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Nutritional support for our mitochondria

In my clinical practice, probably the most common complaint that I hear from clients is about lack of energy. And this can present as tiredness or fatigue, but also lethargy, apathy, poor concentration and lack of motivation. Does any of this resonate with you?

Many people then turn to sugar, coffee or cigarettes or become ‘adrenalin junkies’ with high-powered jobs or exhilarating hobbies to regain a feeling of energy.

Energy is the currency of our body and modern life has created something of an ‘energy crisis’.  We all want more energy. We’re good at pushing hard and stealing sleep resulting in feeling exhausted for much of the time. 

Everyone understands ‘energy’. If we ask someone how they are, very often their answer is based on their energy levels – resulting in answers like I’m tired, I’m OK, I’m exhausted, and perhaps less often, I’m great!!

Many of us seem to have a dysfunctional energy metabolism resulting in persistent fatigue, high stress levels, weight gain and metabolic dysfunction.

So called ‘unexplained fatigue’ is commonplace, not only in adults but in children too.

With just a few dietary and lifestyle changes we can help our bodies generate better levels of energy.

Fatigue can be considered as a multi-dimensional sensation that is perceived as loss of overall energy – and can be caused by several different imbalances in the body.

When we start to look at possible causes of low energy, it can become complex and it is unlikely that just one factor is resulting in that fatigued feeling.

We can’t talk about energy in the body without talking about mitochondria as they are the energy powerhouses of the cells. They take the foods we eat and the oxygen we breathe and convert it to energy. They are cellular organelles which migrate throughout the cell, fuse and divide and undergo regulated turnover. The unique function of mitochondria is to generate life energy, some of it electrical but most as adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is the main energy currency of the body. The mitochondria account for 10% of our body weight and generate and consume the body’s weight in ATP every day! 

This energy fuels virtually every biochemical function in the body from protein synthesis and muscle contraction to digestive enzyme production and nerve conduction. The mitochondria accomplish this by using electrons, derived from the carbohydrate, fat and protein in our food to produce ATP. So the quality of our diet can have a direct impact on our body’s ability to make energy.

Cellular energy requirements control how many mitochondria are in each cell. A single cell can contain from 200 to 2000 mitochondria. The largest number of mitochondria are found in the most metabolically active cells, such as skeletal and cardiac muscle, liver and brain.

Interestingly mitochondria are the only other subcellular structure apart from the nucleus to contain DNA (MtDNA) and are inherited from your mother only. So while your nuclear DNA is composed of strands from both parents, mtDNA only comes from your mother. Unlike nuclear DNA they are not protected by a histone structure and are susceptible to damage from reactive oxygen-containing molecules. This damage can lead to a decline in energy production and may contribute to the ageing process. 

Without getting too technical, energy production is the result of two closely coordinated metabolic processes, the Krebs Cycle and the Electron Transport Chain (ETC). To pass through this cycle completely the enzymes which catalyse the process require vitamin and mineral cofactors including the B vitamins (B1, B2, B3 and B5), iron, magnesium, manganese, copper, zinc CoQ10 and lipoic acid. Diets deficient in micronutrients can accelerate mitochondrial decay and contribute to suboptimal energy production. An optimum intake of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) could tune up your metabolism.

Toxic metals, especially mercury but also lead and arsenic, generate many of their damaging effects through the formation of free radicals resulting in DNA damage and depletion of the body’s antioxidant reserve.

When our mitochondria aren’t working well our metabolism runs less efficiently. Problems occur because these organelles are so sensitive and easily damaged and when that happens we suffer from low energy, fatigue, memory loss pain and ageing.

So what do we do about it?

To optimise mitochondrial function and energy production a 3-part strategy is recommended:

  1. Provide the nutrients needed for optimal mitochondrial function

  2. Increase intake of antioxidants that protect the mitochondria

  3. Reduce exposure to factors that damage the mitochondria 

To optimise our nutrient intake we need to eat a wide range of colourful fruits and vegetables. Dr Terry Wahls has overcome her Multiple Sclerosis through changing her diet and lifestyle. In her book titled ‘Minding my Mitochondria” she recommends gradually increasing the number of servings per day with a goal of at least nine cups of vegetables and fruits per day. She states that three cups should be dark green vegetables (spinach, Swiss Chard or mustard greens) or from the cruciferous family (cabbage, kale, collards, broccoli).

Dr Wahls also discusses eating more omega-3 rich foods which includes “green leaves and animals that feed on green leaves. It also includes wild fish, because the bottom of the fish food chain is green algae, rich in omega-3 fats.” Additional options for omega-3 fatty acids are fish oil, flax, chia and hemp seeds, walnuts and their oils. These fats help to build your mitochondrial membranes.

A calorie appropriate, phytonutrient dense diet will provide a range of vitamins and minerals but will also provide great levels of ant-oxidants. Since mitochondria are particularly vulnerable to damaging reactive oxygen species we need to decrease our exposure to toxins in foods, personal care products, gardening products and home cleaning products and optimise our antioxidant intake. There are some specific food-derived bioactive compounds or phytochemicals that be hugely beneficial:

  • Green tea polyphenols

  • Quercetin found in apples, pears, cherries, green vegetables and cruciferous vegetables

  • Allicin found in garlic

  • Resveratrol found in fruits and best known from the skins of red grapes

  • Curcumin found in turmeric

  • Sulforaphanes found in cruciferous vegetables, e.g. broccoli

Particular nutrients that support mitochondrial function include the following:

  • Nutritional anti-oxidants (Vit A, C, E and glutathione)

  • Vitamin B complex – in methylated form

  • Acetyl-L-carnitine

  • Alpha lipoic acid

  • Magnesium

  • N-acetyl-cysteine

  • Coenzyme Q10

  • NADH 

  • Branched chain amino acids

It goes without saying that certain lifestyle factors are also going to impact energy levels.

Firstly, you need to get moving! Strength training increases the amount of muscle and the number of mitochondria and interval training increases the efficiency and function of your mitochondria. It is important to not only challenge your body with physical exercise but also your brain with cognitive exercise.

And the other obvious ones: Take a break from alcohol, take care of sleep and don’t smoke!

Here’s a summary to optimise your body’s ability to create energy:

  1. Eat a calorie appropriate, phytonutrient dense diet – use food first! Avoid all processed, refined foods – cut out the beige diet.

  2. Balance your blood sugar with lean protein and healthy fats with some complex carbohydrates at each meal.

  3. Optimise intake of healthy omega -3 fats.

  4. Eat and drink colourful antioxidant rich foods and beverages. Switch from caffeinated beverages and give alcohol a break.

  5. Avoid toxins in foods, personal care products and in the home and garden.

  6. Challenge your body and brain with physical and cognitive exercise.

  7. Schedule some down time including a digital detox, and schedule in optimal sleep. 

  8. Don’t smoke!

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