Mitochondrial dysfunction of low physical energy

On a microscopic level (or, as many now say, “on a cellular level”), our energy is produced by the mitochondria in each cell. The mitochondria are intracellular organelles that metabolize all the carbohydrate, protein and fat you consume. You should thank them for producing your energy.

Yet altered mitochondrial function can result in cellular damage—which means tissue damage, chronic disease and accelerated biological aging. I explained this in some detail in my article, “When fatigue interferes with your life.”

Now consider the effects of oxidation by free radical damage. This is the molecular process behind why a cut apple or banana turns brown so quickly.

Your mitochondria are particularly important to maintaining your body energy and health—and must be protected from the damaging forms of oxygen which cause oxidation and aging. How do they do this? They produce powerful antioxidant enzymes to defuse these free radical molecules before they can cause injury. These antioxidant enzymes are known as superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase, coenzyme Q10, and glutathione peroxidase.

Glutathione is thought to be the most effective anti-oxidant enzyme in your primary detoxification organ — your liver. After glutathione neutralizes potentially dangerous free radical molecules, it quickly reverts back to its reduced state—ready to act as an anti-oxidant again. Low glutathione measurements (much like low levels of the other important anti-oxidant enzymes) have a direct correlation with low energy; and the sicker and older you are, the lower your measureable serum glutathione levels will be.

Glutathione is comprised of three amino acids: glutamic acid, cysteine and glycine. Poor-quality diet in general, as well as heavy alcohol use and exposure to chemicals, can overload the glutathione protection system and render the mitochondria susceptible to damage from oxidation. It consists of the three amino acids glutamine, cysteine, and glycine, which you can get from a healthy diet and by supplementation.

Cysteine is your main sulfur-containing amino acid which produces glutathione—and you get your cysteine supply from high-quality protein. Examples of foods high in these amino acids are fish, fresh fruits, beans, most all leafy green and solid green vegetables, colorful non-starchy vegetables, whey protein, eggs, plain yogurt, cottage cheese, raw nuts and legumes. I’d say this is quite close to the Mediterranean diet.

The Mediterranean diet consists of lean proteins from animals and vegetables; very low amounts of sugars and refined flour products; high quantities of whole fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, rice, and spices; and foods containing omega-3 and natural saturated fats.

An interesting study looking at the long-term health impact of the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle (exercise and keeping stress to a minimum) is the Healthy Aging Longitudinal in Europe study (HALE) which analyzed all-cause mortality in 1,507 healthy 70- to 90-year-old men and women living in 11 western European countries during a 10-year time frame. They found that study participants had a 50 percent lower death rate compared to people who did not follow the Mediterranean diet or practice similar healthy lifestyle habits. Thus, to enhance your energy-producing mitochondria and minimize the damage of oxidative stress in your body, it may take a more nutrient-concentrated approach.

Juicing daily is a fantastic way to do this. Also, fruit and nut smoothies (raw foods) can give you all living foods in high amounts—an entire meal from just one smoothie that is 100 percent raw living food! Moreover, you can go on a three to seven day liquid cleanse followed by consumption of (predominately raw) whole foods. I have witnessed time and time again by my patients the profound effects that liquid cleansing and cleansing diets have reversing chronic low energy, and other symptoms such as rashes, joint pains, vision problems, diabetes, allergies, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, heart disease and even cancers.

What foods slow your mitochondrial energy production? The SAD diet (Standard American Diet) of pizzas, hamburgers, sodas, bottled juices, breads and sweets, heavy cheeses, and all the other dead foods! These are also known to deplete your glutathione levels.

What else depletes glutathione in your body? The same things that hasten chronic illness: stress, trauma, poor diet, and what we can call environmental toxic load:

  • Medications and other xenobiotics (hormone mimickers and cell receptor dysregulators).
  • Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other ubiquitous chemicals such as bisphenol.
  • Radiation and electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs).

Glutathione is just one important defense against mitochondrial injury. There are many more…including vitamins C and E (tocopherols and tocotrienols) from brown rice, whole grains and soy. Also, the B-complex vitamin, plus selenium and magnesium activate specific mitochondrial antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase, and glutathione reductase.

Finally, phytonutrients activate these antioxidant enzymes by turning on genes that control their activity. I’m referring to phytonutrients from berries, green tea, grape skins, and spices such as rosemary, thyme, basil, and turmeric. They are known to minimize oxidative damage to your mitochondria.


Dr. Michael Cutler

By Dr. Michael Cutler

Dr. Michael Cutler is a graduate of Tulane University School of Medicine and is a board-certified family physician with more than 20 years of experience. He serves as a medical liaison to alternative and traditional practicing physicians. His practice focuses on an integrative solution to health problems. Dr. Cutler is a sought-after speaker and lecturer on experiencing optimum health through natural medicines and founder of the original Easy Health Options™ newsletter — an advisory on natural healing therapies and nutrients. His current practice is San Diego Integrative Medicine, near San Diego, California.