A Neurologist Answers All Your Mitochondria Questions

Photo: Allef Vinicius

You may have heard some chatter about the mitochondria in the health and wellness world. And it's for good reason! The mitochondria are organelles in each cell that produce energy for all cellular functions. Despite being incredibly important to our overall health and wellness, understanding the concept of mitochondria—and mitochondrial dysfunction—is not a simple task. So let's dive into the science of the mitochondria and why they're important to your overall health.

Understanding mitochondria and what happens when they aren't functioning properly.

Mitochondrial disorders are largely due to a defect somewhere along the mitochondrial respiratory chain, which is made up of five enzyme complexes and two other complexes known as coenzyme Q10 and cytochrome C. These defects were once believed to originate from a mutation in the mitochondrial genome, as the mitochondria has its very own DNA. But then it was discovered that there are nuclear genes (which are different from mitochondrial genes) that control mitochondrial function.

Due to this dual control of the mitochondrial enzyme chain, defects can be found in either genes of the mitochondria or genes of the nucleus. To add to the complexity, mutations themselves are complex as there are multiple types of mutations and can be either a single gene or more than one gene. Depending on the gene, its location, and the mutation, symptoms may range from known clinical syndromes to still unknown syndromes to progressive symptoms that occur in total isolation. Mitochondria are present in every cell in the body and are numerous in cells that are highly metabolically active such as the brain, heart, and muscles, but a dysfunction of mitochondrial physiology can affect any organ.

Learning the difference between mitochondrial disease and mitochondrial deficit.

If we want to truly understand the mitochondria, it's important to distinguish mitochondrial disease from mitochondrial deficit. Disease occurs when there is a pathologic mutation and can be very severe and even fatal. They are usually of early in life onset, are debilitating, and are progressive. A deficit, on the other hand, usually does not declare itself until a later decade in life and can present with a multitude of symptoms that are not necessarily specific—although some are progressive as several neurodegenerative disorders have recently been associated with mitochondrial dysfunction. But systemic symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, dizziness, weakness, and gastrointestinal tract disorders can also be indicative of a failure of mitochondrial energy production.

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Why your diet and lifestyle matter when it comes to mitochondrial health.

You may be asking what this has to do with diet and lifestyle. Well, a deficit that exists can be exacerbated by added stress or burden on the mitochondria that are already working as hard as they can with what they’ve got. Luckily, we can control how we take care of ourselves and our mitochondria. Symptoms can be treated, but we should get straight to the root cause by boosting the effort of the mitochondria by choosing foods bursting with nutrients and, more specifically, contain the cofactors the enzymes of the mitochondria need such as B vitamins and vitamin C, to name a few. Other cofactors may need to be supplemented, and a true mitochondrial cocktail contains over 10 different ingredients. We should move each day to challenge them to keep working. We should sleep well so they get lots of restorative time, and we should control stress the best we can with the use of adaptogenic plants, meditation, and finding joy each day.

There is so much individual variability that it takes an in-depth understanding of the complexity of these energy powerhouses of our cells. A physician knowledgeable in mitochondrial physiology can be your best defense against the effects of mitochondria that are just not up to par.

Want to know more? Check out this video of leading functional medicine doctors talking about mitochondria at mbg revitalize 2017.

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