Mitochondrial Disease: What Is It and How to Support Your Mitochondrial Health

by | Oct 5, 2023 | Blog

The mitochondria are the batteries that power your cells and bodily functions with energy. They are responsible for creating about 90 percent of cellular energy.

If your mitochondria function is compromised, it won’t be able to supply your body with energy and will impact important bodily functions. Mitochondrial disease may lead to chronic symptoms and serious health issues. Secondary mitochondrial dysfunction may also impact your health, causing chronic problems.

In this article, I want to discuss the importance of mitochondrial health. You will learn about mitochondrial disease and mitochondrial dysfunction. Finally, you will learn about the top strategies to support your mitochondrial health.

Importance of Mitochondrial Health 

The mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell. Chances are, you remember this from high school biology class. But what does that even mean? Why are they called the powerhouse? Your mitochondria are specialized structures inside your cells. You may think about them as little batteries that serve as an energy factory for your body to power a variety of bodily functions. They are responsible for producing about 90 percent of cellular energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). 

Cellular respiration and energy production are the two major roles of mitochondria. Basically, your mitochondria are the reason you need to breathe and eat. Besides these two major functions, your mitochondria are critical for cell growth and multiplication, cell death of old, injured, and damaged cells, calcium homeostasis, nerve function, heat production, organ metabolism, and other functions (1, 2).

What Is Mitochondrial Disease

Mitochondrial disease is a health condition that happens when the mitochondria, which are required for energy production within the cell, malfunction. As a result, the mitochondria are unable to produce enough energy. They are not able to fully burn food and oxygen for energy production and optimal cellular function (3).

There are various types of mitochondrial diseases out there, and each individual is affected differently depending on what combination of mitochondria is not working properly and how many cells are affected.

Some of the most common mitochondrial diseases include:

  • Mitochondrial encephalopathy, lactic acidosis, and stroke-like episodes (MELAS) syndrome
  • Leber hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON)
  • Leigh syndrome
  • Kearns-Sayre syndrome (KSS)
  • Myoclonic epilepsy and ragged-red fiber disease (MERRF)

Mitochondrial disease can impact various parts of the body. The most common areas affected include the ones that need the most energy to function, including the brain, heart, liver, and kidney. 

Causes, Risk Factors, and the Nature of Mitochondrial Disease

Mitochondrial disease is often progressive. Mitochondrial disease is genetic, which you may inherit from a family member in an autosomal dominant or autosomal recessive pattern, which means that if you inherit the mutated gene from one or both biological parents, you will develop mitochondrial disease. 

In rare cases, this genetic mutation may occur without a family history. Some mitochondrial diseases also have mitochondrial inheritance, which happens when the mitochondria contain their own DNA, and there is a mutation within this mitochondrial DNA inherited from the mother. There is currently no cure for mitochondrial disease.

Symptoms of Mitochondrial Disease

Your symptoms of mitochondrial disease may vary based on the type of mitochondrial disease or the location of the cells that are affected. Your symptoms may range from mild to severe. Symptoms may present at birth or a young age or arise at any point later in life. They may affect one or multiple organs.

Symptoms of mitochondrial disease may include:

  • Poor growth
  • Developmental delays or problems with cognitive development
  • Loss of balance, coordination, or other motor functions
  • Muscle pain or muscle weakness
  • Poor muscle tone
  • Hearing loss or vision problems
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Acid reflux or issues with swallowing
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Fainting
  • Migraines 
  • Respiratory issues
  • Cardiovascular issues
  • Liver or kidney problems
  • Neurological symptoms

Complications of Mitochondrial Disease

Complications of mitochondrial disease may include: 

  • Increased risk of infection
  • Strokes
  • Diabetes
  • Liver failure
  • Kidney disease
  • Pancreatic failure
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Parathyroid failure
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Dementia
  • Drooping eyelid (ptosis)

What Is Mitochondrial Dysfunction

Genetic mitochondrial disease only affects about 1 in 5,000 people (4). However, you may develop mitochondrial issues without having genetic mitochondrial disease. 

You may develop mitochondrial dysfunction when your mitochondria don’t work as well as they should as a result of another disease or condition, or even dietary or lifestyle factors.

Conditions that may result in secondary mitochondrial dysfunction may include:

  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Cancer

Factors that may impact your mitochondrial health may include:

  • Environmental toxin exposure
  • Chronic infections
  • Chronic stress
  • An inflammatory diet
  • Other poor lifestyle choices

Mitochondrial dysfunction may affect multiple organs across your body and result in chronic symptoms from mild to severe, depending on the level and location of the dysfunction. Symptoms may be similar to symptoms of mitochondrial disease.

Recommendations for Mitochondrial Health

So, how can you support your mitochondrial health? Here is what I recommend:

Follow a Nutrient-Dense Diet

One of the best ways to support your mitochondrial health is an antioxidant-rich, anti-inflammatory, and nutrient-dense diet. Avoid refined sugar, highly processed grains, refined oil, highly processed foods, and junk food. These inflammatory foods only fuel inflammation, oxidative stress, and mitochondrial dysfunction. Instead, follow an anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense, antioxidant-rich, whole foods diet. Eat plenty of greens, vegetables, herbs, fruits, nuts, seeds, and pasture-raised animal protein (5). 

