Dr. Doni explains how the human body turns the food we eat into the energy we need to survive, and how this relates to oxidative stress.
Part 14 of Dr. Doni’s Series on Oxidative Stress
We are all familiar with the idea of measuring the energy in food in terms of calories, but how that process works can seem to be something of a mystery. And yet the production of energy is essential for our hearts to beat, our brains to think, and our intestines to digest food. This energy is produced by mitochondria.
What Are Mitochondria?
Mitochondria are little “power packs” that exist in every cell in our bodies (except our red blood cells) and they give our cells the ability to function, create hormones, act as our immune system, process thoughts and emotions, and much more. The trouble is that, each time a mitochondrion does anything, it creates oxidative stress. And when we are under stress or have an infection, our mitochondria create even more oxidative stress. This is because oxidative stress can actually protect us in the short term. It kills abnormal bacteria and helps our bodies recover from trauma. If we don’t have enough oxidative response, we are susceptible to infection and yet, if oxidative stress stays around too long in our cells, it causes the cells to die. So you see, it’s a careful balancing act. We need mitochondria, and they need to be able to create oxidative stress, but too much of this, and we lose healthy cells, which leads to aging.
But what does this have to do with how our food is turned into energy? Let’s look a bit closer at the chemistry that happens inside our bodies – our biochemistry.
A Closer Look at Mitochondria
The food we eat is made up of three possible substances: carbohydrates, fats, and protein. When digested, these substances are broken down into the smallest components possible: sugar (glucose and fructose), fatty acids, and amino acids. These components are small enough to traverse the intestinal lining and make it into our blood stream. Once in the blood stream, they travel to the various cells in our bodies—but each of them requires something different to be able to get into the cells.
- Glucose requires a signal from insulin.
- Fructose does not require insulin, but does require energy in order to be processed by the liver.
- Fatty acids move into cells with the help of a substance called carnitine which is derived from an amino acid.
- Amino acids are transported into cells by sodium-dependent proteins.
Once inside a cell, various biochemical processes, led by enzymes, turn one substance into another until they eventually become acetyl-CoA – the molecules our bodies need in order to make energy. The acetyl-CoA molecules continue through a series of enzymatic processes in the mitochondria called the “Krebs cycle” which creates the energy, stored as something called ATP, that our cells can use when they need to.
So food is broken down and turned into energy inside your mitochondria, but if your mitochondria are overwhelmed by oxidative stress or lacking the nutrients they need, they won’t be able to do their job properly and you’ll be low on energy. This leads to decreased cell function and what we think of as aging.
Testing Your Mitochondrial Function
As mitochondria are so important to our health, it would be useful if we could find out whether or not yours are working properly.
Until recently, there was only one way of doing this and that was testing for the intermediary substances in the Krebs cycle. This can be done with a specialized urine test called an organic acids panel and it gives us a glimpse of how your mitochondria are holding up. The problem with this test is that it doesn’t give us a clear sense of the actual level of oxidative stress present in the mitochondria.
However, there is now a brand new test designed to test exactly that. It tells us how much oxidative stress (in the form of superoxide) is being produced in the mitochondria1. This is exciting news because it allows us to determine whether the mitochondria are either under- or over-whelmed with oxidative stress and what type of support, with nutrients and/or herbs, would help them recover.
By looking at these tests alongside your genetic predisposition to decreased mitochondrial function and increased oxidative stress, we can support your mitochondria to recover from exposure to stress and help you to get back to feeling good. You can learn more about genetic testing here. I am now trained to analyze your genetic data with a program called Opus23 – contact my office if you’d like to learn more.
Giving Your Mitochondria a Helping Hand
Your mitochondria work very hard and, like us, can suffer from stress. So, is there anything we can do to make life easier for them? Well, yes there is. By adding a few simple nutrients to your diet, you can give your mitochondria the support they need to do their job of giving you energy and keeping you young.
- Ribose (a sugar that doesn’t trigger insulin) & Creatine are substances that easily feed your mitochondria without requiring any energy.
