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Mitochondrial Function Key to Health
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.
Eight Important Lab Tests You Should Know About
Many of us go to the doctor and just get the basic blood work they recommend. We may or may not hear back from the doctor regarding the results. I recommend that patients take a more active role in their health by learning about blood tests and getting copies of their results. (Locally, Lifelabs offers patients online access to most blood work.) It is helpful to understand which tests to request from your conventional or naturopathic physician and optimal levels you should be aiming for.
Thyroid: For patients dealing with fatigue or depression, I often recommend a full thyroid panel. The thyroid governs metabolism, affecting energy and weight loss. Typically just a TSH test is run, but sometimes imbalances in the thyroid can be picked up by testing free T4, free T3 and thyroid antibodies. If the thyroid hormones levels are borderline, I recommend supporting the thyroid non-pharmaceutically.
Ferritin: Another important test for fatigue and depression is ferritin. This test measures iron stores. Lack of iron can cause anemia, which can cause fatigue. It can also lower dopamine levels in the brain, which affects mood, motivation and food cravings. Too much ferritin can be a sign of excess iron storage which can damage the cardiovascular system and many organs.
Insulin: For patients with weight issues, dementia and some hormonal imbalances, checking fasting insulin is an excellent tool to understanding how the body is dealing with blood sugar. Adult onset diabetes is characterized by insulin resistance at the cellular level. Therefore, it takes a lot of insulin to help carry sugars from the blood to the cells. Even before elevated blood sugar is detected, this high insulin can be a sign of insulin resistance. High insulin levels promote fat storage and are hard on the circulation. Programs that reverse insulin resistance can accelerate the process of weight loss, protect the cardiovascular system and more.
Homocysteine: Patients who have a personal or family history of cardiovascular disease or dementia / Alzheimer’s are wise to have their homocysteine levels checked. This amino acid, if elevated, is a risk for increased strokes and Alzheimer’s. The “normal” range is stated as being under 11 umol/L, but studies show that the risk of Alzheimer’s is increased in people whose homocysteine is over 7 umol/L.
Vitamin D3: The rate of vitamin D3 deficiency in Canada is staggering. Gerry Schwalfenberg, an assistant clinical professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Alberta, said testing showing that “the fact that 60 to 70 per cent [of Canadians] have inadequate levels [is] not good,” given that vitamin D insufficiency is being linked to so many chronic diseases. Vitamin D is an important preventer of autoimmune disease, viral illness, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, MS and more. Having your levels checked is therefore wise. The optimal level of vitamin D is over 125 nanomoles/litre.
C Reactive Protein (CRP): Inflammation is an important risk factor for cardiovascular events, like strokes and heart attacks, and it creates an environment that supports cancer growth. It is a symptom of autoimmune disease, obesity, diabetes and other important health conditions. The C Reactive Protein in our blood is a reflection of general inflammation levels. While the normal range is under 5.0, the optimal range is under .8 for men and under 1.5 for women. Breast cancer survivors are wise to monitor CRP since elevations are associated with higher reoccurrence rates.
Vitamin B12: The levels of this important nutrient can diminish with age as absorption becomes more difficult. Vitamin B12 can be depleted by many medications, such as metformin (diabetes), birth control pills, and antibiotics. I am most concerned about acid blocking medications that many of my patients use for long term management of acid reflux. I much prefer to treat the cause of this problem than to manage it with a medication that impairs the digestion and absorption of a number of important nutrients. Acid blockers also can set up a more alkaline pH that promotes the growth of a weakened, dysfunctional set of intestinal bacteria.
Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth Testing (SIBO): SIBO is a condition in which the wrong bacteria are growing in the small intestine, creating abnormal fermentation of carbohydrates into methane and hydrogen. SIBO patients suffer from gas, bloating, digestive concerns and many other health conditions. When indicated, I test patients through a university laboratory in PortlandOregon.
Be proactive with your health care by getting the blood work you need to understand your health and take steps to prevent illness.
Dr. Deidre Macdonald is a naturopathic physician who has practiced medicine in downtown Courtenay for 17 years. For more information, contact The Macdonald Centre for Natural Medicine at 250 897-0235 or via www.getwellhere.com
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The Macdonald Centre for Natural Medicine
448 10th Street Courtenay, B.C.