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Optimal Wellness, Part 4: Energy, Mitochondria and Toxicity

Mighty mitochondria — those little factories inside our cells that generate energy — play a central role in our metabolism, our vitality and our overall health and wellness. Find out how to rev up your cellular engines, rid them of the gunk and damage that slows them down, to achieve optimal health and performance.

Ultimately, everything comes down to energy and in fact the ultimate loss of energy is death. And yet, most of us don’t think about energy this way — we don’t think much about where our energy comes from, why we sometimes have more or less of it, how it might affect our brains, or even how it might affect aging. But, in fact, everything we have explored in this series on the keys to Optimal Wellness influences our health directly through energy.

With this in mind, imagine if you could fine tune up your metabolism, to increase your energy levels, to improve cognitive performance and get to the root of aging and delay the process. Imagine if you could prevent diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Imagine if you could heal fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Imagine if you could find a way to tune up your metabolism, to increase your energy levels, to be able to improve cognitive performance and get to the root of aging and delay the process.

All that and much more is possible if you’re willing to give yourself a metabolic makeover. While energy is something we inevitably lose overtime with age, it can also be lost as a result of anything that triggers more free radicals and oxidative stress, and/or damage to our mitochondria.

Mito-who? Let me explain. In 2006, Harvard researchers found that the red pigment in grapes called resveratrol could extend life in mice by protecting their mitochondria. These mice actually lived 15 percent longer than average, even while eating a bad diet. In fact, they even became fitter and lost weight.

So how could they eat poorly and not exercise, but become fitter and live longer? One word: mitochondria. It turns out that the resveratrol protected and improved the function of the mitochondria through its effects on special master aging genes.

A Mitochondria Primer

Mitochondria are tiny factories that turn food and oxygen into energy. In each cell, there are hundreds to thousands of these little energy factories. They exist in greater numbers in active organs and tissues, like the muscles, heart and brain.

Simply put, the mitochondria are where metabolism happens. The role of your metabolism is to take the oxygen you breathe and the food you eat and process it to make energy, the fuel for life. Along the way, many things can go wrong that may impede your metabolism, making it run less efficiently or practically shut it down.

The problem? Mitochondria are very sensitive to damage. And when they aren’t working properly, you suffer all the symptoms of low energy — fatigue, memory loss, pain, rapid aging and more. Fatigue is the most common symptom of poorly functioning mitochondria. In fact, the reason we slow down as we age is the constant insult and injury we inflict upon our mitochondria.

But this doesn’t have to happen! Research shows that we can protect our mitochondria — and boost metabolism. Renowned scientist Bruce Ames, PhD, at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent the last decade discovering how we can give ourselves a metabolic tune-up. In a series of studies, he gave old, tired rats — who wouldn’t get on the treadmill anymore and couldn’t find the cheese in the maze or swim very far — two molecules that boost metabolism by making the mitochondria run better: alpha-lipoic acid and acetyl-L-carnitine.

In only a month, these rats began acting younger. They got up on the treadmill by themselves, swam long distances without tiring and could easily find the cheese in the maze, just like younger, healthier rats. How could that happen? The molecules used on the rats support a core part of biochemistry and thus affect the rat’s system as a whole, as well as our own. These are not the only things needed to boost energy however.

Oxidative Stress and Disease

To tune up your own metabolism, the first order of business is to identify those things which damage your mitochondria — things like toxins, infections, allergens and stress. But the biggest insult over time is eating too much high-calorie, low-nutrient food — in short, too many “empty calories.”

When food is burned or metabolized with oxygen in the mitochondria, your body produces waste in the form of free radicals, which create a chain reaction of rusting, or oxidation. Unless you have sufficient antioxidants in your diet, you make enough in your body, or you take supplement antioxidants, you can’t protect yourself from the damage to your mitochondria. So when you eat empty calories — such as sugar, flour and processed foods that don’t have the high antioxidant levels contained in fruits and vegetables — you produce too many free radicals that tip the balance and start a chain reaction of cellular and tissue damage that destroys your mitochondria and, thus, your life force.

In short, oxidative stress is a slow, progressive process of deterioration that contributes to practically every known disease and the process of aging itself. It is part of the inevitable entropy, or chaotic breakdown, that is the basic principle of life.

You are already familiar with this process. Cut apples oxidize and turn brown after being exposed to air for a short time. A common way to prevent this is dipping the apple slices in lemon juice. The vitamin C in lemon juice is an antioxidant and can prevent the apple from turning brown. In the same way, our body uses antioxidants to keep itself from deteriorating due to oxidation.

You can see it in the form of rust on a car, wrinkles forming on your skin and on an apple when cut open and exposed to air for a short time. In the case of the apple, a common means of preventing this is dipping the apple slices in lemon juice. The vitamin C in lemon juice is an antioxidant and can prevent the oxidation, ie. the apple from turning brown. While be it on a much slower scale, our own cells, tissues and organs are rusting and breaking down. Fortunately our body uses antioxidants to keep itself from deteriorating due to oxidation.

