Mitochondrial Disease plays a major role when it comes to serious health conditions, including aging. It’s unbelievable that up until the turn of the century, we knew little about the mitochondria, even though these tiny, peanut-shaped miniature organs (organelles) found at the center of our cells are responsible for fueling us with energy and dictating how vibrant and healthy we are. These organelles produce the energy we need for every single physical, mental, and emotional function.
How many times have we heard the phrase “it’s all in the genes?” It sounds cute as an offhand joke when, let’s say, a young child starts playing the same sport as their parent. However, a lifetime of hearing our relatives and medical caregivers tell us that our disease risk is “in the genes” is very disempowering and misleading.
A life is priceless, and the financial cost of chronic illness is staggering. Between 2012 to 2015, heart failure cost $108 billion, diabetes cost $1.5 trillion, and dementia an astounding $818 billion, worldwide. In the USA alone, cancer cost $135 billion.
People are dying from these diseases. There’s a belief that our genes dictate our health and longevity, but what if the true primary cause is something else? Something we have power over? As discussed by Nature Builds Health, “most disease actually starts in what is called ‘mitochondria’ … by improving your mitochondria function, you can even lower your chances for getting certain diseases”.
Meet Your Mitochondria
We inherit half our genes from our mothers and half from our fathers, and some genes may increase our risk of certain diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, where one pair of faulty genes triggers its development. This view is rapidly becoming outdated, as we learn that most chronic conditions are driven by mitochondrial disease. One surprising fact about our mitochondria is that they even have their own DNA, which is inherited from our mothers. While our “regular” (nuclear) DNA comes in two copies, facing each other in the famous double helix, the mitochondria have two strands of circular DNA. Damage to this DNA by oxidative stress is one cause of mitochondrial damage, which is now estimated to cause 85 percent of all diseases seen in the modern world.
This is why aging is associated with a higher risk of developing many chronic illnesses. Damage, including mutations and effects of insufficient mitochondrial DNA repair, build up over time and cause other types of harm. The variations caused by unaddressed damage and mutations is called “heteroplasmy,” which affects mitochondria’s ability to communicate with other parts of the cell to produce energy. We are all born with a small amount of heteroplasmy, but as we get older it increases to harmful levels. One study found a heteroplasmy rate of 0.2-2 percent in healthy (no clinically diagnosable disease) volunteers. Unfortunately, the mitochondria are particularly prone to injury and need for repairs. When they produce energy for us, oxidative free radicals are an unavoidable byproduct, which causes degeneration. This degeneration can then cause even more oxidative stress. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent and repair mitochondrial damage.
The Causes And Effects Of Mitochondrial Disease
In May 2018, The Human Longevity Project series premiered online, with the aim of teaching us all how to live longer, healthier, happier lives. In some episodes, there was significant emphasis placed on how crucial mitochondrial health is to keeping ourselves youthful and free from disease. As Jason Prall, director and host of the series, states:
“Not only do mitochondria control energy production of the cell and the entire organism, they also serve a vital role in communication with our microbiota and our DNA through a variety of signaling molecules. These signaling mechanisms help control function of the entire cell and organ and determine which genes get expressed. Mitochondria also work to combat intracellular infections via reactive oxygen species (ROS) and communicate to neighboring cells via extracellular ATP when there is a threat of infection or excessive toxic exposure.”
From his research, he found that:
“There is a 5-way communication between the molecular signals coming from the environmental inputs, endogenous and exogenous energetic influences, somatic genetic code, mitochondrial genetic code, and our endogenous microbial genetic code. These complex networks are all dependent on one another to carry out the function of the meta-organism we call a human. When these 5 inputs are working in dynamic balance and harmony, we express vibrant health and function.”
But why? Poor mitochondrial health is now known as a major cause of aging. We have known now for decades that oxidative stress leads to cell senescence and cell death. Senescence is when a cell stops being able to divide and perform beneficial functions, and instead causes inflammation that harms neighboring cells. Mitochondrial damage is one of the major drivers of oxidative stress. When we think about it, aging is more or less a mitochondrial disease in itself. Depending on how you see it, disease can be a symptom of aging, or we age as a result of disease. Some of the conditions that mitochondrial damage and dysfunction contribute to are diabetes, dementias, cancer and heart disease. All of these increase in incidence as we get older.
Managing Our Mitochondria
The sheer amount of disease and death that mitochondrial damage has a hand in makes it all sound so overwhelming, but there are steps we can take to improve our mitochondrial health. Some of these keep a process known as autophagy occurring at the correct rate, which is the removal and replacement of old, damaged cell parts, mitochondria included. Autophagy has been shown to increase longevity and prevent disease in a wide range of organisms, from yeast to mammals.
To keep autophagy in balance, first prioritize healthy sleep patterns by improving circadian rhythm. We’re typically only aware of our circadian rhythm when we suffer jet lag, but it’s always working in the background, controlling processes such as autophagy that are increased or reduced at certain times of the day. If it’s disordered, these processes do not run optimally. A healthy circadian rhythm requires sunlight exposure during the day, and a relative lack of “blue” light at night.
This blue light is emitted in great amounts by electronic devices, and tells our bodies it’s morning. A free way (with optional donation) of reducing blue light exposure is to download f.lux onto your computer, which adjusts the lighting according to the time of day. You can also buy special glasses. Another free method of improving autophagy balance is to take cold showers. Moderate exposure to cold kicks off a stress response that’s enough to stimulate repair processes, but isn’t enough to cause damage.
As for diet, low-carb and ketogenic diets also stimulate autophagy, but you don’t have to be permanently on them. Intermittent fasting or fasting mimicking diets, where a high-fat, low-calorie diet is practiced for a few days each month, can be just as effective. There are also certain antioxidant substances which increase the expression of the Nrf2 system, which clears damaged mitochondria, protects existing healthy ones and helps to stimulate the production of new mitochondria. Besides supplements, foods that can increase Nrf2 signaling include green tea, rosemary, turmeric, cocoa and cruciferous vegetables. Yes, (quality, dark) organic chocolate protects your mitochondria. If you do decide to take supplements, always consult a holistic healthcare practitioner or functional medicine coach first. However, innumerable studies show that two supplements, in particular, molecular hydrogen and probiotics (like Just Thrive) are dynamic at helping battle oxidative stress.
Finally, always remember the importance of moderate exercise, and if possible, to do it in the early morning. Even a walk at sunrise can be enough.
Clearly, our newfound knowledge of the mitochondrial drivers of aging and disease has the potential to give us many more years of life, in good health. Even with an extra five or 10 years, imagine what you could do. Of course, this doesn’t herald the dawn of immortality – perfection is impossible – but it is unleashing newfound possibilities in the world of natural health, and for all of us.
Alexandra Preston is an Australian naturopath, passionate about empowering others to take charge of their health and healing the planet. Her special area of interest in natural health is antiaging; she also loves the beach and is a semi-professional dancer.
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