Mitochondria are organelles found inside every living cell, which is why mitochondrial dysfunction is a serious.
Their primary function is to supply cellular energy by producing adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Mitochondria also play an essential role in cell signaling, cellular differentiation, and cell death, as well as control of the cell cycle and cell growth 1. The health of these powerhouses is vitally important for energy levels. Healthier, bigger and more mitochondria means more energy!
The problem with mitochondria is that they are very sensitive to damage from oxidative stress. This may be caused by toxins, infections, allergens, stress or a diet containing excess calories and/or poor quality food. In order to work efficiently, mitochondria need to be resilient. Resilience is built through the action and stimulation of mitochondria by hormetic stressors (a mild stressor that helps build resistance to other stressors), including exercise, calorie restriction, extreme cold and heat exposure, red and near-infrared red light exposure, hypoxia, UV light, Xenobiotics (like caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and other drugs) as well as dietary phytonutrients.
When people think of energy production, most people only think about the carbohydrates, fats and proteins in their diet as energy producing fuel. However, micronutrients and phytonutrients may play a much more important role. A diet rich in a variety of plant phytonutrients provides the essential micronutrients the body needs for energy production as well as acting as an antioxidant and hormetic stressor responsible for reducing inflammation and initiating mitochondrial growth and biogenesis (the production of new mitochondria).
Best Foods to Nourish Mitochondria
Mitochondrial Membrane Support & Repair
- Phospholipids – One of the most powerful compounds for mitochondrial regeneration. Lipid replacement therapy, utilizing phospholipids, is used to repair damaged membrane glycerophospholipids, that accumulate during aging and in various clinical conditions, to restore cellular and mitochondrial function. It has been shown to reduce fatigue by a whopping 24–43% in people with chronic fatigue syndrome 2 3 4 5, as well as reduce cancer-associated fatigue and the fatigue effects of cancer therapy by similar amounts, in just a few weeks of use67. Phospholipids are naturally present in almost all foods in human nutrition. They accumulate in cell membranes, so all foods with cell membranes contain phospholipids 8. Soybean is an excellent source of phospholipids; other high-quality sources include egg yolk, liver, krill oil, beef, milk and other dairy products 9. Treatment with krill oil (at a dosage of 300 mg daily) significantly reduced C-Reactive Protein levels (a marker for inflammation) and arthritic symptoms in patients with arthritis compared to a placebo10.
- Astaxanthin – is a red, fat-soluble pigment found in various microorganisms and marine animals11. Due to its special ability to penetrate inside of cells and incorporate itself inside its mitochondrial membranes, Astaxanthin is known to protect the mitochondria against oxygen radicals, conserve their antioxidant capacity and enhance their energy production efficiency. It is thought to be one of the most effective antioxidants known to man, can increase blood flow12, reduce the oxidation of LDL 13 and improve cognitive function 14. Astaxanthin also modulates blood glucose 15 and so increases levels of Orexin and hence energy levels. One study showed that Astaxanthin may even have anti-aging properties16. The best natural sources of astaxanthin are algae, yeast, salmon, trout, krill, shrimp and crayfish 17. Eating about 165 grams of wild caught salmon per day will give you about 3.6 mg of astaxanthin.
- Melatonin – is one of the primary hormones that regulate the sleep/wake cycle (or circadian rhythm). It is also a known powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory 18 and protects mitochondria by scavenging reactive oxygen species (ROS), promoting mitophagy and preserving mitochondrial functions and homeostasis. In addition, mitochondrial biogenesis is also regulated by melatonin19. Characteristically, melatonin rises at night, signaling to your body that it is time to go to sleep, and falls in the morning when it is time to wake up. However, production of melatonin may be disrupted by light entering the eye after the sun goes down. This can be from exposure to electronic screens or artificial light. Because most of us living in the modern world have some form of circadian rhythm disruption, eating foods rich in melatonin may be useful. People with certain disease states also have low levels of melatonin20 and melatonin supplementation has been used successfully to reduce the risk of atherosclerosis21, to boost memory in patients with Alzheimer’s disease22and to improve sleep and ADHD symptoms in patients with autism23 24. The richest natural source of melatonin is pistachios. Other nuts as well as fish and eggs are also good sources 25.
Cofactors in Mitochondrial Energy Production
Cofactors are compounds that assist with biological chemical reactions in the body. These can be vitamins, minerals or coenzymes that work synergistically with enzymes in the production of ATP (our energy currency) by the mitochondria.
