Mitochondria- Why keeping them healthy keeps your brain sharp.
Mitochondria are getting lots of buzz lately and for good reason.
What are these tiny little buzzwords?
They’re organelles located within your cells.
Interestingly, they were once an independent living organism, thought to be a kind of bacteria, that was engulfed by other cells and evolved to live symbiotically within the cells of humans animals, and plants (including fungi). What makes mitochondria unique among organelles is the fact that they bring their own DNA to the table.
And they’re powerful- they’re known as the powerhouse of the cell.
What does it mean to be the powerhouse?
Mitochondria are the organelles responsible for breaking down carbohydrates and fats in the cells and, thus, providing you with the energy you need to think, read, hike, walk, learn and more. Mitochondria are also responsible, to a certain degree, for deciding which cells need to be eliminated because they're either dead, dying or broken (as in cancer).
You have your mitochondria to thank for the metabolism of foods from the form we see (and eat) into a form of energy the body and cells can actually use, called ATP. Mitochondria pack hundreds of enzymes that break down foods, oxidizing them and turning them into ATP. Without mitochondria, we would end up with significantly less ATP.
Cells that need more energy, like muscle tissue cells, have more mitochondria (this is why building more muscle speeds up your metabolism and why building muscle can help keep you young). The brain and liver are also very energy dependent and have lots of mitochondria.
One of the side effects of producing all this energy is the production of toxic byproducts known as free radicals.
Yes, you read that right- simply existing causes free radicals.
For the most part, your body is capable of producing enough antioxidants (like glutathione) to neutralize these free radicals and no harm is done.
However, the outside environment (pollution, smoke, etc) or heavy metals (like mercury) can also interfere with mitochondrial function.
If and when it gets to be too much for the body to keep up with, the free radicals start to build up causing damage to the mitochondria. Eventually, the damage becomes too great and the mitochondria die.
When the mitochondria die, the cell no longer has an energy source, and can die or become damaged as well. Tissue and organs with more mitochondria are at a higher risk of damage due to mitochondrial death.
This, in a nutshell, is the Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging. The theory states that as we age our mitochondria get more damaged and become less efficient. More free radicals are produced and more damage occurs. You can read the nitty gritty here.
That damage can also impact other parts of your body, especially your brain.
The brain is especially vulnerable to the aging process and free radical damage.
The brain uses a lot of energy (ATP) and uses almost 20% of the oxygen in the body to do its thing. Neurons need vast amounts of ATP to fire and transmit their messages.
Because of their need for energy, neurons have a high concentration of mitochondria and they are highly dependent on these mitochondria. Because of their dependence, they're very suseptible to mitochondrial dysfunction.
When the mitochondria in the brain produce all the energy needed to keep up with the energy demands of the brain, they’re also producing damaging free radicals (the free radical damage is worse if you’re obese or a smoker). Too many free radicals and you're headed towards mitochondrial dysfunction.
Brain aging occurs when there is a decrease in antioxidant defense (something that happens as we get older and/or as a result of our lifestyle), increased oxidative stress, and reduced mitochondrial function. It’s a vicious cycle too- increased oxidative stress leading to more mitochondrial dysfunction and death.
As we accumulate more oxidative stress and damage more mitochondria it can lead to neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer's, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease.
Lower concentrations of ATP in certain parts of the brain, as a result of decreased mitochondrial function, has been linked to increased depression and anxiety.
Are you beginning to understand just how important it is to keep your mitochondria healthy?
So, let's get to the good stuff!
How can you support your mitochondria?
Good news! There is plenty you can do to improve the health of your mitochondria, from nutrition interventions to lifestyle factors.
A nutrient dense, whole foods based diet, packed with lots of colorful vegetables (full of antioxidants and phytochemicals that keep free radicals from doing damage), lean proteins and healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocado, grass fed meats) plays a huge role in keeping your mitochondria healthy.
Outside of a nutrient packed diet, there are a few supplements that can help.
Vitamin K2 improves electron transport in the mitochondria, leading to improved energy production. Since most neurodegenerative diseases have something to do with the mitochondria of the neuron- and since K2 plays such a big role in neuronal mitochondrial health- K2 likely plays a role in preventing neurodegenerative diseases from ALS to Parkinson’s.
CoQ10 supports respiratory functioning in the mitochondria and acts as a powerful antioxidant in the mitochondrial membrane.
These two nutrients help the mitochondria function well. But put them together?
CoQ10 functions even better in the presence of vitamin K2- together they do better at producing energy transporting electrons in the mitochondria. If you’re taking CoQ10 you should be taking vitamin K2 as well.
Lifestyle factors play a role in keeping those mitochondria happy and healthy as well.
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is one such lifestyle example. HIIT increases the mitochondrial capacity and increases the formation of mitochondria (it also increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), another protein that supports brain health, learning, and memory).
Although longer bouts of exercise will also boost mitochondrial function and formation, HIIT does it in less time. In fact, one study found two minutes of interval sprinting was comparable to 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise.
The other lifestyle change that will boost your mitochondria?
A Harvard study found that intermittent fasting and energy restriction activated a protein called AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK). Activation of AMPK has been shown to promote healthy aging, increase the formation of mitochondria and keep the mitochondria in a “youthful” state.
When we’re young, mitochondria are organized into highly connected networks, as we age, there is a loss of that network connectivity- intermittant fasting keeps mitochondria in that organized, connected and youthful state.
Keeping our mitochondria healthy now and as we age keeps our bodies and our brains healthier. If you want to know more about how to preserve, or even improve your brain and mitochondrial function, shoot me an email.