- Curcumin helps decrease inflammation and cleans out mitochondria.
- Acetyl L-carnitine, alpha lipoic acid, CoQ10, B vitamins (B2, B3, B6, B12, folate, and more), and minerals such as magnesium are all nutrients that your mitochondria need in order to do their job well. Keep in mind that mitochondria rely on a healthy methylation cycle.
- Antioxidants, such as those in green tea extract (EGCG), resveratrol, curcumin, broccoli extract (sulforaphane), and others, are known to support a protein called NRF2 which helps increase antioxidants in the body, gets rid of excess oxidative stress and allows cells to function well again2. You can get these by eating red/blue/purple berries and grapes, chocolate, onions, kale, broccoli, apples, celery, and herbs like thyme and parsley as well as by drinking green, white or black tea.
- PQQ (pyrroloquinoline quinone) is a vitamin-like factor that your mitochondria need to function AND it is a powerful antioxidant, capable of processing more oxidative stress than other antioxidants, such as vitamin C. PQQ is rich in parsley, green peppers, kiwi fruit, papaya, as well as in green tea.
- Choline (also known as phosphatidylcholine) is used in the walls of the mitochondria and cells. It ensures that the right stuff gets in and the wrong stuff doesn’t. You can get choline in your diet from poultry, eggs, fish, rice, spinach and beets.
You can find products with these ingredients, separately or in combination, at DrDoniStore.com. There are also supplements* with combinations of ingredients all-in-one, such as MitoThera, Mitochondrial NRG, and Mitocore.
Can I Get Everything I Need From Food Alone?
This is something I’m often asked—and the answer is yes. If you eat a well-balanced diet, you can get the nutrients needed for energy production and mitochondrial production from food—but it has to be real, nature-made food, not processed food or food covered with pesticides.
And it is important to note that recent estimates suggest that the amount of nutrients in fruits and vegetables has declined up to 76% since 1940. This means that you need to eat 53 peaches today in order to get the same amount of nutrients as you would from 2 peaches in 1951. Plus pesticides on foods cause more disruption in your body which counteracts all the good nutrients inside.
So in order to get your nutrition from food, your best choice is to choose organic foods from a local farm where they are developing healthy, nutrient-dense soil.
If you’d like to find out more about tests to see how your mitochondria are doing, you may want to consider scheduling an appointment with your naturopathic doctor or I’m happy to help if you don’t have a naturopathic doctor.
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Guidance for practitioners:
- Talk with your patients about mitochondria. It can help them to understand why you are recommending certain nutrients—they will feel motivated to take what their body needs and studies show improved outcomes as well.
- Aim to address oxidative stress and toxicity first, then provide nutrients. And finally, support and protect cell and mitochondrial membranes with phosphatidylcholine.
If you’d like to learn more, you can sign up for practitioner updates from me here.
9th May 2016
*Please keep in mind that any and all supplements—nutrients, herbs, enzymes, or other—should be used with caution. My recommendation is that you seek the care of a naturopathic doctor (with a doctorate degree from a federally-accredited program) and that you have a primary care physician or practitioner whom you can contact to help you with individual dosing and protocols. If you ever experience negative symptoms after taking a product, stop taking it immediately and contact your doctor right away.
- Brandon N. Peacock, Teshome B. Gherezghiher, Jennifer D. Hilario, and Gottfried H. Kellermann. New insights into Lyme disease. Redox Biol. 2015 Aug; 5: 66–70. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4392059/
- Speciale A1, Chirafisi J, Saija A, Cimino F. Nutritional antioxidants and adaptive cell responses: an update. Curr Mol Med. 2011 Dec;11(9):770-89. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21999148
- Trujillo J1, Granados-Castro LF, Zazueta C, Andérica-Romero AC, Chirino YI, Pedraza-Chaverrí J. Mitochondria as a target in the therapeutic properties of curcumin. Arch Pharm (Weinheim). 2014 Dec;347(12):873-84. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25243820