- Magnesium – is an essential mineral for energy production and is deficient in much of the U.S. population. Cellular energy production consists of many Magnesium dependent enzymatic reactions 26. In fact, a deficiency results in various cellular malfunctions and diseases, including increased blood pressure, reduced glucose tolerance, and abnormal neural excitations that impair sleep27. The best food sources of Magnesium are leafy greens, nuts, seeds and cacao. As most people are deficient paying particular attention to increasing your intake of Magnesium containing foods is critical. It can have a calming effect on the body 28 and may improve sleep quality – and better sleep means more energy throughout the day!
- Coenzyme Q10 – is naturally occurring in all cells of the body, although the heart, kidneys and liver have the highest levels. CoQ10 plays a critical role in energy production and in protecting cells from oxidative damage29. As people with some diseases have reduced levels of this substance, including people who have fibromyalgia 30 31 32, people who have survived heart attacks or heart failure 33 34, have multiple sclerosis3536, are infertile373839, or suffer migraines 40 41, researchers have been interested in finding out whether CoQ10 supplements might have health benefits. CoQ10 enhances blood flow (through nitric oxide preservation), protects blood vessels, lowers oxidative stress, and boosts vitality in anyone who suffers from fatigue, but especially those people with the aforementioned conditions. Primary dietary sources of CoQ10 include oily fish (such as salmon and tuna), organ meats (such as liver), and whole grains. Most individuals obtain sufficient amounts of CoQ10 through a balanced diet, but supplementation may be useful for individuals with particular health conditions42.
- B-Vitamins – the B vitamins are important for maintaining cell health and keeping you energized. There are 8 different types of B vitamins, which are often grouped together and are essential for various functions within the body 43. They help break down and release energy from food, create new blood cells, and maintain healthy skin cells, brain cells, and other body tissues. Most people can get their daily requirement of B vitamins from eating a variety of healthy food. However, certain groups, such as vegetarians and vegans, people with GI disorders and older adults may be prone to deficiencies. Foods rich in B vitamins include, whole grains, eggs, liver, avocado, milk, broccoli, certain fresh fruit and fortified breakfast cereals (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-b/).
Foods rich in Phytonutrients
Plant phytonutrients are plant toxins that we have developed the ability to benefit from. They act as pro-oxidants in the body, which activates the body’s antioxidant defense system, led by the transcription factor Nrf2. Nrf2 activates the genes responsible for detoxification of chemicals and antioxidant defense. Plant polyphenols include compounds such as:
- Resveratrol – from red grapes, which turn on sirtuins, a class of proteins, involved in regulating cellular processes like aging, transcription, apoptosis, inflammation44 and stress resistance, as well as energy efficiency and alertness during low-calorie situations45.
- Sulforaphane – from broccoli, which turns on antioxidant and anticancer enzymes in the skin, arteries and stomach. Consume some form of cruciferous vegetable every single day, ideally with breakfast.
- Curcumin – from turmeric, which inhibits transcription factors and kinases involved in cancer and inflammation.
- Green tea – a rich but variable source of bioflavonoids which have been shown to have anticancer and cardioprotective effects.
- Cloves and Cinnamon – have been shown to increase muscle glycolysis and mitochondria function 46 and also stimulate mitochondrial biogenesis 47.
In order to build up your natural defenses it is essential to consume lots of plant foods in your diet. Make their consumption a daily norm and make sure they compose the bulk of your diet. Eat a variety of spices, olive oil, herbs, medicinal mushrooms, fruits and vegetables, especially those with bright or intense colors (which contain a class of phytonutrients called Bioflavanoids). Also eat fruit, skins and seeds that are bitter (and contain glucosinolates). Finally, drink teas, herbs and spices that have strong, bitter or hot flavors, including herbal teas, green and black teas, coffee, hot chocolate, yerba mate and chai.
Raw vegetables and fruits
Raw plant foods contain micro RNA’s (miRNA) that carry information and act as important signaling molecules in humans. miRNAs have already been identified as regulators in mitochondrial metabolism. It is thought to increase cellular NAD+ (a coenzyme needed for energy production) levels and sirtuin activity, which subsequently increases mitochondrial function and biogenesis48. Make sure you include some raw food in your meals every day!
Foods rich in PQQ
Pyrroloquinoline quinone, or PQQ, is a vitamin-like compound found in plant foods, with a wide range of benefits. It is involved in cellular function, including cellular growth, development, differentiation and survival. It also activates the PGC-1α pathway, which increases mitochondrial biogenesis and increases Nrf2 transcription factors that protect cells against free radical damage through the activation of the body’s internal antioxidant defense system. By increasing cellular metabolism it also favorably affects blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and adiposity. Healthy individuals given 20mg of PQQ showed a significant decrease in plasma C-Reactive Protein levels (a measure of inflammation). Lower Inflammation means higher levels of Orexin and more energy.