Your body has a built-in anti-rusting system and mitochondrial protection system — the redox system, a chemical process of reduction and oxidation. As with all the systems in the body, big problems can arise when any one part of a system is thrown out of balance, and the redox system can become overwhelmed by all the work you ask of it.

Reduction is the neutralization of damage from oxidation, or rusting. But oxidation is actually not all bad. In fact, your white blood cells kill bacteria and viruses by releasing hydrogen peroxide and other compounds we call free radicals. These are electrochemical molecules that are missing an electron, which makes them unstable. They bump into neighboring molecules and steal an electron, in turn making them unstable.

But while oxidation sometimes works in your favor, it can also easily get out of hand and start damaging the very tissues it was designed to protect. Eating too many empty calories and not taking in enough phytonutrients and antioxidants from fresh fruits and vegetables actively encourages your free radicals to multiply and run amok. The more free radicals you make, the less energy you produce, because you damage the cells’ ability to make energy in the mitochondria. This is why eating too many calories and not enough nutrients is at the heart of both obesity and a great deal of chronic illness.

Making the Most of Your Mitochondria

The key to achieving optimal health and enjoying a vital, energetic life is to get your redox system back into balance thereby protecting your mitochondria. Does that mean taking supplemental antioxidants is the answer? While this helps it’s only part of the solution to balancing the scale.

Much research has been done on antioxidants and disease — and the results are mixed. One problem is that we are used to looking at things through a pharmaceutical-drug lens, where you study a single drug, a single effect and a measurable outcome: You give a pill for high blood pressure and watch for blood pressure to go down. But studying a single antioxidant that we isolate from food, like beta-carotene, is completely counter-physiologic, because the body simply doesn’t process nutrients this way. It prefers to get its nutrients in whole-food form, where they come complete with all the necessary cofactors and complementary nutrients required for proper assimilation. And then there’s the fact that some of the most powerful antioxidants around — such as the proanthocyanidins in grapes and berries — are not available in supplement form.

Here’s another problem with relying on megadoses of supplemental antioxidants: By definition, antioxidants have the potential to becomes oxidants. That’s because an antioxidant works by giving up one electron to neutralize the free radical — and then, by definition, it becomes a free radical. It then needs to be neutralized by another antioxidant, moving down a chain until it is finally neutralized by the mother of all antioxidants, glutathione, which can be recycled and restored.

Ultimately, no magic pill will do for us what a whole-food diet and healthy lifestyle will, particularly given all the real-life insults affecting us — poor diet, stress, environmental toxins and sedentary lifestyle — all of which affect our mitochondria.

But if dosing up on bottled antioxidants isn’t the answer to our mitochondrial woes, what is?

How to Heal Your Mitochondria

So now you know what can damage your mitochondria. Here’s how to protect them and prevent rusting.

First, address the causes of mitochondrial damage:

  1. Minimize your intake of processed food, junk food, sugar, empty calories, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors and other chemical food additives. Their toxic effects can damage your mitochondria and prevent them from producing energy properly.
  2. Detoxify. Support your body in ridding itself of the environmental and internal toxic “sludge” it has accumulated over the years. (For detox tips, see “Day-to-Day Detox”)
  3. Address inflammation. Chronic, smoldering inflammation slowly destroys our organs and our ability for optimal functioning, and leads to rapid aging. (For advice, see  “Fighting Inflammation”)
  4. Balance your hormones. By resetting your metabolism and improving the way your body handles sugar and insulin — a master hormone — you can make your cells more intelligent and cooperative, and less resistant to doing their jobs.

Then, boost and protect your mitochondria:

  1. Exercise. In essence, exercising encourages your body to upgrade its energy factories. Interval training, for example, increases the efficiency and function of the mitochondria. (For more, see “The Fit Way to Weight Loss” in the January/February 2008 archives.)
  2. Eat foods that are full of antioxidants and phytonutrients. Get eight to 12 servings of fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains every day. (For more on this, see “Phyto Power” in the November 2007 archives.)
  3. Take mitochondria-protective and energy-boosting nutrients. These include glutathione, acetyl-L-carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, n-acetyl-cysteine, NADH, D-ribose, resveratrol and magnesium aspartate. While not a cure-all, these nutrients, taken in conjunction with a whole-food, plant-based diet, can provide metabolic support for those low on energy.
  4. Increase omega-3 fats to help build your mitochondrial membranes. Coldwater fish, such as wild salmon, sardines and herring, are good sources of omega-3 fats, as are flaxseeds and omega-3 eggs. They all help strengthen the fragile cellular membranes that make your mitochondria work the way they’re supposed to.

Even as we are learning how mitochondrial injury is one of the common pathways to so many illnesses, we are also learning how to protect and defend ourselves. Getting a metabolic tune-up is not only possible, it’s also necessary for most of us to feel our best. Eating a colorful plant-based diet, reducing toxic exposures and getting adequate exercise are all key factors in protecting and restoring our energy metabolism to optimal function — and to enjoying the full, vibrant life force within our grasp.

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