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- Mitochondria are structures within cells that produce energy for cellular functions and processes.
- Mitochondria are famous as energy producers; however, they play a vital role in immune function as well.
- The mitochondria help to direct and activate the immune system.
- While mitochondria are focusing on their immune function to fight infection and chronic illness, they are making less ATP, causing the infected person to be tired.
- People with chronic illness are also chronically fatigued for a couple of reasons: Energy production is reduced due to general mitochondrial damage and mitochondria have shifted their main focus toward immune support in an effort to control the infection.
- It is essential to support your mitochondria to heal from chronic illness.
- An anti-inflammatory, nutrient-rich diet can support mitochondrial health.
- As you transition to a ketogenic diet, your mitochondria are stressed and stimulated, prompting damaged or under-functioning mitochondria to be replaced with new and stronger ones.
- Intermittent and extended fasting can significantly improve your mitochondrial health.
- Regular exercise can improve mitochondrial health.
- Reducing stress and getting quality sleep can improve mitochondrial functioning.
- The nutrients in mitochondria-supportive products can help to supercharge your energy levels and immune function by supporting your mitochondria.
- Other nutrients and supplements helpful for mitochondria health include CoQ10, B vitamins, magnesium, and curcumins.
- Poorly functioning mitochondria can elevate your risk of disease and can result in numerous chronic illness symptoms.
- Healthy and robust mitochondria are essential for maintaining the health of your body.
- For help with mitochondrial support and illness, check out my At-Home Program for chronic illness.
What Are Mitochondria?
Mitochondria are well-known as the powerhouses of the cell and are found within almost all living cells in varying numbers. They are small organelles floating freely through the cell that act like a digestive system, taking in nutrients, breaking them down, and creating energy-rich molecules (ATP) for the cell. These processes of the cell are known as cellular respiration.1
Multiple reactions involved in cellular respiration occur in the mitochondria. Mitochondria are the organelles that keep the cell fueled with energy. Furthermore, mitochondria are unusual in that they have their own DNA and ribosomes (vital organelles that manufacture proteins) floating in their inner matrix. Mitochondria play a critical role in activities that enable cells to function and help to maintain a healthy body, including:2
- Production of ATP (ATP is the energy-carrying molecule found in cells)
- Regulation of Innate Immunity
- Calcium Homeostasis
- Programmed Cell Death
- Stem Cell Regulation
In the past two decades, mitochondria have been identified as signaling organelles that contribute to cell proliferation, death, and differentiation. Mitochondria can switch from being organelles which primarily produce ATP (the fuel source for cells) to organelles that produce both ATP and the building blocks for macromolecule synthesis. This switch enables them to meet the metabolic demands of various immune cells.
Mitochondria and the Immune System
As you can see, healthy mitochondria are crucial for many processes. However, only recently have the mitochondria’s significant role in the immune system and cellular defense come to light. When there is an infection, the mitochondria help to direct and activate the immune system.
Take, for example, a situation where you have a cold or the flu. There is typically a fatigue component of the infection—you’re tired and want to rest. When the body is under threat of infection, the mitochondria are shifting from energy/ATP production over to an immune role where they can handle the infection. So, while they are focusing on their immune function, the mitochondria are making less ATP. Hence, the infected person is tired.
Now, think about people who are stuck in a state of chronic infection or chronic illness. These people are chronically fatigued for a couple of reasons:
- The mitochondria aren’t working well, so energy production and other vital processes are reduced.
- The mitochondria have shifted their main focus toward immune support in an effort to control the infection.
This shows just how essential it is to support your mitochondria as you start to heal from chronic illness, while you are recovering from chronic illness, in the end stages of healing, and even moving forward, to maintain the health of the body.
Here is another consideration regarding maintaining mitochondrial health long-term:
When toxicity and pathogen loads build up in the body contributing to chronic illness, those burdens will need to be reduced for healing to happen. Thrown into the mix is the thought that if the level of mitochondrial function doesn’t remain high (if the mitochondrial level doesn’t remain higher than the toxin and pathogen levels), people will get sick again.
So, you aim to bring the toxin and pathogen loads down and lift the mitochondria level up above those burdens. Then, that situation can become the standard operating procedure in the body, and it will be able to ward off the toxins and pathogens that it is exposed to naturally. But again, if the mitochondria level stays too low compared to the burden of toxins and pathogens, then people can become ill again.
