You may not have heard about mitochondria, but they are very important not only for your heart, but for your overall health. By definition, mitochondria are ‘organelles,’ or components of cells that perform a specific function within the cell. Mitochondria are joined together to form complex networks, and they are involved with metabolic function and energy production in your cells. They are sometimes referred to as the ‘powerhouses’ of the cell. More details about mitochondria and their importance in health can be found here.
Dysfunction of mitochondria has been associated with numerous cardiac conditions, including atherosclerosis, hypertension, diabetes, and heart failure (1). Therefore, keeping your mitochondria healthy should be a priority if you want to reduce your chances of developing heart disease.
The rest of this article examines the relationship between mitochondria and heart health more closely, and provides specific recommendations that you can follow to avoid mitochondrial dysfunction.
Mitochondria and Heart Health
Mitochondria play a particularly important role in cells of the heart, because cardiac function requires a high level of energy. In addition, mitochondria are involved in managing oxidative stress, an imbalance between antioxidant activity and free radical activity in the body. (Read more about oxidative stress here.) Specifically, antioxidants work to stabilize free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can cause damage to DNA, fatty tissue, and proteins in the body.
When antioxidant activity cannot keep up with free radical activity, oxidative damage to the body accumulates and may contribute to metabolic syndrome, a collective name for a group of conditions which increase your risk of heart disease. These conditions include:
• High levels of cholesterol
• Elevated triglyceride levels
• High blood pressure
• Blood sugar imbalances
Having one or more of these conditions may cause extra plaque to build up in your arteries. This narrows the openings in the arteries and restricts blood flow, which in turn may lead to a heart attack.
Therefore, to maintain heart health, it is important to keep mitochondria healthy so that they can help to maintain a proper balance between antioxidants and free radicals. Conversely, if mitochondrial dysfunction occurs, oxidative stress builds and metabolic syndrome may develop (2). Damaged mitochondria, such as by toxic chemical (e.g pesticide) or heavy metal exposure, release free radicals and contribute greatly to oxidative stress.
How to Support Mitochondrial Function and Heart Health
One of the best ways to support mitochondrial health is to consume adequate amounts of the antioxidants that are involved in mitochondrial function. You can ensure you are getting enough antioxidants by focusing on a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet, and by avoiding empty calories, particularly those found in highly processed grains and high sugar foods (read more here). This type of diet is also great for minimizing inflammation, which may contribute toward mitochondrial dysfunction and oxidative stress (3). You can find more tips for following a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet here and here.
Supplements including Vitamins C and E, omega 3 fatty acids, coenzyme Q, a-lipoic acid, and N-acetylcysteine (NAC) may also be helpful.
In addition to a minimally processed, whole foods diet, there are a number of other nutrition and lifestyle strategies that will help you to maintain mitochondrial function and thereby support heart health. These include the following:
• Avoid heavily processed industrial vegetable oils (particularly canola, soybean, peanut, grapeseed and safflower oils) that cause inflammation and oxidative stress.
• Discontinue cigarette smoking which can affect both mitochondrial structure and function.
• Address chronic psychological stress, as stress hormones can also impair mitochondrial function.
• Avoid environmental toxins such as mold, contaminated water, air pollution, pesticides, BPA-containing plastics, and heavy metals.
• Ensure adequate sleep, aiming for 8 hours each night.
• Make sure that any infections are not left unchecked, as chronic infections may lead to oxidative damage.
Incorporating routine physical activity into your lifestyle also has both direct and indirect effects on mitochondrial health. The direct effect is that exercise increases your oxygen intake, which is a key component of mitochondrial production and function. The indirect effect is that physical activity helps to keep inflammation and blood sugar in check, both of which are related to mitochondrial function as well as heart health. Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day and focus on aerobic exercises such as biking and walking, and/or high intensity interval training for maximum benefits.
Another heart-healthy strategy is to be mindful of the number of calories that you consume each day. Calorie restriction has been shown to be beneficial in terms of maintaining mitochondrial health. This is because excess calories lead to higher blood glucose levels and inflammation, which in turn cause cells to overproduce ROS (reactive oxygen species) (4). Elevated ROS levels may lead to mitochondrial damage, reduced oxidative capacity, and ultimately cardiac dysfunction (5).
Besides for the number of calories you eat, the timing of your meals also matters. Research has shown that an intermittent fasting diet, in which you restrict your meals to an 8-10 hour window each day (such as 9 am to 5 pm), has a beneficial effect on mitochondrial health (6).
If you have been diagnosed with or are concerned about heart disease, your risk may be reduced if you follow the diet and lifestyle practices associated with improving mitochondrial health. If you wish to get more personalized advice on how these practices may benefit you and how to implement them, you may request a personalized functional medicine consultation with Dr. Gannage.