To get to the root cause of fatigue and many other common ailments, we need to revitalize the mitochondria, our body’s cellular power plants. Here are natural strategies to do so.
One of the most common reasons for seeking medical care is fatigue. Thirty-eight percent of the US workforce reported being fatigued in a recent study. Are so many of us simply not getting enough sleep, or working too hard? The real answers are likely internal—that is, our bodies are not producing enough energy at the cellular level. The mitochondria are the cellular components responsible for the vast majority of energy production, and dysfunctional mitochondria not only cause fatigue, but are the common denominator in many chronic diseases and even the aging process itself. Lifestyle, illness, and age can lead to mitochondrial dysfunction, but the good news is there are many natural strategies that can be used to rejuvenate our cellular powerhouses.
Mitochondria are known as the “battery” or energy source of the cell. These organelles are responsible for taking in nutrients, breaking them down, and creating adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the main energy unit of the cell. ATP provides at least 95 percent of the cellular energy that powers all living functions. When mitochondria do not function optimally, bad things happen. Mitochondrial dysfunction has been implicated in many, many common diseases, including early aging, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, cardiovascular disease, autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, dementia, and migraines.
A byproduct of this energy production is the formation of free radicals (also known as reactive oxygen species, or ROS). These are molecules that possess a “free” electron, which makes them react with other molecules in volatile and destructive ways. You may have come across the term “oxidative stress” which contributes to aging and plays a role in the onset of chronic disease. The primary source of oxidative stress in the body is mitochondrial dysfunction, specifically the leakage of oxygen and electrons from the mitochondria. This leakage increases when certain key nutrients are missing (more on this below).
Role in Aging and Disease
The mitochondrial theory of aging places the cellular powerhouse at the center of the aging process. As we age, three changes occur. Cells produce more free radicals that attack the mitochondria, naturally-occurring antioxidants that help protect mitochondria decline, and the accumulated damage to the mitochondria and mitochondrial DNA cause the mitochondria to decay, releasing even more free radicals. These processes are, according to this theory, at the very root of aging. Those who adhere to this theory believe that the number and functionality of the mitochondria can determine an individual’s longevity.
One study, for example, found that the muscle tissue of a 90-year-old man contained 95 percent damaged mitochondria compared to almost no damage in that of a 5 year-old. Mitochondrial dysfunction is also directly related to excess fatigue. Moderate to severe fatigue is caused on a cellular level by compromised energy production by the mitochondria, resulting in less energy available to the body.
The damage to mitochondria caused by free-radicals leads to abnormal cell signaling, premature cell senescence (when cells stop dividing), inflammation, and apoptosis (cell death). Lots of evidence points to mitochondrial dysfunction as a common denominator in many chronic diseases, as mentioned above.
Factors that Damage Mitochondria
There are a number of factors associated with increased damage to the mitochondria, including:
- Genetic susceptibility (particularly the ApoE4 gene, which is also a predictor for dementia and Alzheimer’s)
- Exposure to toxic metals and persistent organic pollutants
- Prescription drugs
- Pathogens and parasites
- Alcohol use
Prescription drugs is an important factor to consider, as many drugs damage mitochondria. For example, statins are known to deplete CoQ10, which is a crucial nutrient needed to protect mitochondria. Adding to the danger is that many patients take statins for a prolonged period. Other drugs that damage the mitochondria are acetaminophen, antibiotics, aspirin, diabetes drugs (thiazolidinediones, fibrates, biguanides) and NSAIDs.
Supporting Mitochondrial Function
A variety of nutrients can help keep your mitochondria healthy.
- CoQ10 deficiency means decreased ATP production and increased oxidative damage. CoQ10 is also an important antioxidant working amidst mitochondria where free radicals are produced. Research has shown a strong correlation between a species’ ability to produce CoQ10 and longevity.
- Alpha-lipoic acid and acetyl-L-carnitine support mitochondrial energy production, improving their efficiency and preventing damage.
- Resveratrol helps protect against free-radical damage and boosts mitochondrial energy production.
- N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) is a precursor to glutathione, a crucial antioxidant that protects mitochondria from free-radical damage.
- Vitamin E, another antioxidant, protects mitochondria from oxidative stress
- Omega-3 fatty acids improve mitochondrial function.
- Nicotene Adenine Dinucleotide (NADH) is another important antioxidant and helps maintain mitochondrial function.
Studies have also found that regular exercise helps prevent mitochondrial dysfunction in animal models. Caloric restriction has been correlated with positive changes in mitochondrial activity and decreased cell oxidative injury.
Our mitochondria may become compromised with age and illness, but this dysfunction can be prevented and reversed using some of the nutrients and strategies discussed above.
Health from the Ground Up: