Mitochondria, powerhouse of cells – Aug. 9,2010

I find when I ask patients if they know what mitochondria are, they nearly always give me a blank stare. Mitochondria are something you should know about. It would help you greatly to know a little about these microscopic cellular structures and what you can do to help them function better. A little knowledge here will go a long way.

Mitochondria are organelles inside cells. Our bodies have organs, our cells have organelles. Mitochondria are the organelles that make energy by stripping the electrons from food and bonding the electrons into a molecule called ATP. ATP functions like a little battery that stores energy for future use.  If your mitochondria are plentiful and healthy, you are thriving and will have a better chance to live a long healthy life. If they are few and dysfunctional you will sicken and die early. We will explore 3 main ways of promoting mitochondrial health.

Dr. Roy Walford, the famous gerontologist, has been studying the effect of calorie restriction on life extension. It was discovered a while back that restricting calories in the context of high nutrition will double the life span of most animals studied. For humans this is marginally useful information because most people are unwilling to live their live in a semi-starved state. This has lead to an investigation of the metabolic underpinnings of calorie restriction. What has been discovered is that calorie restriction leads to an increase of the molecule PGC alpha 1, which in turn increases the production of mitochondria in cells. It turns out that all metabolic pathways that lead to mitochondrial proliferation pass through PGC alpha 1. Since this is the key molecule, what can we do to increase it?

One known factor is Resveratrol, the extract from red grapes, which is known to mimic the effects of calorie restriction. Of the known pathways producing PGC alpha 1, resveratrol stimulates all but one. Resveratrol is mainly known for preventing heart disease, and may also affect this benefit by many paths, but among them is increasing the production of another chemical called nitric oxide. Nitric oxide makes sex possible because it causes vasodilatation. It is what Viagra is designed to increase. Nitric oxide also increases PGC alpha 1 which increases mitochondria, but it must be in the right amounts. Too much for too long will damage mitochondria. There is much more to be said about nitric oxide, in another newsletter.

Exercise is known to increase mitochondria, but it must be aerobic exercise, not resistance exercise. Aerobic exercise increases nitric oxide, which we have already mentioned, increases mitochondria. Resistance exercise increase contractile components of muscle, but not mitochondria, so by itself will not increase vitality and longevity.

Because mitochondria process oxygen and electrons, they are very prone to producing free radicals which damage them. Therefore, there is a need to antioxidants to prevent damage. Alpha Tocopherol, a type of Vitamin E, has been shown to decrease mitochondrial damage by between 37 and 66% in rat brains. While this is not a human study, it does suggest this effect may occur in humans also, so it would be wise to take Vitamin. E, as a precaution. Another supplement of value is Melatonin, which has shown free radical scavenging abilities in mitochondria, and a capacity to facilitate ATP production. A last important supplement is Alpha Lipoic Acid which has been shown to protect liver mitochondria.

According to Dr. Evans, the author of The Secret Life of Mitochondria, all the supplements stimulating mitochondria neogenesis are dependent on aerobic exercise to be activated. However, the supplements may give you many more new mitochondria for the same effort.

Robert Janda, MA, DC


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The Secret Life of Mitochondria by Joseph Evans, PhD, published by Xymogen.