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How Can Mitochondrial Dysfunction Cause Disease?

Mitochondrial dysfunction may not be something that you hear of often (or ever!), but it is something that affects a significant portion of the population. It is tied to many neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, cancer, and even common conditions like diabetes and premature aging. While it may be tricky to detect at first, the good news is that there are a number of regenerative and functional treatments that can help restore your mitochondrial function and improve your overall health.

How Can Mitochondrial Dysfunction Cause Disease?

Symptoms of Mitochondrial Dysfunction

The most common symptoms of mitochondrial dysfunction are often very similar to other chronic diseases, making the process of diagnosis quite tricky or elongated. While any of the symptoms below may indicate underperforming mitochondria, a combination of three or more symptoms or malfunctioning organ systems is a good indicator of mitochondrial dysfunction (1, 3, 4):

  • Excessive, chronic fatigue

  • Muscle weakness, pain, low tone, exercise intolerance, or movement disorders

  • Vision or hearing problems

  • Dementia

  • Neurological dysfunction, seizures, strokes, migraines, fainting

  • Heart diseases

  • Diabetes, insulin resistance

  • Liver, kidney, or pancreas diseases

  • Gastrointestinal disorders, unexplained diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, cramping, reflux, and even swallowing difficulties

  • Thyroid problems

  • Respiratory problems

  • Delays in development, learning disabilities, atypical cerebral palsy, or autistic features

  • Poor growth, low weight

  • Lactic acidosis

What is mitochondrial dysfunction?

Mitochondria are in every cell of the body, and each cell contains thousands (1). Known as the “powerhouse of the cell”, mitochondria process oxygen and help convert substances in our food into energy that the body can use, called ATP (adenosine triphosphate). There are a number of processes that it uses to do so, and all together the mitochondria create about 90% of the energy that we need to operate (1, 2). So, it follows that the mitochondria’s ability to generate enough ATP also affects our general metabolic health, organ function, and cellular longevity and function (3, 4).

Because the processes of the cell and mitochondria are so complex, there are many factors that can affect function, including changes in mRNA, protein levels, enzyme activity, and changes to the mitochondrial structure (1, 2, 3). Any of these factors can be affected by genetics, other conditions such as insulin resistance or neurological disorders, and even environmental toxins (1, 2, 3, 5). Mitochondrial dysfunction can be broken into two categories: primary mitochondrial dysfunction disorders (inherited genetic disorders) or secondary mitochondrial dysfunction (development due to other conditions) (1, 2, 3). While most cases of genetic mitochondrial dysfunction become apparent early in childhood, it is possible to begin exhibiting symptoms in adulthood due to either genetic or secondary disorders (1, 4).

Diagnosing Mitochondrial Dysfunction

Diagnosing Mitochondrial Dysfunction

Because there are so many types of mitochondrial diseases that share a number of symptoms with the most common chronic illnesses, many people with mitochondrial disease may go undiagnosed for years (1, 4). And, because the specific cause(s) and dysfunctional processes can vary so much from person to person, there is no single test that can confirm mitochondrial dysfunction. So, it is up to the patient and physician to work together to complete a physical and neurological exam, map out their health history, and conduct any relevant tests to rule out all other possibilities. While the most common tests revolve around examining metabolism via urine and blood tests, your doctor may recommend an MRI, EKG, audiogram, retinal exam, skin or muscle biopsies, or even thyroid, DNA, or biochemical testing (1).

This is where pairing with a physician at Temecula Center for Integrative Medicine can be a huge asset in bringing clarity to both diagnosis and treatment options. Functional medicine doctors excel at partnering with their patients to truly understand their total health, making knowledgeable connections between symptoms, previous health events, genetics, toxic exposure, and lifestyle. Since we focus on comprehensive health and strongly believe that we are holistic beings, functional doctors are often able to see correlations and root causes that many patients have not found elsewhere. We also focus on preventative measures, employing services like executive physicals that can help detect a number of different dysfunctions early on, allowing us to find treatment options to mitigate illness and prevent severe symptoms from developing in the first place.

Treatment Options for Mitochondrial Dysfunction:

Functional Medicine

Functional medicine focuses on treating root causes of disease and dysfunction in order to boost the body’s natural ability to heal, recover, and function well. In the case of mitochondrial dysfunction, there are many different approaches to treatment, depending on your individual needs. There may be one underlying condition, such as insulin resistance or diabetes, that is causing the many symptoms of secondary mitochondrial dysfunction (3). Conversely, primary mitochondrial dysfunction due to DNA abnormalities may be the cause of many different symptoms and disorders. So, while all treatment plans will focus on helping you feel better, the focus may be different than you expect.

If your insulin resistance or diabetes is the underlying cause, the primary aim of treatment will be to improve blood sugar and insulin sensitivity, while also adding in some of the supplements and lifestyle changes listed below to help promote better mitochondrial function (2, 3). Other common root causes may include neurotoxins, neurodegenerative diseases, chronic infections, or leaky gut syndrome, in which case treatments would revolve around healing those damaged tissues and systems (1, 4, 5, 6).

