girl sleeping in blankets recovering mitochondrial health

Wellness is about the big picture, but sometimes it requires digging into the tiniest details of our own biology. As research is proving more and more, our mitochondrial health plays a huge role in our overall well being — specifically, when it comes to our energy.

Functional medicine expert, Dr. Elizabeth Boham of The Ultra Wellness Center, is walking us through the compelling link between our mitochondrial health and chronic fatigue…

Are My Mitochondria Causing Fatigue?The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell is perhaps a phrase you remember well from biology. If anything, this is an understatement of the importance of the mitochondria for your health and energy. One of the main functions of this organelle is the production of ATP (or energy) and this is why it is called a powerhouse. One of the main things I remember memorizing in college and medical school is the krebs cycle, which is the energy producing steps that take place in the mitochondria. We spent so much time on these important organelles and their function because their importance to our health.

Damage to your mitochondria can produce a variety of symptoms and diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, migraines, muscle pain and fatigue. A poor diet, a low intake of antioxidants and phytonutrients as well as infection and toxin exposure can all cause damage to your mitochondria.

Fortunately, research has shown that diet and lifestyle interventions can be helpful in providing support for optimal mitochondrial function. When your mitochondria are working well, you will experience a reduction in pain, fatigue and cognitive problems. You may also experience better energy production and the ability to burn excess fat and build lean muscle mass more easily.

How Do I Support My Mitochondria?

One of the best ways to support the functioning of your mitochondria is with a healthy whole foods diet. Specifically one that is high in B vitamins and antioxidants. B vitamins are cofactors in the energy-producing krebs cycle. Cofactors are substances, often vitamins and minerals, that are necessary for a chemical reaction to occur in your body. For all of the steps of energy production to occur, you need to have enough vitamins and minerals. When you have a deficiency of these cofactors, the important reactions do not occur and energy is not formed efficiently.

Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (SAD) is high in calories but low in nutrients. When many people realize that they are deficient in necessary vitamins and minerals, they are often surprised. Even those who may not look malnourished often are. In addition, slight amounts of malnutrition can lead to increased fatigue.

Filling up on calorie-dense nutrient-poor foods (such as pancakes with syrup and frappuccinos) increases the amount of fatigue. So, eating unprocessed foods will help you get all of the necessary nutrients for mitochondrial function. For example, whole grains have much higher levels of B vitamins than refined and processed grains. Although whole grain bread may sound healthy, it is often very low in actual whole grains. Instead, reach for quinoa, buckwheat and brown rice. In addition, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, animal protein, eggs and vegetables are all rich in B vitamins and other important nutrients for energy production including magnesium, zinc, carnitine and CoQ10.Should I Test My Mitochondria Levels?If you are feeling low in energy and wonder how your mitochondria are functioning, you can test B vitamin levels in your body. Direct measurements of vitamin B12 levels and folate levels in the blood may not be helpful. Therefore I recommend asking your doctor to measure functional blood tests such as homocysteine and methylmalonic acid. If you are deficient in B vitamins, I recommend a high-quality B complex with methylfolate instead of folic acid.

Further testing of your mitochondria can be done with urine organic acid testing. This can provide insight into your nutritional status as well as give an indication of weakened mitochondria. Chronic infections such as lyme, exposure to toxins such as mercury and many medications (such as statin)s are examples of things that can damage your mitochondria. Often, it is necessary to get rid of these problems to return to optimal health. Working with a functional medicine doctor can assist you in getting this test and determining what you need to do beyond improving your diet.

How Does My Mitochondria Impact Energy?

Exercise is another way to give yourself more energy. Exercise has been shown to increase the number of mitochondria that you have in your muscles as well as improve their function. More mitochondria means more ATP production and that means more energy. High-intensity exercise training helps boost the power of your mitochondria even more. If you are just starting, try to do light exercise every day and work up slowly. The general goal is 150 minutes of exercise per week with at least two days of resistance exercise. You may also want to consider working with a trainer or exercise physiologist. These professionals can help you reach your goals in a safe way. Move more, sit less and have fun!

All of this information may seem overwhelming, but the most important thing to take away is that eating healthy is important for so many reasons. Whenever I have a patient who has one of the many symptoms of poor mitochondrial function I start with diet. I take out all added sugars, refined and processed foods and help them focus on high quality animal protein, healthy fats and tons of vegetables. Many times this is all they need to do to start feeling better. If you think your mitochondria is not working at its optimal level, try out some of these tips and see how much better you might feel.

There are many ways to approach this recently trending wellness topic — check out this overview to get acquainted with your mitochondrial health. 

The Chalkboard Mag and its materials are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. 
All material on The Chalkboard Mag is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programs. 

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