PQQ has also been shown to improve sleep time and quality, as well as decrease time taken to fall asleep 49. PQQ-rich foods include parsley, green peppers, kiwi fruit, papaya and tofu. However, the richest source is pure, raw Cacao powder, so drinking hot chocolate made with liberal amounts of Cacao is a good way to boost levels. Cacao also contains Flavanol-3-ol and Epicatechin, which are phytonutrients that stimulate mitochondrial biogenesis.
Omega 3 rich foods
Polyunsaturated fatty acids of marine origin up-regulate mitochondrial biogenesis, play a critical role in mitochondrial bioenergetics and increase fatty acid oxidation 50. It has been shown that increasing intake of Omega 3 fatty acids results in its robust incorporation into human muscle mitochondrial membranes altering the thickness, stiffness and fluidity of the lipid bilayer and thus impacting metabolism 51.
The best sources of Omega 3 fatty acids are seafood, however, due to pollution concerns, eating large predatory fish such as tuna and swordfish is not recommended, however, fish that are lower on the food chain, like sardines and anchovies are acceptable and should be eaten at least a few times a week. Opt for wild-caught fish whenever possible (especially wild Alaskan) and eat as much shellfish as you like, including mussels, oysters, scallops, shrimp, crab etc.
Whenever possible, chose whole food sources of Omega 3 fatty acids over supplements as most commercially available fish oils are oxidized. If you are going to supplement, we recommend krill oil over fish oil, as it contains astaxanthin, another powerful antioxidant with numerous health benefits (discussed above), that protects the oil from oxidation. Also, if you are vegan or don’t like seafood, make sure you supplement with algae oil.
Intermittent Fasting for Mitochondrial Health
Although eating a healthy diet is critically important for mitochondrial health, when you eat and how you eat can also affect mitochondrial function. Calorie restriction and time restricted feeding (TRF) (or intermittent fasting) have been shown to optimize mitochondrial function, benefit the aging process and extend lifespan. The mild stress that caloric restriction places on the body acts as a hormetic stressor and activates a wide variety of protective pathways within the body, ramping up anti-inflammatory and antioxidant defences. In this way, your body prepares for famine to come.
Fasting for medical purposes has been suggested since the time of ancient Chinese, Greek and Roman physicians 52. Even Benjamin Franklin has been quoted as saying “The best of all medicines is resting and fasting.”53
When levels of insulin drop as a result of fasting (or high-fat ketogenic diets) autophagy is triggered. Autophagy literally means “self-eating”. It is the body’s way of cleaning out damaged cells, in order to regenerate newer, healthier cells. Autophagy also plays an important role in cellular quality control where it degrades protein aggregates and damaged or dysfunctional organelles such as leaky mitochondria that can be harmful to the cell 54. Through this mechanism, intermittent fasting keeps cells youthful, vigorous, and healthy overall.
Carb cycling is also a form of hormesis and carbohydrate restriction produces ketone bodies, which may have many protective effects. Ketone bodies are an extremely energy-efficient source of fuel. They produce more ATP than glucose. Using ketone bodies for energy decreases the production of damaging free radicals and lowers inflammation 5556, which can cause severe disease and damage 57. Ketogenesis improves mitochondrial health by activating the Nrf2 pathway and increasing mitochondrial biogenesis.
To gain the benefits of calorie restriction and intermittent fasting, start by adding occasional intermittent fasts that last 16-24 hours long. When you are starting out do not fast longer than 24 hours and restrict fasting to no more than twice per week, to minimize any ill-effects. To amplify autophagy, drink water at night or first thing in the morning while you are still fasting. In addition, you can cycle calories, carbohydrates, proteins and fats, which can also be have similar beneficial effects.
As you can see from the above, eating a healthy and varied diet is vital for mitochondrial health and energy production. Certain nutrients, such as phospholipids and astaxanthin, are critical for maintaining the integrity of the mitochondrial membrane, cofactors, such as Magnesium and the B Vitamins, are important for cellular health and energy production, and phytonutrients in plant foods act as dietary restriction mimetics and mimic the physiological effects of dietary restriction.
Equally, sometimes limiting nutrients and cycling calories and/or macronutrients can be beneficial to overall health. They key to this is hormesis, an adaptive response of cells and organisms to a moderate (usually intermittent) stress. By neutralizing many endogenous and environmental challenges by toxic agents, hormesis enhances survival58.
In other words, that which does not kill us, only makes us stronger!
Exercise, exposure to heat and cold, and red and near infra-red light treatment also act as hormetic stressors that strengthen the mitochondria. Aside from this, the effect of optimizing your circadian rhythm, hydrating adequately, dealing with stress, taking care of your gut health and decreasing your toxic load cannot be ignored for overall health and wellness.
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