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Mitochondrial Health: Nutrition Strategies & Supplements

Jonathan Vellinga, MD -

Mitochondrial Health: Nutrition Strategies & Supplements

Mitochondria are tiny powerhouses that create a portable fuel for all the energy-consuming elements of human cells. Cells would die without the vital roles that mitochondria play. Insufficient or dysfunctional mitochondria are associated with difficult-to-diagnose symptoms that can negatively affect one’s quality of life, including extreme muscle weakness, chronic fatigue, gastrointestinal disorders, and even neurological dysfunction (1). Compounding the confusion is the fact that mitochondrial dysfunction can be either the cause or the result of chronic health issues, each of which requires different treatment approaches.

This second part of our mitochondrial health series examines functional nutrition strategies that can revive or maintain cellular mitochondria.

Functional Medicine considers the whole person’s health, looking at their diet, emotional and physical environment, exercise level, and sleep quality. People are different and have unique challenges, so functional nutrition strategies are tailored for that individual. (This is especially important to consider when dysfunctional mitochondria could be the cause or the result of a severe health condition.) However, some common approaches to treating mitochondrial dysfunction through nutrition will be covered in this article.

What Causes Mitochondria to Fail?

One way to understand mitochondria is to know how they fail. Here is a short list of factors that commonly hinder mitochondrial function:

  • Disruption of the mitochondrial membrane

  • A lack of necessary chemicals to function, such as NAD+, which is a form of vitamin B3 (niacin), and coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)

  • Being overwhelmed by free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can steal electrons from other molecules, causing damage

  • Being overwhelmed by oxidative stress, which is a buildup of damaging reactive oxygen species (ROS) that cannot be neutralized or detoxified quickly enough

  • Infections that can cause excess inflammation or oxidative stress

  • Exposure to toxins such as heavy metals

What do Mitochondria Need to Flourish?

Mitochondria need many specific inputs and a stable environment to function properly. Below are a few things they require for proper functioning:

  • Chemicals: NAD+, CoQ10, oxygen, nutrients

  • An intact, functioning mitochondrial membrane

  • Antioxidants to use for neutralizing and detoxifying ROS

  • Available energy such as NADH (a form of vitamin B3/niacin), FADH2 (which is riboflavin plus adenine), or ATP (adenosine triphosphate, a form of energy for cells)

Strategies for the Care of Mitochondria

Treat underlying causes. If mitochondrial dysfunction is the secondary result of a health condition such as diabetes or a neurological condition, it is essential to treat those conditions. Stress can be an underlying cause of mitochondria dysfunction and should not be discounted as a factor.

Master the five pillars of health, which include getting consistent quality sleep and regular moderate exercise, consuming a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, managing stress, and maintaining strong relationships. Note: Use caution with intense exercise. Because mitochondrial dysfunction is a cellular energy crisis, some people experience extreme post-exertional fatigue. Exercise becomes a tricky prospect for those suffering from mitochondrial disorders. Being active is essential to keep healthy, but endurance sports or hard training may have to be put aside until the mitochondria are restored.

Examine medications to identify those that can affect mitochondria. Statins, which treat cholesterol issues, can negatively affect mitochondria (2). The same enzyme involved in creating cholesterol in the body helps create Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). By reducing cholesterol, statins also reduce CoQ10, potentially causing a deficiency in a small percentage of people. Deficiency in CoQ10 has been linked to mitochondrial dysfunction, and studies show that CoQ10 supplementation helps treat mitochondrial dysfunction. Even over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as aspirin can negatively impact mitochondrial membranes, reducing energy production (3).