Restore Healthy Mitochondrial Function With a Nutrient-Rich Diet
A diet full of refined sugars, processed foods, and other inflammatory foods can lead to mitochondrial problems, oxidative stress, and disease. Adopting a nutrient-rich nutrition strategy can improve your mitochondrial function while lowering inflammation, decreasing oxidative damage, and reducing your risk of chronic health problems.
Avoid inflammatory foods, such as refined sugar and carbs, casein, poor quality fats, and artificial ingredients in your diet. Eat plenty of nutrient-rich greens, vegetables, fruits, herbs, and fruits in multiple colors, which are laden with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Focus on healthy fats, such as grass-fed butter, coconut oil, avocados, ghee, MCT oils, and organic pasture-raised eggs.
If you eat meat, choose clean proteins, such as grass-fed beef, pasture-raised poultry, wild-caught salmon, and even wild game. Additionally, consuming organ meats, such as liver, kidney, bones, heart, tongue, intestines, brain, and tendons can be beneficial for mitochondrial health.
Notably, heart meat has plentiful CoQ10 enzymes which are especially beneficial to the mitochondria, as they reduce oxidative stress and improve energy production. You may wish to consider adding a CoQ10 supplement to your regimen to support your mitochondria as well.
A Ketogenic Diet Improves Mitochondrial Health
The much-touted ketogenic (keto) diet can provide potent health benefits. This core of this diet is consuming high levels of fat and low levels of carbs. Eating in this way shifts the body’s preferred fuel to ketones, instead of glucose. Altered eating patterns such as fasting and intermittent fasting will cause your body to use ketones as a fuel source as well.
As it is for many other people, your body is likely to have been using sugar (glucose) for energy your entire life. Glucose is a familiar and comfortable energy source for the mitochondria. As you are adapting to a keto diet, the initial phases of your transition act as powerful stressors and stimuli to your mitochondria. In the process, old, weak, and poorly functioning mitochondria die off, stimulating the growth of new and stronger mitochondria. This process results in more energy production.3
Intermittent and Extended Fasting Improve Mitochondrial Health
As discussed briefly above, intermittent and extended fasting can significantly improve your mitochondrial health. When you fast, damaged mitochondria are purged through a process called autophagy. Autophagy plays an essential role in maintaining the mitochondria. The process of autophagy helps mitochondria to remove damaged and unwanted debris, accumulated reactive oxygen and nitrogen species, and harmful unfolded proteins.6
Research has also associated caloric restriction and fasting with improved mitochondrial function, better health, and increased longevity. Fasting can reduce the byproducts of oxidative stress and increase oxygen efficiency while maintaining vital ATP production.7
Some people find extended fasting uncomfortable, and it could even be harmful in cases of hypoglycemia. Intermittent fasting may be a better option for some individuals. Intermittent fasting is an altered eating pattern that employs a period of eating (say, an 8-hour window), followed by a period of fasting (say, a 16-hour window), typically within the same 24-hour time frame.
Regular Exercise Improves Mitochondrial Health
More research comes out daily confirming the harmful effects of a sedentary lifestyle and praising exercise and movement. So, it’s no surprise that regular exercise can improve mitochondrial health. Aerobic exercise, in particular, can help change the shape of mitochondria, aid in their repair, and promote mitochondrial balance.
Studies demonstrate that exercise can slow the aging process and improve mitochondrial function, even later in life.8
Reducing Stress and Getting Quality Sleep Can Improve Mitochondrial Health
People who have mitochondrial problems will typically experience fatigue. Reducing stress and sleeping better are critical if you are experiencing issues related to mitochondrial function. Persistent stress can lead to increased inflammation, reduced immune function, and more fatigue.
Research shows that less than seven hours of sleep per night can lead to reduced mitochondrial DNA in the blood. Sleep deprivation, even for short periods, can result in mitochondrial dysfunction and increased oxidative stress. For the sake of your mitochondria, get 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night or more on a regular basis.9.
