How Can Mitochondrial Dysfunction Cause Disease?

Jonathan Vellinga, MD

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).