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You might be skeptical to learn that anxiety and depression may be caused by poorly functioning mitochondria rather than just an imbalance in brain chemicals and hormones.

Swiss behavioural neuroscientist Carmen Sandi discovered after conducting various experiments that nerve cells, also called neurons, involved in anxiety-like behaviours had poor functioning mitochondria that were producing low levels of energy.

While it has been known that mitochondria dysfunction may play a role in numerous diseases and aging, new research has emerged that it’s also related to our overall mental health.

Other researchers have followed Sandi’s lead to discover that indeed mitochondria are involved in not only mitigating physical and psychological stress but also targets of stress that may negatively affect mental and overall health. 

Early life stress seems to have particularly negative effects. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as a loss of a parent, abuse or a traumatic experience, have been shown to have a long-lasting negative impact on mitochondrial health which consequently can lead to poor mental health such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse.

Mitochondria and health

Mitochondria are small, rod-like structures, called organelles, within our cells that create most of our body’s energy in the form of ATP. These small structures have evolved from bacteria and play a major role in our overall health, longevity, and athletic performance. Each of our cells contains hundreds to thousands of mitochondria where they act like little batteries!

“The flow of energy through mitochondria distinguishes the living person from the inert body; it enables mitochondrial functions required for life,” wrote Dr. Martin Picard and Bruce McEwen in their systematic review.

Although the mitochondria have been somewhat underrated until recently, a growing body of evidence shows that mitochondrial function in people who are born with healthy mitochondria are involved in a number of diseases and conditions such as cancer, fertility, chronic fatigue, neurodegenerative diseases, aging, skeletal and muscle disorders, as well as vascular, renal and cardiac diseases. 

Luckily, we can manage our stress to support our mitochondrial health through lifestyle and diet.

Lifestyle factors that affect mitochondrial function

  • Exercise: Numerous studies show regular, moderate exercise can improve mitochondrial health.
  • Gut health: Intestinal microbes and mitochondria affect one another. On the one hand, mitochondria regulate proper gut function and gut microbiota composition. On the other hand, pathogens can produce conditions in the gut that favor their survival. Luckily beneficial bacteria that produce short-chain fatty acids can mitigate the inflammatory effects of pathogens and other mediators.
  • Toxin exposure: Mitochondria are extremely sensitive to toxins such as those found in plastics, heavy metals, cleaning supplies, car exhaust, cigarette smoke, etc.
  • Inflammation: Chronic diseases, toxin exposure, and stress all cause inflammation which causes stress for the body. 
  • Stress: Although chronically high levels of stress are bad for our health, short-term exposure to low levels of stress can make your body more resistant to other types of stressors which can improve mitochondrial health. Examples of “good stress” include moderate exercise, intermittent fasting for at least 12 hours a day, (although this should be discussed with your medical provider), cold exposure like cold showers or being outside in frigid weather, and eating a plant-based diet full of antioxidant-rich foods. On the other hand, chronic psychological and physical stress, such as endurance exercise, can negatively affect mitochondria function. 
  • Imbalanced blood sugar: Diabetes and insulin resistance cause increased inflammation and oxidative stress which damages mitochondria.
  • Fasting: Chronic overeating damages mitochondria through oxidative stress. Constricting your eating window to about an 8-hour window each day has been shown to benefit mitochondrial health, although this should be discussed with your healthcare provider.
  • Medication: Several prescription drugs like statins, antibiotics, and common over-the-counter pain killers like aspirin and acetaminophen negatively affect mitochondrial function.
  • Sleep: Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or circadian rhythm disruption lowers melatonin production which protects mitochondria from being damaged.

Food that supports mitochondria function 

In order for mitochondria function to be optimal, there needs to be a balance between mitochondrial biogenesis and the cleanup of damaged mitochondria. This is achieved primarily by enhancing antioxidant activity which reduces oxidative stress and inflammation.

Luckily, several nutrients, antioxidants and polyphenols play a role in maintaining proper mitochondrial function.

  • B vitamins play a major role in mitochondrial function. For example, vitamins B1, B2, and B3 are involved in the citric acid cycle.
  • Vitamin C activates the ATP-sensitive potassium channels and also reduces reactive oxygen species creation (aka oxidative stress).
  • Magnesium is involved in ATP production.
  • Fibre serves as food for beneficial bacteria that produce the anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acid butyrate. The gut microbiota has also been found to regulate mitochondria function. Moreover, eating sufficient fiber (25-30g daily) can promote a healthy gut microbiota composition which consequently might reduce inflammation and improve mitochondrial health.
  • Quercetin is found in apples, onions, capers, and leafy greens have been shown to affect mitochondrial function through various mechanisms such as activating mtDNA.
  • Curcumin is the active component of turmeric found in many curries and has potent antioxidant properties.
  • Resveratrol is found in red grapes and wine as well as berries and has been shown to improve mitochondrial function and reduce oxidative stress.
  • Anthocyanidins are found in purple foods like berries, red grapes, eggplants, red cabbage and can reduce reactive oxygen species creation by serving as an electron acceptor within the mitochondria’s electron transport chain.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish like sardines and salmon and supplements and have anti-inflammatory properties that can protect mitochondria from oxidative damage.
  • Green tea: contains EGCG which can promote ATP production and mitochondrial biogenesis.
  • CoQ10 transfers high-energy electrons within the mitochondria to produce energy. This can be found in various foods such as oranges, spinach, broccoli, soybeans, nuts, sesame seeds or can be taken as a supplement.

Mitochondrial function is crucial for our overall health and is involved in numerous diseases. Although we have no control over the genes we inherited, there are still several ways we can optimize mitochondrial health through diet and lifestyle. 

In the end, optimizing mitochondrial health comes down to eating a whole foods diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables and balancing stress. The important thing to remember is you want to find just the amount of stress in order to optimize mitochondrial health– not too much and not too little. 

References 

1. Javadov, S., Kozlov, A. V., & Camara, A. (2020). Mitochondria in Health and Diseases. Cells, 9(5), 1177. https://doi.org/10.3390/cells9051177

2. Clark A and Mach N (2017) The Crosstalk between the Gut Microbiota and Mitochondria during Exercise. Front. Physiol. 8:319. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2017.00319

3. Wesselink E, et al., Feeding mitochondria: Potential role of nutritional components to improve critical illness convalescence, Clinical Nutrition (2018), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnu.2018.08.032 

4. Naoi, M., Wu, Y., Shamoto-Nagai, M., & Maruyama, W. (2019). Mitochondria in Neuroprotection by Phytochemicals: Bioactive Polyphenols Modulate Mitochondrial Apoptosis System, Function and Structure. International journal of molecular sciences, 20(10), 2451. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms2010245