Of note, the science still needs to catch up regarding mitochondria DNA in the bloodstream, Mitochondrial DNA Copy Number (mtDNA-CN), and the relationship to disease. On one hand, an increased amount of mtDNA-CN is linked to risk of cancer, metabolic disorder, kidney issues, and more. Reduced mtDNA-CN can be linked to tumor growth and Parkinson’s. 10
Nutrients and Supplements Can Improve Mitochondrial Health
The nutrients in certain mitochondria supportive products can help to supercharge your energy levels. Harnessing the benefits of specific fulvic acid extracts, these supplements are usually formulated to enhance mitochondrial function and upregulate ATP production. As they increase your energy levels, they also improve your ability to detoxify to maximize your health protocols. These highly specialized formulas promote cellular renewal and help mitochondria in their immune system role.
Look for supplements that contain specifically chosen extracts of fulvic acid, combined with polyelectrolytes to support your mitochondria and maximize their ATP production. You’ll want specific minerals, electrons, and polysaccharides that your precious power generators need to not only support energy creation, but to enhance your immune response, and help to protect you from DNA damage as well. Here are some ingredients to look for:
- Dibasic acid of fulvic
These specific fulvic molecules can donate two oxygen ions, which mitochondria need for the creation of ATP in the Krebs cycle. Providing this vital component of the energy cycle will help to maximize mitochondrial output.
- Polysaccharide extracts of fulvic
These molecules are actually clusters of smaller monosaccharides that act as signaling molecules and an energy source. Polysaccharides support metabolic processes and help regulate the uptake of nutrients and water within cells.
- Polyelectrolyte extracts of fulvic
Carefully chosen plant-based fulvic extracts are supercharged with electrons, to help increase the electrical conductivity of your cellular membranes. This upregulation of electrons boosts metabolic functioning and generation of ATP. It can help maintain the optimum strength and performance of cellular processes.
These ingredients can help get your body back to optimal wellness by supporting the foundation of all bodily processes—your precious mitochondria.
Other helpful mitochondrial support nutrients include:
- B vitamins
- Alpha-lipoic acid
A Deeper Dive Into Mitochondria and Immunity
Note from Dr. Jay: Since I go deeper into mitochondrial involvement in the immune system here, I’ve put this information near the end of the article. Some of this information is a bit on the complicated side, and there’s a simple reason for that. The immune system IS extremely complicated, involving a myriad of different functions and processes. For those people (like me) who want to know about and understand the underlying mechanisms, keep reading. There’s some great info here!
Immunity and mitochondria are closely interlinked with one another. Mitochondria are the key regulators in the innate immune response. Innate immunity is the body’s defense system that recognizes and responds to infection by microbes and other pathogens, providing an immediate, non-specific defense. Here is a more in-depth exploration of one immune process:
Macrophages Depend on Mitochondria to Help Kill Pathogens
Biology textbooks will tell you that a macrophage (a type of white blood cell of the immune system) engulfs a harmful bacterium, puts it in a toxin-filled, cyst-like capsule called a phagosome, then shuttles the cellular remains to a lysosome to be broken down. A lysosome is an organelle found within cells that contains enzymes which break down and digest microorganisms, old cellular debris, and macromolecules.
While this process may seem straightforward, killing microbial invaders turns out to be much more complex, with other organelles within the immune cell, such as mitochondria, participating in the process.
When a macrophage surrounds and engulfs a bacterium, bringing it into itself, it triggers a stress pathway in the endoplasmic reticulum (a network of tubules within the cytoplasm of the cell). Then, the endoplasmic reticulum stimulates the mitochondria to produce reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are unstable free radicals possessing an unpaired electron that can react freely with other molecules, causing damage to lipids, proteins, DNA, and RNA.11
ROS produced by the mitochondria are subsequently put into vesicles and shuttled to the phagosome, which is the phagocytosed (engulfed) bacterium enclosed within a part of the cell membrane. There, the damaging ROS molecules are thought to aid in killing the pathogen. Lastly, the phagosome fuses with a lysosome, and the bacterial remains are degraded fully. Essentially, mitochondrial byproducts (ROS) become part of a process that serves as a potent defense mechanism against microbial invaders, toxins, and debris—anything a macrophage would normally engulf.
