Life can be stressful. Actually, life IS stressful. And sometimes it's a little too much for our bodies and minds to handle. Our physical response to stress is a release of hormones and mediators that affect our blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, digestion, and our focus and concentration. Initially, that response serves us well, but when it's triggered again and again, eventually we burn out.
Chronic stress drains us in more ways than one.
This wayward response places burden on our mitochondria and thus drains our internal reserves. The mitochondria are organelles present in every cell of the body and have the important job of producing energy for the cell and organ in which it resides. Additional functions of the mitochondria include the generation of oxygen compounds that play an important role in metabolism, biochemical homeostasis, improvement of immune defenses against infection, and regulation of the rate of natural cell death. So when mitochondria are overworked, these functions become inefficient, our muscles don’t contract as well, delivery of oxygen and nutrients is less effective, circadian rhythms become irregular, and inflammation ensues. We become exhausted, and when we're exhausted we get irritable, have less patience, and nothing seems right with the world.
Restoring balance takes time and a tailored approach.
It is difficult to avoid all stress in life and I would argue some stress is actually a healthy challenge to our body. But when that stress becomes too much, we need to support our overwhelmed systems and we need to counteract the effects of overworked mitochondria. I often counsel patients on exactly how to do this, and here are a few of my favorite recommendations:
1. Support the mitochondria.
These organelles are made up of a chain of five enzymes, all of which require cofactors. Cofactors are vitamins and a mainstay of my "mitochondrial cocktail" is coenzyme Q10. Affectionately called CoQ10, this is an important vitamin to help transfer electrons between three of the enzymes of the enzyme chain. Not only does it boost mitochondrial function, but it also functions as a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. I also add L-carnitine and lipoic acid to further improve the enzymatic reactions that lead to the production of energy.
2. Adopt an anti-inflammatory diet.
Foods that are pro-inflammatory force the mitochondria to work harder, so avoid processed foods, sugar, dairy, and animal sources of protein to protect your energy stores. These foods overwhelm the machinery of the mitochondria as they try to scavenge the toxic free radicals that are formed during the metabolism of these foods. Conversely, fruits and vegetables contain very potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds that assist the mitochondria and offer them some relief.
3. Don't forget to exercise.
When we move oxygen and challenge our cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems, we provide the mitochondria with additional oxygen molecules, nutrients, and substrates—such as fatty acids and elements—for energy production. In addition, exercise forces our nervous system to connect with receptors on our muscles, heart, and lungs. It’s akin to checking in with an old friend to make sure everything is OK.
Small changes can have exponential effects on just how tired and overwhelmed you feel. Also understand that these efforts to improve our energy production and foster efficiency among our organ systems has a multitude of benefits including increased energy, lowered anxiety and depression, improved cognition, improved pain, better sleep, and avoidance of the plague of common maladies such as hypertension, diabetes, fibromyalgia, autoimmunity, and migraines. The body and mind are connected so that very often one healthy change in our lifestyle will have incredible collateral benefits.
Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., is a board-certified neurologist practicing integrative pediatric and adult neurology in Seattle. She is the owner and founder of the Center for Healing Neurology and is on the faculty of Seattle Children’s Hospital. Her holistic approach includes full neurological care with the addition of acupuncture, neurofeedback, and herbal and nutritional guidance. She received her M.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and completed her neurology training at the University of Washington in Seattle. In addition to becoming a certified medical acupuncturist, she has also completed the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the University of Arizona. Her Ph.D. doctoral dissertation studied the effects of environmental toxins on our nation’s water systems.