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What Is Mitochondrial Dysfunction?

Mitochondria are a vital part of all cells in our body. They provide power for the functions that keep us alive and healthy, such as breathing, digesting food, and thinking. But they also have many other jobs apart from being just energy generators. Their duties range from protection against diseases to playing an essential role in the aging process.

As a result, if there is a decrease in the function of mitochondria in your cells, the rest of your body can be affected. This reduction in functionality is known as mitochondrial dysfunction, and it can impact your health in several important ways. 

Let’s talk about mitochondrial dysfunction, how it affects your health, and what supportive measures you can take to optimize the health of these important organelles.

What are mitochondria and what do they do?

Mitochondria are the energy-producers found in almost all of your cells. They create energy from the food you eat to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the energy-carrying compound used by cells to fuel your body's functions.

According to a review published in Molecular Cell, mitochondria also play a role in supporting your immune system and cellular signaling when the body is under stress. 

Mitochondria come in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on where they are found. A review published in EMBO Reports explains that the shape of mitochondria influences their function. 

This is especially important to note because, as illustrated in International Journal of Molecular Sciences, mitochondrial shape and functionality appear to be very sensitive to environmental exposures like pesticides. In other words, exposure to toxins, even commonly used pesticides, may impact your mitochondrial health and increase your risk of developing certain chronic health conditions.

What is mitochondrial dysfunction?

Mitochondrial dysfunction occurs when your mitochondria lose the ability to function normally. It can happen if the mitochondria present in your cells are not functioning as they should. 

What is the relationship between mitochondria and free radicals?

When mitochondria make ATP, they also generate free radicals, which are molecules that can cause damage to proteins and DNA in your body. Ideally, free radicals are balanced in the body by antioxidants that help make them less dangerous.

Free radicals are also produced in response to different environmental factors such as exposure to toxins and inflammation, but mitochondria are the primary producers in your body. At the same time, mitochondria help clean up free radicals, so it's a delicate balance between the two.

When mitochondria are dysfunctional, they no longer produce ATP efficiently while increasing their production of free radicals, throwing off that balance.

According to the review article published in npj Regenerative Medicine, if mitochondria are damaged, not only is energy metabolism affected, but they can also produce more free radicals increasing the potential for oxidative damage in the body.

As described in Cell Death and Disease, mitochondrial dysfunction can also influence antioxidant activity in the cell, and the entire cell can be damaged or destroyed. Essentially the entire health of your cell can be affected as a result of improperly functioning mitochondria. 

What causes mitochondrial dysfunction?

In a healthy state, mitochondrial numbers are balanced by creating new functional mitochondria (mitochondrial biogenesis) and removing any that are damaged or dysfunctional (mitophagy). But this process can be negatively impacted by many reasons. 

Damage to mitochondria from free radicals and other environmental factors like toxins or inflammation may lead to mitochondrial dysfunction as the cells become overwhelmed with free radical production.  

Additionally, if there is inadequate availability of nutrients such as B vitamins, mitochondria will not produce the energy they need.

Several health conditions may also result in mitochondrial dysfunction because their mechanisms can lead to oxidative stress or inflammation that affects mitochondrial function.

The result? As described in the journal Biology, the presence or accumulation of dysfunctional mitochondria can increase and eventually contribute to accelerated aging and adverse health outcomes.

How does mitochondrial dysfunction influence aging?

While mitochondrial dysfunction can result from your environment, research from The Journals of Gerontology suggests that the function and number of mitochondria also naturally decline as we age. Older mitochondria can also change shape, generate more free radicals, and become less efficient at producing ATP.

However, it may be a vicious cycle. Increases in inflammation and reduced antioxidant activity also naturally increase as you age. These changes increase free radical production and affect the health of mitochondria. 

And once again, as described in a review from the journal Cell, poorly functioning mitochondria can increase the production of free radicals, which only makes mitochondrial dysfunction worse. 

As noted in The Journal of Signal Transduction, these factors add up to influence the aging process and age-related health conditions.

Chronic health conditions and mitochondrial dysfunction

Mitochondria are also closely connected to several health conditions usually associated with aging. It's well accepted that inflammation and oxidative stress are related to poor health. As written in Endocrine Reviews, mitochondrial health may also be an important piece of the puzzle.

Several of the adverse outcomes associated with mitochondrial dysfunction include:

  • Cognitive and neurodegenerative conditions. Conditions related to brain health are often considered diseases of aging. A review from BBA - Molecular Basis for Disease suggests that defects in the way the mitochondria processes ATP, an increase in free radical generation, and the production of specific proteins that stress the mitochondria have all been associated with certain conditions affecting the brain.

  • Blood sugar balance. As illustrated in Antioxidant and Redox Signaling, people with conditions impacting blood sugar balance may also have dysfunctional mitochondria with irregular shapes. However, researchers aren't clear if these changes cause blood sugar imbalances or are a result.

  • Fatigue. Unexplained, unrelenting fatigue is also a hallmark of mitochondrial dysfunction. A review from Metabolic Brain Disease suggests that people who suffer from debilitating fatigue associated with certain health conditions may have dysfunctional mitochondria.

  • Signs of aging. Even the aging process seen in the skin may have a relationship to mitochondrial defects. A review published in Cell Death and Disease found that aging skin is associated with damaged mitochondria, high amounts of free radicals, and oxidative stress.

As a result, supporting the health of your mitochondria may offer protection against age-related conditions.

What can you do to keep your mitochondria healthy?

While you can't stop time, you can support your mitochondria with these healthy habits: 

  • Intermittent fasting. As seen in a study published in PLOS One, intermittent fasting may support improvements in mitochondrial health by reducing the impact of environmental influences like a high-fat diet. Fasting may support the critical balance between mitophagy and mitochondrial biogenesis, helping remove dysfunctional mitochondria while increasing the number of healthy functioning mitochondria.

  • Exercise. According to a symposium review published in The Journal of Physiology, physical activity supports healthy mitochondria not just in muscle cells but throughout the body. This review suggests that both endurance activity, as well as high-intensity training, can be beneficial.

  • Diet. As explained in a review published in Clinical Nutrition, a healthy diet rich in micronutrients is vital to support healthy energy metabolism and mitochondrial health. Additionally, certain inflammatory foods such as trans fats or heavily processed items can contribute to inflammation in the body and increase free radical production. 

  • Mitochondrial supplements. Several supplements have valid research behind their use for supporting your mitochondria, especially relating to the relationship between mitochondrial health and fatigue. These include CoQ10, alpha-lipoic acid, and NAD precursors.

Protecting your mitochondria is an investment in your health

Mitochondrial dysfunction happens when the function of mitochondria is reduced. It is associated with accelerated aging and certain chronic health conditions. It's important to note that mitochondrial dysfunction is different from genetic mitochondrial diseases, which are inherited disorders. 

You can support mitochondrial health through lifestyle habits that provide an optimal cellular environment. Reducing the impact of free radical damage and inflammation while increasing the generation of new mitochondria is critical for an optimal balance. Taking steps to keep your mitochondria healthy and happy is beneficial regardless of your age—it's never too early or too late to get started.

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