Have you ever wondered why the body ages or why you seem to have less energy as you age? It turns out the answer lies deep within the cells in a tiny organelle called the mitochondria. They are the energy producers of the body. They turn our food into the fundamental fuel that drives cellular activity. It is in the mitochondria that carbohydrates, protein, and fat are metabolized, producing cellular energy called ATP. The ATP provide the energy to allow cells to do what they do; it keeps the brain working, fires muscles, repairs tissues, and more.
The more energy a certain tissue requires, the more mitochondria those cells contain. The brain and heart have the highest concentration of mitochondria because they require large amounts of oxygen and energy. The heart muscle is packed with mitochondria. Any dysfunction on the level of the mitochondria has a significant impact on the functioning of these organs especially.
As we age, our mitochondria produce about 40% less ATP and therefore our organs feel the effects of decreased energy production. Mitochondria get damaged over time. The rate of their decline can be influenced by a number of lifestyle factors.
Malfunctioning at the level of the mitochondria has now been shown to be at the heart of a host of degenerative diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease; neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, as well as cancer. Mitochondria dysfunction has also been shown to be related to chronic fatigue syndrome and has implications for affecting athletic performance. Interventions to stabilize mitochondrial function and enhance ATP production will be the new medicine of the future.
The formation of ATP is dependent upon proper intake of vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids and plant based nutrients. Deficiencies of these nutrients can alter mitochondrial function. Antioxidants like Vitamins C, E and A protect the mitochondria. Other nutrients like resveratrol from grape skins, green tea EGCG and curcumin from tumeric also have strong protective effects.
Exercise protects the mitochondria as well. A well-trained athlete has more than twice the muscle mitochondria than a sedentary person. Exercise stimulates the production of more mitochondria in the cells thus providing an anti-aging effect, especially where we need it most: the brain and heart.
However, those protective mechanisms can be overwhelmed by additional sources of bodily stress, leaving the mitochondria susceptible to damage. A diet high in processed food and high in fat as well as excess alcohol can all damage the mitochondria. Exposure to chemicals, heavy metals, and some pharmaceuticals, like statin drugs for cholesterol, can damage mitochondria.
The heart has to produce 13 to 35 pounds of ATP per day to sustain its approximately 86,000 daily beats. There has been extensive research to find ways to enhance mitochondrial function to maintain the ATP critical to heart function. In addition to exercise and high plant-based diets, natural medicines have been shown to help. CoEnzyme Q10 is a nutrient that fuels the pathway that makes ATP. In 2013, the European Society of Cardiology stated that it is the first “drug” to significantly improve heart failure in over a decade. This statement was based on research showing that there were very significant reductions in mortality in people with advanced heart failure who took CoEnzyme Q10. Magnesium and l-carnitine have also been shown to reduce death after heart attacks and more. In a recent Mayo Clinic review, acute heart patients who took L-Carnitine had a 27% reduction in all-cause mortality, a 65% reduction in arrhythmias, and a 40% reduction in angina symptoms.
Naturopathic physicians seek to understand the underlying cause of disease and use treatments that target those mechanisms. In the case of neurological disease, cancer, heart disease and more, interventions that repair mitochondrial function can help give the body the fuel it needs to promote healthy tissue function. There is so much more to health than managing symptoms with drugs. Take charge of your health with a great lifestyle and natural medicines.