The mitochondria in the cells throughout our bodies are responsible for creating 90% of the energy needed to sustain life and support organ function. When mitochondria malfunction, organs start to fail – people get chronically sick, and even die.
Chronic fatigue and disease are an all-too-common feature of aging in the modern world. Almost half of all adults in the United States suffer from a chronic disease, and a quarter or all adults live with two or more simultaneously.
Chronic diseases are the leading causes of both death and disability, and even non-fatal conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis) can seriously compromise quality of life.
These diseases take many forms, but there are common threads that run through all of them. Western medicine is notorious for treating incidental symptoms rather than underlying causes, but the tide is beginning to turn. Conventional, integrative, and alternative practitioners alike are now in agreement that addressing fundamental risk factors is the key to preventing and treating chronic disease.
We’ve written about a few of these fundamental risk factors in the past: chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, and endocrine dysfunction, to name a few. Another factor that’s often overlooked is mitochondrial dysfunction.
Mitochondria are the “powerhouses” of your body’s cells—they’re responsible for breaking down nutrients, bringing them into the cell, and creating usable energy
If you think back to junior high science class, you may remember that mitochondria are the “powerhouses” of your body’s cells—they’re responsible for breaking down nutrients, bringing them into the cell, and creating usable energy. Needless to say, imbalance manifests rather quickly when these tiny structures aren’t able to do their job properly.
Scientists now believe that the number of cell mitochondria dwindles naturally as a byproduct of aging. In fact, research has shown that adults over the age of 70 have 50% more mitochondrial damage in their brain cells than middle-aged adults. This damage, combined with the resulting oxidative stress, is a primary risk factor for the development of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of neurodegeneration.
And dwindling mitochondria effects far more than just the brain. According to researchers, mitochondrial dysfunction is “characterized by a loss of efficiency in the electron transport chain and reductions in the synthesis of high-energy molecules.” This means that the body simply can’t process and transport the energy it needs for optimal health and performance.
This is why fatigue is such a central aspect of chronic disease and general ill health—the body’s ability to produce sufficient usable energy has been compromised, and the little energy that is available is diverted to fighting whatever chronic disease is ailing the body.
Fatigue, then, is a primary symptomatic marker for the risk factors of chronic disease. In testing this hypothesis, researchers confirmed that mitochondrial dysfunction is a primary characteristic of many chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease (as mentioned above), Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Friedreich’s ataxia, atherosclerosis and other heart and vascular conditions, type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar and other mood disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, fibromyalgia, skeletal/muscular hypertrophy and atrophy, chronic infections, and of course chronic fatigue syndrome.
As scary as this lists sounds, it’s good news that a single factor underlies all of these debilitating conditions—because it means we can work to prevent all of them in one fell swoop just by optimizing mitochondrial function.
Research has demonstrated that mitochondria can be repaired and protected against future damage. Here’s how you can get started.
The mitochondria-healing lifestyle
Researchers admit that unraveling chronic disease and aging is a bewilderingly complex project. There are still many unresolved questions, but we do know that “the mitochondrion retains a critical role at the center of a complex web of processes leading to cellular and organismal aging.”
We also know that the following lifestyle practices can have positive effects on mitochondrial health.
Exercise more often. In case you need another reason to take more time for exercise, here it is: staying active can significantly improve the health of your cell mitochondria, prevent chronic disease, and slow the aging process. We already knew that frequent exercise boosts the immune system, sharpens cognition, balances sleep cycles, and extends lifestyle—now researchers believe that mitochondrial function might be at the heart of these benefits.
One study demonstrated that high-intensity interval training (with biking, walking, or running) is particularly beneficial for repairing and optimizing mitochondria.
Try these mitochondria-supporting supplements. The conventional research world has become uncharacteristically open to supplementation as a means to heal mitochondrial dysfunction (perhaps because there are no competing pharmaceuticals that target this underlying cause of disease). Here’s what they’ve discovered.
- Alpha lipoic acid is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, as well as a co-factor for the processes that take place inside mitochondria.
- Glutathione is the body’s best tool for balancing oxidative stress levels (which unburdens mitochondria and allows them to heal). For best results, use a highly bioavailable form of glutathione like this one from KORfactor.
- CoQ10 is “a key cofactor and component of the mitochondrial electron transport chain,” and thus supplementing with it is one of the most direct ways in which you can provide mitochondria with the fuel they need for optimal function.
These lifestyle practices, coupled with proper diet and sleep habits, will help minimize stress and inflammation in the body, boost detoxification, and keep your mitochondria strong and vital well into old age.