The Role of Mitochondria in Health
Mitochondria are small organelles located in each cell that are responsible for producing the majority of energy in the body through the Kreb’s cycle. Because of their central role in energy production, the health of mitochondria is key to properly functioning cells and central to human health. The organs that have the highest density of mitochondria are those that require the largest amount of energy – the brain, heart, liver, and kidneys. Healthy mitochondria can support the metabolic activity of these organs; however, if mitochondria are damaged, their ability of these tissues to function may suffer. Loss of functioning mitochondria can create widespread implications. (1-3)
How Can Mitochondria Become Damaged?
It is not one factor, at one point in time that creates mitochondrial damage. Rather, there are a multitude of influential factors that, if not corrected over time, may cause healthy mitochondria to become damaged. (4) These factors include:
- Lipid Peroxidation
The membrane that surrounds the mitochondria is composed of lipids, largely based on dietary fat consumption. The sources of fat in the average American diet are excessive in omega 6 fatty acids and too low in omega 3 fatty acids. Mitochondrial membranes that are comprised of predominantly omega 6 fatty acids may be unstable, promote inflammation, and eventually could damage the mitochondria. (4-8)
- Excessive ROS
When generating energy, mitochondria produce substances knows as reactive oxygen species (ROS). While some amount of ROS in the body is normal, excessive amounts may be harmful. The appropriate balance of ROS is dependent on adequate endogenous and dietary antioxidants . If there are not enough antioxidants available to the mitochondria, damage to the mitochondria may occur. (1, 2)
- Environmental Toxins and Gut Microbial Infections
Widespread exposure to environmental agrichemicals and microbial toxins including pesticides, herbicides, and blue-green algae are known to lead to mitochondrial loss. Specific environmental exposures have been associated with neurodegenerative conditions as well as changes in pediatric brain development. (9-10)
- Metabolites of Fructose Metabolism
Dietary fructose consumption is at unprecedented levels due to its increased availability and the presence of sweeteners such as HFCS and agave. Yet there is a limited amount of fructose that can be properly metabolized by the body. When consumed above this amount, fructose metabolism generates biproducts, such as methylglyoxal, that may be harmful to overall health. (11-16)
How to Maintain or Improve Mitochondrial Health (17)
- Get an “oil change”
Support your mitochondrial membrane by removing omega 6 rich industrial seeds oils and making monounsaturated and saturated fats the foundation of your dietary fat intake. Polyunsaturated fats should be balanced with an omega 3 to omega 6 ratio of 1:1 or greater, with omega 6 fatty acids comprising only 5% of calories or less. Choose olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, and omega 3 rich foods like flax oil and oily fish.
- Go organic
Consumption of organic vegetables and fruit is associated with a significantly lower toxic burden and better health indices. This is especially important for more susceptible populations including children, the critically ill, and the elderly. Refer to the Environmental Working Group “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” list for guidance on purchasing.
- Be mindful about seafood
Choose cold water marine fish and shellfish. Avoid seafood from areas with cyanobacteria (blue green algae) blooms.
- Choose low fructose carbohydrates
Limit fructose to 10 grams per meal and 25 grams total per day. Eliminate fruit juices, fruit juice concentrate, and sweeteners. Choose moderate to low fructose containing fruit, especially berries and citrus.
- Focus on plant-based diets made of whole, unrefined foods
Diets that are centered around whole foods will offer more protection and a lower glycemic burden than those comprised of refined ingredients.
Katherine Wohl, RDN, LD, IFNCP
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