of the mitochondria is to keep your cells oxygenized and blood pumping, in other words, basic survival, other functions such as cognitive thinking, is a secondary task, so cognition will suffer in order if mitochondria are unable to keep up with all their demands.
Degraded mitochondria is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s. Whether or not the poorly functioning mitochondria is causing Alzheimer’s is still under discussion, but regardless of if degraded mitochondria are causing, or a consequence, of Alzheimer’s, assuredly optimal mitochondria health sets the foundation for overall health and clear thought.
Mitochondria are shaped to maximize their energy production. They are made of two membranes: an outer membrane that cover the organelle, like a skin, and the inner membrane with multiple folds for increased surface area for chemical reactions to occur. Although typically represented as that bean-like shape in the accompanying graphic, mitochondria are very dynamic, they can change shape, interconnect like a power grid, travel within a cell (a neuronal axon can be a meter long, and mitochondria can travel from the cell body to the extreme end of the synapse where the energy is needed and then back), they can divide to increase their numbers, or fuse with other mitochondrion, all to accommodate the needs of the cell.
It is thought that mitochondria descended from independent bacteria, so as organelles, they act a little different but they live symbiotically inside a cell now. Mitochondria have their own DNA and send DNA coded instructions to the nucleus of the cell and vice versa. While a cell has just one nucleus with one genome, there are many mitochondria in a cell each carry multiple genome copies and these copies vary within a cell. Within one person some mitochondria genomes might be healthy, but other defective, and different cells can have different proportions of affected mitochondria within them. In addition to producing ATP, mitochondria play other crucial roles including calcium homeostasis, metabolism, reactive oxygen species generation, apoptosis (determining which cells should die), intercellular communications, and stress responses.
It doesn’t appear that ApoEε4s have weaker mitochondria, but there is at least one study that identified ApoE4 as more sensitive than E3s or E2s to the damaging free radicals that the mitochondria produce. Therefore it is advisable that ApoEε4s employ extra diligence in strategies to maximize the health of one’s mitochondria. How well your mitochondria function and age depend on three basic components:
- The mitochondria you inherited. Inheritance determines an individual's baseline mitochondrial function and durability. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited solely from the mother. This is why risk for Alzheimer’s Disease is higher in people who have a maternal history of it.
- What you’re exposing your mitochondria to that causes dysfunction, i.e. nutritional deficiencies, hormonal deficiencies, toxins, stress, etc.
- What you’re exposing your mitochondria to keep them running efficiently and/or making them stronger.
Strategies to improve (or reduce damaging) mitochondrial function
Our modern lifestyle and diets create a very damaging vicious circle of inflammation and oxidation. Most common disorders and diseases today are inflammation-oxidation based. When inflammation is initiated, it stimulates the production of highly destructive free radicals (molecules with unpaired electrons) called reactive oxygen species (ROS). When there is an imbalance between the amount of ROS and antioxidants in the body, the result is oxidative stress. Oxidative stress causes both genetic and mitochondrial damage, which in turn signals NF-κB ,the master protein that directs all inflammatory processes, to unleash an inflammatory cascade.
Oxidative stress is considered one of the main causes of modern diseases. It’s both the cause, as well as the result, of imbalanced oxidation.
Below are recommendations to help prevent mitochondrial damage and to improve mitochondrial function. This list is not all-inclusive.
Dr Bruce H. Cohen is a neurologist at Northeast Ohio Medical University and an expert in mitochondrial disease. As cited in this article The Care and Feeding of Your Mitochondria Cohen says that one of the chief reasons our mitochondria deteriorate is that we eat an excess of poor-quality foods and a deficit of healthy ones. The empty calories of sugars, flours, and other processed foods force mitochondria to burn through a great deal of junk — generating free radicals and inflammation as they go — before useful nutrients can be siphoned out. Unless we eat plenty of phytonutrients (natural chemicals that are found in plant foods), antioxidants (compounds that inhibit oxidation), healthy fats, proteins, and fiber, we aren’t giving our bodies the basic tools they need to repair the damage.
Dr Terry Wahls is another expert on mitochondria. She tells her personal inspirational story in this Tedx talk Minding your mitochondria. In short, Dr Wahls was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2000. MS is a neurodegenerative disease and dysfunctional mitochondria play a role in neurodegenerative diseases. Her condition progressed such that she became confined to a tilt-recline wheelchair, a situation that lasted for four years. She sought out the best that conventional medicine had to offer, but it did very little. So she took matters into her own hands, relearned biochemistry, cellular physiology, and neuroimmunology, dove into available research, and connected with Functional Medicine. She restored her health, leaving her wheelchair by using a diet and lifestyle program she designed specifically for her brain. In addition to being a clinical professor and conducting clinical trials that test the effect of nutrition and lifestyle interventions to treat MS and other progressive health problems, she is also an author.
As Dr Wahls says in her book, The Wahls Protocol, “Cellular nutrition is everything. It is the very basis of health. It all comes down to the cell, because when the cells malfunction, eventually organs malfunction. When organs malfunction, eventually you malfunction."
Dr Wahls’s book outlines how she repaired her mitochondria. Wahls follows a diet similar to how our ancestors ate (Paleo). She recommends avoiding foods containing gluten, as well as dairy products, eggs, processed meats containing nitrates, and anything sweetened with sugar. Wahls also recommends avoiding all grains, legumes, peanuts, and soy. In addition to removing those foods, Wahls recommends eating nine cups of vegetables and fruits daily, including three greens (broccoli, bok choy, etc.), three deeply colored (beets, carrots, etc.), and three rich in sulfur (cauliflower, cabbage, etc.).
