We often think of health and disease in terms of organs: liver, kidneys, lungs, heart, brain. However, true health is really happening on the cellular level. While the larger manifestation may be a liver condition, invariably the root cause has something to do with cellular dysfunction.
Cells, of course, are worlds all their own. They eat, drink, communicate and replicate, and have their own set of organs, called “organelles.” They also produce energy, which is of particular importance when discussing disease. Cells have a specific organelle for energy production – mitochondria. Mitochondria are like tiny engines and generate ATP: the cellular equivalent of fuel which provides energy for cells to do their countless jobs. Needless to say, mitochondrial health is a big deal.
Mitochondrial dysfunction has been associated with numerous conditions, from cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s to autism, fibromyalgia, and cardiomyopathy. But it’s not limited to people with serious conditions. Research over the last 10 years has implicated impaired mitochondrial function in one area that affects us all – aging.
Aging on the cellular level
When researchers ask why we age, one of the frequent answers is that our mitochondria slow down. Mitochondria are also crucial in apoptosis, the programmed cell death that usually takes place when cells are too damaged to function properly. When mitochondria are impaired, unhealthy, aged cells are allowed to continue to reproduce.
But perhaps most importantly, the number of mitochondria in cells declines as we age. This can have a particularly negative impact on muscle cells, which require more energy and therefore tend to have more mitochondria.
There’s been a lot written about how caloric restriction, or reduced calorie intake, tremendously extends the lifespans of animals. Though I won’t get into the complex biochemistry, it’s quite likely that the right kind of caloric restriction works by supporting mitochondria. While no one has yet to publish a double-blind clinical study in this area, it makes sense that this effect would also work in humans.
Some caloric restriction regimens designed by health practitioners studying their effects are quite intense, recommending us to reduce our food intake by a third. This is probably too extreme for most people. However, we can still accrue benefits by reducing the amount we eat and focusing on plant-based foods containing antioxidants and polyphenols. These crucial phytonutrients help fight free radicals and protect cellular and mitochondrial health.
Of course, another intervention that complements eating less is exercising more. Activity boosts the number of mitochondria, as our muscles require more energy to match the increased exertion. A brisk, daily walk tells our cells they need more energy producers — and they respond in kind.
Supplements to bolster mitochondria
Given the powerful impact that mitochondria have on cellular and overall health, it only makes sense to do everything we can to preserve them. There are a number of supplements that can help.
One recommendation is coenzyme Q10, or CoQ10, which plays a vital role in mitochondrial function. CoQ10 is a link in the chain of chemical reactions that allow mitochondria to produce energy. Supplementing helps make this process more efficient. In addition, CoQ10 is a natural antioxidant, which can actually eliminate free radicals, so it can protect us in two ways. CoQ10 is particularly beneficial for heart health, which makes sense since heart muscle cells require a lot of energy and are dense with mitochondria.
Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) is another powerful antioxidant that helps prevent, as well as scavenges for, free radicals. Some research has shown that both ALA and CoQ10 can support cognitive function, an area where mitochondrial health is critical.
Medicinal mushrooms are especially powerful and versatile supplements. One variety, in particular, cordyceps, has been shown to support mitochondrial health. Research demonstrates that this mushroom can help protect mitochondria from damage, scavenge free radicals and may have other anti-aging properties. Mushrooms are also known for their ability to modulate immune function, a win-win.
Boosting mitochondrial efficiency can have positive effects on both our lifespan and healthspan, but there are also more immediate benefits. By mindfully contributing to mitochondrial health, we can support our daily energy production, needed to meet the demands of our busy lives. At the same time, we take a big step towards maintaining our vital energy reserves and reducing fatigue for overall wellness.
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