For those with primary mitochondrial diseases or those who need extra mitochondrial function support while focusing on other root causes, there are a number of treatment options. The first is a combination of vitamins and supplements that are crucial to the many aspects of mitochondrial function. Studies have shown that a combination of supplements including A-Lipoic Acid, Coenzyme Q10, NADH (Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide), B-complex vitamins (Thiamine and Riboflavin), Creatine, L-Carnitine, and/or L-Arginine can all lead to improved mitochondrial function and a reduction of symptoms, especially chronic fatigue (1, 2).

Lifestyle changes may also bring benefits. Adding in exercises like light cardio and strength training, altering your normal schedule to better pace yourself and avoid exhaustion, and avoiding triggers that make your symptoms worse (like exposure to cold or heat, toxins, alcohol, cigarettes, MSG, food intolerances, stressful situations, or even prolonged lack of food or sleep) could all bring benefit (1, 5, 6). Depending on the severity of physical symptoms, certain therapies such as speech, physical, or even occupational therapies may also help improve function. We would love to work with you to determine an exercise, diet, and overall lifestyle plan to help you achieve some of these changes successfully.

Regenerative Therapies

We also offer four types of regenerative therapies at Temecula Center of Integrative Medicine: Pulsed Electromagnetic Field (PEMF), Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP), Ozone, and Stem Cell therapies. These therapies can be used alone, or as part of an overall treatment plan combining Functional and Regenerative therapies, depending on your needs.

PEMF therapy is the process of putting a device that emits a resonating magnetic field over an injured or low-functioning area. It is used alongside all of our regenerative therapies to increase healing potential, although it offers much toward mitochondrial function on its own. Because PEMF therapy affects the mitochondria directly to bring cells back up to a healthier state of energy and electric charge, PEMF therapy is an excellent option to treat dysfunction and alleviate symptoms (7).

Ozone therapy is another resource that can alter mitochondrial function, especially for those with mitochondrial dysfunction stemming from or affecting the brain. When paired with a diet high in Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, ozone therapy can improve antioxidant levels, affect mitochondrial bioenergetics, and reduce adverse effects of mitochondrial dysfunction (8).

PRP therapy is able to affect cells’ mitochondria through improving cell metabolism and increasing ATP consumption (9). This makes it a great option to improve overall health and give your mitochondria a boost, and is especially effective when paired with stem cell therapy. Although stem cells therapy is still considered experimental according to the FDA, thousands of studies have been done on their safety and efficacy. There are many studies that support the use of mesenchymal stem cell therapies for mitochondrial dysfunction relating to neurological disorders (9, 10). More studies are finding that stem cells can shift mitochondrial dynamics in existing cells, improving cell metabolism and reducing impaired function for both primary and secondary mitochondrial dysfunction (11).

If any of the symptoms or disorders listed above ring a bell, or you are curious about what functional or regenerative therapies can do for you or your family, please reach out to us! It would be our joy to work with you to discover the root cause of your symptoms, work together to create a treatment plan, and get you on the path to greater health and healing.


Jonathan Vellinga, M.D.

Jonathan Vellinga, MD is an Internal Medicine practitioner with a broad interest in medicine. He graduated Summa cum laude from Weber State University in Clinical Laboratory Sciences and completed his medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin.​

Upon graduation from medical school, he completed his Internal Medicine residency at the University of Michigan. Dr. Vellinga is board-certified with the American Board of Internal Medicine and a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine.




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  2. Nicolson, G. L. (2014, August). Mitochondrial dysfunction and chronic disease: Treatment with natural supplements. Integrative medicine (Encinitas, Calif.).

  3. Montgomery, M. K., & Turner, N. (2015, March 1). Mitochondrial dysfunction and insulin resistance: An update. EC.

  4. Understanding & navigating mitochondrial disease. UMDF. (n.d.).

  5. Lim, S. (n.d.). Persistent organic pollutants, mitochondrial dysfunction, and metabolic syndrome. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

  6. AL, J. D. N. T. (n.d.). Gut bacteria signaling to mitochondria in intestinal inflammation and cancer. Gut microbes.

  7. Funk, R. H. (2018, May 15). Coupling of pulsed electromagnetic fields (pemf) therapy to molecular grounds of the cell. American journal of translational research.

  8. Valdez, M. C., Freeborn, D., Valdez, J. M., Johnstone, A. F. M., Snow, S. J., Tennant, A. H., Kodavanti, U. P., & Kodavanti, P. R. S. (2019, December 13). Mitochondrial Bioenergetics in BRAIN following Ozone exposure in RATS maintained On Coconut, fish and Olive OIL-RICH DIETS. International journal of molecular sciences.

  9. Hersant, B., Sid-Ahmed, M., Braud, L., Jourdan, M., Baba-Amer, Y., Meningaud, J.-P., & Rodriguez, A.-M. (2019, October 31). Platelet-rich plasma improves the wound healing potential of mesenchymal stem cells through paracrine and metabolism alterations. Stem cells international.

  10. Nightingale, H., Pfeffer, G., Bargiela, D., Horvath, R., & Chinnery, P. F. (2016, June). Emerging therapies for mitochondrial disorders. Brain: a journal of neurology.

  11. Newell, C., Sabouny, R., Hittel, D. S., Shutt, T. E., Khan, A., Klein, M. S., & Shearer, J. (1AD, January 1). Mesenchymal stem Cells Shift mitochondrial dynamics and Enhance oxidative phosphorylation in Recipient Cells. Frontiers.


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