Mitochondria Can Regulate Immune Function in Other Ways
A key feature of mitochondria is that they can regulate the activation, differentiation, and survival of immune cells. Mitochondria can also release signals to regulate transcription (copying of the genetic material) of immune cells. Mitochondria can regulate immune function in other ways, including:
- Alterations in both metabolic pathways and mitochondria can bring about transcriptional (genetic material copying) changes, which can lead to entirely different outcomes in immune cells.12
- Mitochondria can activate the inflammatory response. Poorly functioning mitochondria trigger signaling events involved in inflammasome activation. For instance, mitochondrial antiviral signaling and NLRP3 (an inflammasome) can be activated by mitochondria. Inflammasome activation results in cell death that contributes to disease conditions.13
- Mitochondrial mass and mobility can be influenced by the mitochondrial fission and fusion processes. Mitochondrial fission and fusion can influence immune functions.
- Mitochondria are placed near the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) in immune cells. The combination of mitochondria and ER signaling can influence immune cell metabolism. The machinery in the mitochondria are crucial for immune functions. This includes mitochondrial machinery such as:
- Metabolic pathways
- Amino acid metabolism
- Mitochondrial dynamics
- Antioxidant systems
- Mitochondrial DNA
- Mitochondrial ROS
- Mitochondrial antiviral signaling protein (MAVS) plays a key role in the innate response to viral infections, helping to activate antiviral and anti-inflammatory pathways. Disruption of the signaling protein (MAVS) can lead to a break down in immune protection.
Healthy and robust mitochondria are essential for maintaining the health of your body. Poorly functioning mitochondria can elevate your risk of disease and can result in numerous chronic illness symptoms. Mitochondria do so much for us, so it is vital that we care for them if we are to live long, active, and thriving lives.
- ”Mitochondria – Turning on the Powerhouse.” Rader’s Biology4Kids, Andrew Rader Studios, n.d. Web
- Macdonald, Anna. “5 Roles Mitochondria Play in Cells.” Immunity & Microbiology from Technology Networks, 6 Jun 2017. Web
- Pitceathly, R. D., & Viscomi, C. (2016). Effects of ketosis in mitochondrial myopathy: potential benefits of a mitotoxic diet. EMBO Molecular Medicine, 8(11), 1231–1233. PMID: 27729389 Web
- Ahola-Erkkilä, S et al. “A Ketogenic Diet Slows Down Mitochondrial Myopathy Progression in Mice.” Hum Mol Genet., vol. 15, no. 19, May 2010. Web
- Gano, LB et al. “Ketogenic Diets, Mitochondria, and Neurological Diseases.” J Lipid Res., vol. 55, Nov 2014. Web
- Ding, WX, and Yin, XM. “Mitophagy: Mechanisms, Pathophysiological Roles, and Analysis. Biol Chem., vol. 393, no. 7, Jul 2012. Web
- McInnes, J. “Mitochondrial-Associated Metabolic Disorders: Foundations, Pathologies, and Recent Progress.” Nutrition & Metabolism, vol. 10, no. 1, Oct 2013. Web
- Robinson, MM et al. “Enhanced Protein Translation Underlies Improved Metabolic and Physical Adaptations to Different Exercise Training Modes in Young and Old Humans.” Cell Metabolism, vol. 25, no. 3, 7 Mar 2017. Web
- Wrede, Joanna E et al. “Mitochondrial DNA Copy Number in Sleep Duration Discordant Monozygotic Twins.” Sleep vol. 38,10 1655-8. 1 Oct. 2015, doi:10.5665/sleep.5068 Web
- Fazzini, F., Schöpf, B., Blatzer, M. et al. Plasmid-normalized quantification of relative mitochondrial DNA copy number. Sci Rep8, 15347 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41598-018-33684-5 Web
- Zimmer, Katarina. “Mitochondria Play an Unexpected Role in Killing Bacteria.” The Scientist, 1 Jan 2019. Web
- Angajala, A et al.”Diverse Roles of Mitochondria in Immune Responses: Novel Insights Into Immuno-Metabolism.” Front. Immunol., 12 July 2018. Web
- Sandhir, R et al. “Mitochondria as a Centrally Positioned Hub in the Innate Immune Response.” Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) – Molecular Basis of Disease, vol. 1863, issue 5, May 2017. Web