By Dr. Mercola
Mitochondria are small, specialized structures within your cells and are the power generators of your cells. They work by transferring electrons from fat and sugars to oxygen in the process of generating ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is the energy "currency" of your cells.1
Mitochondria are unique in that they have their own genetic code largely for proteins unique to their electron transport chain (different than nuclear DNA), they divide and replicate on their own timetable (different from that of the cell) and have two membranes — an inner and outer — that are used to produce ATP.
The membranes allow your mitochondria to store energy, similar to a battery, and use it for oxidative phosphorylation, a process the mitochondria use to generate energy in the form of ATP.
In 2015, researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, revealed that mitochondria not only use the stored energy to create ATP, but also as a primary energy source. In fact, the study revealed this may actually be "the dominant pathway for skeletal muscle energy distribution."2
This finding, in turn, led the researchers to suspect that mitochondria form a type of cellular "power grid" in your cells — a finding they confirmed with a 2017 study published in the journal Cell Reports.3
Mitochondria 'Power Grid' Has Built-in Circuit Breakers
Mitochondria exist in an interconnected network, which allows them to rapidly communicate and distribute energy through your body's cells. The downside to this, the researchers noted, is "this connectivity puts the energy conversion system at risk, because damaged elements could jeopardize the entire network."4
There is, however, a fail-safe for that, as inside your heart and skeletal muscle is a mitochondrial "grid" of sorts that includes smaller subnetworks. If part of the grid stops working, there is a mechanism that acts like a circuit breaker, cutting the faulty section off from the rest of the grid, allowing it to continue functioning.
The researchers studied 3D images and used light-activated probes to examine mouse heart muscle and skeletal muscle cells to reveal the new finding, revealing that intermitochondrial junctions (IMJs) that connect mitochondria can also quickly cut off faulty mitochondria, preserving the integrity of the power grid as a whole.5 They explained:6
"In both cardiac and SKM [skeletal muscle] subnetworks, a rapid electrical and physical separation of malfunctioning mitochondria occurs, consistent with detachment of IMJs and retraction of elongated mitochondria into condensed structures.
Regional mitochondrial subnetworks limit the cellular impact of local dysfunction while the dynamic disconnection of damaged mitochondria allows the remaining mitochondria to resume normal function within seconds."
New Pathways for Addressing Mitochondrial Dysfunction
The study paves the way for increased understanding of heart disease and mitochondrial diseases, and highlights the increasing importance of bioenergetic medicine, which operates on the premise that manipulating bioenergetics fluxes in your body can positively affect your health.
As researchers wrote in the British Journal of Pharmacology, energy metabolism pathways in your body are interconnected, which means manipulating one bioenergetics flux will typically cause changes in others, which can be a good thing.7 The researchers continued:
"Bioenergetic medicine-based interventions already exist for some diseases, and because bioenergetic medicine interventions are presently feasible, new approaches to treat certain conditions, including some neurodegenerative conditions and cancers, are beginning to transition from the laboratory to the clinic."
What does this have to do with mitochondria? As you may suspect, mitochondrial dysfunction often occurs alongside bioenergetic dysfunction, with the former often causing the latter.8 As the British Journal of Pharmacology review put it, most bioenergetics fluxes occur within mitochondria, and manipulations therefore typically affect mitochondria, opening up new pathways for treating disease:9
"Data increasingly indicate one can manipulate mitochondria indirectly, or mitigate the impact of mitochondrial failure, by manipulating bioenergetic pathways that lie external to the mitochondria or, for pathways that traverse the mitochondria, at steps that lie outside the mitochondria themselves.
This currently feasible overall strategy also impacts non-mitochondrial bioenergetic parameters, as well as the expression of genes that monitor and respond to a cell's overall bioenergetic state. These effects can fundamentally affect cell health and viability."
Many Cancers Are Related to Mitochondrial Health
The health of your mitochondria plays a primary role in many chronic diseases, including cancer. Cancer is a metabolic disease, not a genetic one. The genetic mutations observed in some cancers are a downstream effect of defective energy metabolism in your mitochondria.
This was first alluded to by Dr. Otto Warburg, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1931 for the discovery of metabolism of malignant cells. The Warburg Effect states that cancer cells alter their metabolism, consuming large amounts of glucose and metabolizing it without oxygen.
Warburg discovered that cancer is really caused by a defect in the cellular energy metabolism of the cell, primarily related to the function of the mitochondria. The mitochondria were not well understood in Warburg's time but, today, we have a much better understanding of how they work.
This information is a game changer that opens doors to not only treating cancer but many other diseases, because at the core of most serious ailments you find mitochondrial dysfunction. Thomas Seyfried, Ph.D, a professor of biology at Boston College, is one of the pioneers in the application of nutritional ketosis for cancer — a therapy that stems from Warburg's work.
If defective mitochondria are responsible for the origin of cancer, and defective energy metabolism is responsible for the majority of the phenotypes, i.e., the observable characteristics of the disease that you see, then how do you prevent and even treat the disease? By becoming an efficient fat burner to optimize your mitochondrial health.