Try Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting is an eating strategy that reserves part of the day for fasting and another part for eating. For example, you may stop eating at 6 pm after dinner and not eat until 10 am the next day. You consume your meals between 10 am and 6 pm during a shorter eating window.

Intermittent fasting may help improve autophagy. Autophagy is your body’s renewal process that reuses old and damaged cells and cellular particles, creating room for new ones. Mitochondrial autophagy or mitophagy allows the mitochondria to get rid of damaged particles and unwanted debris that causes problems. Moreover, autophagy may also help to decrease oxidative stress by-products, improve ATP production, improve overall mitochondrial function, and increase longevity (6, 7, 8).

Try Some Mitochondria-Supporting Supplements

In addition to diet, you may benefit from nutritional support through mitochondria-supporting supplementation. You may benefit from supplementing vitamin omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins C and E, N-acetylcysteine (NAC), coenzyme Q10, a-lipoic acid, B vitamins, carnitine, and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+) (9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15). Remember to always consult your doctor before taking any supplements.

Reduce Toxin Exposure

Environmental toxins can seriously impact your body. They may increase chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, which then may compromise your mitochondria function (16). Reduce your exposure to environmental toxins as much as possible. Choose organic, natural, and homemade products over chemical-filled conventional options. 

Toxic metals like lead and mercury are particularly hard on mitochondrial function.  Familiarise yourself with dietary and other sources of exposure to these metals, and be sure to consult with a knowledgeable physician regarding the methods used to remove accumulated loads of toxic metals from your body.

Address any mold issues in your home. Choose a high-quality HEPA air filtration system for better indoor air. Drink purified water. Reduce the use of plastics and synthetic clothing. If you are a smoker, stop smoking. Avoid secondhand smoke as much as possible, as cigarette smoking can compromise mitochondrial structure and function. 

Move Your Body Regularly

Moving your body may help to improve mitochondria and overall health. According to a 2017 study published in Cell Metabolism, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) may maximize absolute mitochondrial respiration by 49 to 69% (17). Move your body regularly and exercise 20 to 30 minutes at least 5 times a week, combining cardiovascular exercise and resistance training.

Get Some Sleep

According to a 2018 article published in Free Radical Biology and Medicine, even short sleep deprivation may impact mitochondrial health (18). Poor sleep may also increase chronic inflammation, fatigue, and chronic health issues. I recommend aiming for 7 to 9 hours of restorative sleep at night. Avoid electronics, stress, heavy foods, sugar, and alcohol close to bedtime, and help your body wind down with calming activities, such as taking a bath, reading, journaling, crossword puzzles, and listening to music.

Reduce Stress

According to a 2018 research published in Psychosomatic Medicine, psychological stress and chronic stress may also compromise your mitochondrial function (19). Chronic stress may also impact your sleep, increase inflammation, and worsen chronic symptoms. I recommend introducing meditation, mindfulness, breathwork, gratitude, nature walks, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, or yoga to your life to reduce stress and the impact of stress on your body.

Get Some Sunshine and Improve Vitamin D

According to a 2018 research published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, vitamin D is essential for mitochondrial function and overall health (20). Spending time in the sun is one of the best ways to get your vitamin D. However, this is not always possible in certain months of the year, especially when living in colder areas with a long winter, like I do in Canada. Our indoor lifestyle may also interfere with our ability to get enough sun, not to mention worries about UV rays. 

Vitamin D-rich foods, such as cod liver oil, beef liver, salmon, and other fatty fish, may improve your vitamin D levels too. However, meeting your vitamin D needs through food alone can be difficult, if not impossible. In addition to sunshine and food, I recommend taking a daily vitamin D supplement.

Try Red Light Therapy

Red light therapy (RLT) is a low-level laser therapy that uses photomodulation. The low wavelength red lights of red light therapy penetrate deep into your skin, helping to reduce inflammation, supporting autophagy, cellular repair, and regeneration, and cellular signaling (21, 22). You may benefit from a daily red light therapy session for mitochondrial health.

Try Cold and Heat Exposure

Cold and heat exposure may both benefit your mitochondrial health. Cold exposure therapy will result in generating extra heat. This causes shivering, which activates the mitochondria and uses ATP energy for muscle contractions. It also activates the brown adipose tissue (BAT) to generate heat with the help of the mitochondria(38, 39). Heat exposure triggers mild stress in the body that forces the mitochondria to adapt and increase functional capacity. Both cold and heat therapy may increase autophagy and cellular rejuvenation (40).

For cold therapy, I recommend cold showers, ice baths, and cryotherapy. For heat therapy, you may try infrared sauna or other sauna therapy. To combine the two, you may jump into a cold pool or cold shower after a sauna use or alternative between cold and hot showers, finishing off with a cold shower.

Next Steps

If you are dealing with symptoms of mitochondrial disease or mitochondrial dysfunction-related health issues, I recommend that you speak with your doctors first for more personalized health information and support. I invite you to schedule a consultation with me here to see if you can benefit from the strategies listed in this article. 

If you are dealing with any chronic health issues, for advice on how to improve your nutrition and health, I welcome you to start a functional medicine consultation with me for further personalized guidance. You may book your consultation here

Check out my Histamine Intolerance Course here. Learn on your own time, from anywhere. Get an inside look at the most helpful functional medicine tests for pinpointing imbalances, ways to identify and manage the most common (and sometimes surprising) mast cell triggers, and learn what to eat, what to avoid, and why.

Learn more about working with Dr. Gannage