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 our food turns into energy 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, decreased energy and decreased memory.
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.
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 – what we think of as aging and experience as fatigue.
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.
One way to find out is to measure the substances within the Krebs cycle of the mitochondria. 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 and whether you are in need of more antioxidants, such as glutathione.
We can also run panels that show levels of oxidative stress in your body and in your mitochondria1. There is one test in particular called 8-OHdG that is measured in urine; elevated levels indicate high oxidative stress.
These tests are exciting because they allow us to determine whether your mitochondria are either under- or over-whelmed with oxidative stress and what type of support, with nutrients and/or herbs, would help them recover.
Then we can look at your genetic variations to see if you may have a genetic tendency to oxidative stress and/or mitochondrial dysfunction.
By looking at organic acids and oxidative stress levels 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 trained to analyze your genetic data with several possible software programs, including Strategene and Opus23. Please 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.
- Acetyl L-carnitine, alpha lipoic acid, and CoQ10 are used directly by mitochondria. When we are under stress, we become depleted in these nutrients, and then our mitochondria can not function well. There are several forms of CoQ10 with varying abilities to get into your mitochondria, where you need it. The best as this point in time is called MitoQ.
- B vitamins (B2, B3, B6, B12, folate, and more) are essential because mitochondria rely on B vitamins and a healthy methylation cycle in order to make energy. Especially if you have an MTHFR SNP, be sure to choose “methyl” folate and “methyl” B12.
- Minerals, such as magnesium, are needed by your mitochondria in order to do their job well.
- Curcumin helps decrease inflammation and “cleans toxins out” of your mitochondria.
- 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 not very easily.
If you eat organic fruits and vegetables, as well as a variety of nuts, seeds, healthy fats and proteins, 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.
The issue is that we tend to have busy schedules, and need to eat on the run. Plus, if you are vegan or vegetarian, and/or if you need to adapt your diet while working to lose weight, heal leaky gut, balance your blood sugar levels, and reverse autoimmunity, it can be hard to get enough of the nutrients your body needs.
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.
And, if you are not feeling well, you’ll likely want to add in nutrients and antioxidants to help your body recover faster. Then, once feeling better, you can choose whether you are able to maintain your health using just foods, or whether your body needs you to supplement with high quality vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants to help you keep up.
Hope This Article Helps You and Your Mitochondria!
If you’d like to find out more about your mitochondrial function and do the health panels I mentioned, you can find out about the services I provide here.
To receive my next article and more support on your path to wellness please subscribe to my Weekly Wellness Wisdom newsletter and when you do, I’ll email you my Adrenal Recovery Guide as my gift.
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