How to Use Your Diet to Improve Mitochondrial Health
Your mitochondria have a series of electron transport chains in which they pass electrons from the reduced form of the food you eat to combine it with oxygen from the air you breathe and ultimately to form water.
This process drives protons across the mitochondrial membrane, which recharges ATP. However, the process also produces byproducts such as reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are damaging to your cells and your mitochondrial DNA, which are then transferred to your nuclear DNA.
Your body also ages from the damaging aspects of excessive ROS, which is why how quickly your body ages largely depends on how well your mitochondria work and how much damage can be minimized by diet optimization.
To improve your mitochondrial function through diet, the key is to eat in such a way that your body is able to burn fat as its primary fuel rather than sugars. Ketogenic diets — high in healthy fats, adequate in protein and low in net carbs (total carbs minus fiber) — are very effective for this, as is intermittent fasting.
When your body is able to burn fat for fuel, your liver creates water-soluble fats called ketones that burn far more efficiently than carbs, thus creating far less reactive oxygen species and secondary free radicals that can damage your cellular and mitochondrial cell membranes, proteins and DNA.
This is why being an efficient fat burner is so crucial for optimal health. Ketones also mimic the lifespan-extending properties of calorie restriction (fasting), which includes improved glucose metabolism and reduced inflammation.
Simple Steps to Eating a Ketogenic Diet
To implement a ketogenic diet, eliminate packaged, processed foods. The emphasis is on real whole foods, plenty of healthy fats and as few net carbs as possible. This typically involves dramatically reducing or temporarily eliminating all grains and any food high in sugar, particularly fructose, but also galactose (found in milk) and other sugars — both added and naturally occurring.
As a general rule, you'll want to reduce your net carbs to between 20 and 50 grams a day or less, and restrict protein to 1 gram per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of lean body mass. To make sure you're actually meeting your nutritional requirements and maintaining the ideal nutrient ratios, a nutrient tracker like www.cronometer.com/mercola can be an invaluable tool. Like my nutrition plan, this nutrient tracker is completely free.
It's set up for nutritional ketosis, so based on the base parameters you enter, such as height, weight, body fat percentage and waist circumference, it will automatically calculate the ideal ratios of net carbs, protein and healthy fats (including your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio) to put you into nutritional ketosis, allow your body to start burning fat rather than sugar as its primary fuel and optimize your mitochondrial function.
Once you are able to burn fat for fuel you will want to cycle in and out of ketosis and have 100 to 150 grams of healthy carbs, as continuous ketosis is an unhealthy practice. The timing of your meals is also important, particularly making your last meal at least three hours before bedtime, as sleep is your most metabolically lowered state.
Since your body uses the least amount of calories when sleeping, you'll want to avoid eating close to bedtime because adding excess fuel at this time will generate excessive free radicals that will damage your tissues, accelerate aging and contribute to chronic disease. For this reason, I often suggest limiting your eating to breakfast and lunch — a "Peak Fasting" strategy that allows you to fast for 16 or more hours each day.
What Else Promotes Mitochondrial Health?
If you're interested in reducing your rate of chronic disease and aging, you're interested in optimizing your mitochondrial health. In addition to the dietary changes described above, exercise, including near-continuous movement throughout your day (and avoiding prolonged sitting) is also important.
When you exercise, your body will respond by creating more mitochondria (mitochondrial biogenesis) to keep up with the heightened energy requirement. Exercise also stimulates autophagy, helping to remove damaged mitochondria. In short, exercise helps to not only optimize mitochondrial function, but also increase mitochondrial numbers.
In terms of nutrition, Rhonda Patrick, Ph.D., a biomedical scientist and researcher with the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in La Jolla, California, emphasizes the importance of the following nutrients, which are important co-factors needed for your mitochondrial enzymes to function properly:
✓ Sunshine on your skin provides red and near-infrared light that nourishes cytochrome c oxidase in your mitochondria to increase ATP production
✓ L-Carnitine, which shuttles fatty acids to the mitochondria
✓ Avoid holding your cell phone any closer than 2 feet from your head as its high levels of microwave radiation will poison your mitochondria by increasing peroxynitrate production
✓ All B vitamins, including riboflavin, thiamine, and B6
✓ Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA)
✓ CoQ10 or ubiquinol (the reduced form)
Avoiding environmental toxins like glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide, is also important to protect your mitochondria. Glyphosate prevents the uptake of manganese — a mineral crucial for protecting your mitochondria from oxidative damage. Roundup has also been found to interfere with ATP production by affecting your mitochondrial membranes.
Knowing the importance of mitochondrial health, it becomes even more intriguing that they exist in a power grid with built-in safety mechanisms, allowing faulty mitochondria to be cut off and preserving function of the rest. By adopting dietary strategies to burn fat as your primary fuel, however, you can likely cut down on mitochondrial damage overall, thereby significantly improving your health.