Foods to avoid
(not an all inclusive list)
- Gluten. Even if you test negative for celiac disease, gluten causes inflammation. From neurologist Dr David Permutter’s book, The Grain Brain:
- Gluten isn’t just an issue for those with bona fide celiac disease,...Increasing numbers of studies are confirming the link between gluten sensitivity and neurological dysfunction. This is true even for people who have no problems digesting gluten and who test negative for gluten sensitivity.
- Diary products. From Dave Asprey’s book Head Strong, (bold font added to emphasize effects on mitochondria):
- But even people who are not lactose intolerant are often sensitive to the main protein in dairy products, casein. Casein has a similar molecular structure to gluten, and people who are sensitive to one are often also sensitive to the other. In many people, casein breaks down into casomorphin, which binds to the opiate receptors in your brain and makes you feel sedated. Even worse, milk protein isolates are common ingredients in popular “keto” or “low-carb” protein bars. This is not what you want in a highly performing brain! Milk protein causes inflammation, which lowers mitochondrial function. Milk protein also binds to the good-for-you polyphenols in your diet (like the ones found in your coffee!) and makes them unavailable to your body—and your mitochondria. When you put milk protein isolates and casein into your coffee by adding milk, half-and-half, cream, or other creamers, the polyphenols become 3.4 times less absorbable in your body.4 The same thing happens if you use black coffee to wash down a milk protein–based “keto protein bar.” So not only does milk protein directly change your mitochondria for the worse, it also prevents you from absorbing the nutrients that can repair and strengthen your mitochondria.
- Vegetable oils. Oxidative stress in a bottle, that’s what Dr Catherine Shanahan, MD board certified Family Physician trained in biochemistry and genetics science, and author of three books on nutrition, calls vegetable oils (corn oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, sunflower oil, canola oil). In her interview by Naomi Whittel from 'The Real Skinny on FFat' documentary series, Dr Shanahan said:
- Cigarette smoking is bad for us because it promotes oxidative stress and oxidative stress is the great disease maker. But vegetable oils are oxidative stress in a bottle. And I've come out and said that if you have a choice between giving up your cigarette habit or your vegetable oil habit, keep the cigarettes because vegetable oil is worse for you. Cigarette smoking, you inhale it, your lungs get affected, your arteries get affected and some of the excretory pathways get hit heavy, but vegetable oil goes to every single cell in your body because every single cell has a membrane that has to be made out of fat and some of these fats are going to be the essential fats and they're going to be requesting this kind of stuff. And so your brain is built out of these polyunsaturated fatty acids. The lipoprotein circulating in your arteries have way too much of this stuff and they're all going to be susceptible to this kind of free radical cascade, the polymerization reaction that completely disrupts normal cellular function.
- Vegetable oils are easily replaceable with healthy oils such as olive oil, avocado oil, macadamia nut oil and others. Recognize that most restaurants, especially fast food restaurants, cook with damaging vegetable oils because they’re so cheap.
- Sugars. It takes more effort for the body to burn sugar than fat. Before the mitochondria can process sugars, they have to undergo a process called glycolysis, a sequence of ten enzyme-catalyzed reactions. This process causes more oxidative stress and creation of free radicals. Today’s modern diets consume a huge amount of sugars in comparison to amounts consumed from an evolutionary standpoint, our body has great difficulty coping with the amount of sugar it is currently being fed and we’re burning out our mitochondria with sugar. Don’t use artificial sweeteners instead, they’ve also been associated with increased reactive oxygen species. Keep sweets to a rare treat on special occasions.
- Transfats. Small amounts of trans fats are found naturally in meat and dairy. Artificial transfats were introduced in the 1950s in packaged foods, shortening, and margarine. Transfats cause inflammation and increases the damage to cell membranes and mitochondria. Evidence is limited, but trans fats from natural sources do appear to be less harmful than artificial ones. Artificial transfats offered a hardened source of fat with stability so foodstuffs such as cookies could be stocked in grocery stores and not turn greasy, mushy, or rancid over time. However, over time negative health effects became evident and in 2015, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required elimination of trans fats from all food prepared in the United States by 18 June 2018. However according to 7 Foods That Still Contain Trans Fats products can still be distributed until January 2020, or in some cases 2021. Many other countries also have legal limits to trans fat content.
- Alcohol. Limit consumption or eliminate altogether, damaging to mitochondria.
- Non-organic foods. Foods sprayed with chemicals such as pesticides and insecticides increase oxidative stress.
- Fried foods/overcooked foods. High-temperature cooking, deep frying, grilling, and sautéing destroys nutrients and antioxidants in food thus making them more pro-inflammatory. Meat cooked at high temperatures create advanced glycation end products (AGEs) which contribute to increased oxidative stress [source: Advanced glycation end products, oxidative stress and diabetic nephropathy (Sho-ichi Yamagishi and Takanori Matsui, Mar-Apr 2010)]. Frying damages fats and makes them toxic. Even healthy fats can be damaged (oxidized) by cooking at high temperatures.
- Foods prone to hold mold toxins. Mold toxins are particularly toxic to your mitochondria. Avoid food products that are prone to hold mold toxins or go with quality products that are less likely to have mold toxins. Those most likely to hold mold toxins: coffee, dried fruit, wine, beer (gluten free, if you must), chocolate, nuts and corn.