Wednesday, 05 August 2015 09:41

Your metabolism and your mitochondria

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Mito-who? Let me explain. In 2006, Harvard researchers found that the red pigment in grapes called resveratrol could extend life in mice by protecting their mitochondria. These mice actually lived 15 percent longer than average, even while eating a bad diet. In fact, they even became fitter and lost weight.

So how could they eat poorly and not exercise, but become fitter and live longer? One word: mitochondria. It turns out that the resveratrol protected and improved the function of the mitochondria through its effects on special master aging genes.

A Mitochondria Primer

Mitochondria are tiny factories that turn food and oxygen into energy. In each cell, there are hundreds to thousands of these little energy factories. They exist in greater numbers in active organs and tissues, like the muscles, heart and brain.

Simply put, the mitochondria are where metabolism happens. The role of your metabolism is to take the oxygen you breathe and the food you eat and process it to make energy, the fuel for life. Along the way, many things can go wrong that may impede your metabolism, make it run less efficiently or practically shut it down.

The problem? Mitochondria are very sensitive to damage. And when they aren’t working properly, you suffer all the symptoms of low energy — fatigue, memory loss, pain, rapid aging and more. Fatigue is the most common symptom of poorly functioning mitochondria. In fact, the reason we get pooped as we age is the constant insult and injury we give our mitochondria.

But this doesn’t have to happen! Research shows that we can protect our mitochondria — and boost metabolism. Renowned scientist Bruce Ames, PhD, at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent the last decade discovering how we can give ourselves a metabolic tune-up. In a series of studies, he gave old, tired rats — who wouldn’t get on the treadmill anymore and couldn’t find the cheese in the maze or swim very far — two molecules that boost metabolism by making the mitochondria run better: alpha-lipoic acid and acetyl-L-carnitine.

In only a month, these rats began acting younger. They got up on the treadmill by themselves, swam long distances without tiring and could easily find the cheese in the maze, just like younger, healthier rats. How could that happen? The molecules used on the rats support a core part of our own biochemistry and thus affect our system as a whole, but they are not the only things needed to boost energy.

Oxidative Stress and Disease

To tune up your own metabolism, the first order of business is to find the things that damage your mitochondria — things like toxins, infections, allergens and stress. But the biggest insult over time is eating too much high-calorie, low-nutrient food — in short, too many “empty calories.”

When food is burned or metabolized with oxygen in the mitochondria, your body produces waste in the form of free radicals, which create a chain reaction of "rusting", or oxidation. Unless you have enough antioxidants in your diet or you make enough in your body, you can’t protect yourself from the damage to your mitochondria. So when you eat empty calories — such as sugar, flour and processed foods that don’t have the high antioxidant levels of fruits and vegetables — you produce too many free radicals that tip the balance and start a chain reaction of cellular and tissue damage that destroys your mitochondria and, thus, your life force.

In short, oxidative stress is a slow, progressive process of deterioration that contributes to practically every known disease. It is part of the inevitable entropy, or chaotic breakdown, which is the basic principle of life.

You are already familiar with this process. You can see it in the rust on your car, the brown color that appears on an apple when cut open and exposed to air, the rancid vegetable oil in your cupboard, and even the wrinkles forming on your skin. But it doesn’t stop there. What you may not realize is that your own tissues are rusting, your own fats are going rancid, and your brain is effectively melting as you go about your daily life. OK, so it’s happening gradually, but still — perhaps you’re beginning to see the life and death connection I referred to earlier?

Your body does have a built-in anti-rusting system and mitochondrial protection system — the "redox" system, a chemical process of reduction and oxidation — but it can become overwhelmed by all the work you ask of it. As with all the systems in the body, big problems can arise when any one part of a system is thrown out of balance.

"Reduxtion" is the neutralization of damage from oxidation, or rusting. But oxidation is actually not all bad. In fact, your white blood cells kill bacteria and viruses by releasing hydrogen peroxide and other compounds we call free radicals. These are electrochemical molecules that are missing an electron, which makes them unstable and “lonely.” They bump into neighboring molecules and steal an electron, making them, in turn, unstable.

But while oxidation sometimes works in your favor, it can also easily get out of hand and start damaging the very tissues it was designed to protect. Eating too many empty calories and not taking in enough phytonutrients and antioxidants from fresh fruits and vegetables actively encourages your free radicals to multiply and run amok. The more free radicals you make, the less energy you produce, because you damage the cells’ ability to make energy in the mitochondria. This is why eating too many calories and not enough nutrients are at the heart of both obesity and a great deal of chronic illness.

Making the Most of Your Mitochondria

The key to achieving optimal health and enjoying a vital, energetic old age is to get your "redox" system back into balance and protect your mitochondria. Does that mean taking supplemental antioxidants is the answer? Not necessarily.

Much research has been done on antioxidants and disease — and the results are mixed. One problem is that we are used to looking at things through a pharmaceutical-drug lens, where you study a single drug, a single effect and a measurable outcome: You give a pill for high blood pressure and watch for blood pressure to go down. But studying a single antioxidant that we isolate from food, like beta-carotene, is completely counter-physiologic, because the body simply doesn’t process nutrients this way. It prefers to get its nutrients in whole-food form, where they come complete with all the necessary cofactors and complementary nutrients required for proper assimilation. And then there’s the fact that some of the most powerful antioxidants around — such as the proanthocyanidins in grapes and berries — are not available in supplement form.

Here’s another problem with relying on mega doses of supplemental antioxidants: By definition, antioxidants have the potential to become oxidants. That’s because an antioxidant works by giving up one electron to neutralize the free radical — and then, by definition, it becomes a free radical. It then needs to be neutralized by another antioxidant, moving down a chain until it is finally neutralized by the mother of all antioxidants, glutathione, which can be recycled and restored.

Ultimately, no magic pill will do for us what a whole-food diet and healthy lifestyle will, particularly given all the real-life insults affecting us — poor diet, stress, environmental toxins and sedentary lifestyle — all of which affect our mitochondria.

But if dosing up on bottled antioxidants isn’t the answer to our mitochondrial woes, what is? See the next page for my suggestions — and the lessons I learned from personal experience.

How to Heal Your Mitochondria

So now you know what can damage your mitochondria. Here’s how to protect them and prevent rusting.

First, address the causes of mitochondrial damage:

Minimize your intake of processed food, junk food, sugar, empty calories, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors and other chemical food additives. Their toxic effects can damage your mitochondria and prevent them from producing energy properly.

Support your body in ridding itself of the environmental and internal toxic “sludge” it has accumulated over the years.

Address inflammation. Chronic, smoldering inflammation slowly destroys our organs and our ability for optimal functioning, and leads to rapid aging.

Balance your hormones. By resetting your metabolism and improving the way your body handles sugar and insulin — a master hormone — you can make your cells more intelligent and cooperative, and less resistant to doing their jobs.

Then, boost and protect your mitochondria:

In essence, exercising encourages your body to upgrade its energy factories. Interval or Tabata training, for example, increases the efficiency and function of the mitochondria.

Eat food that’s full of antioxidants and phytonutrients. Get eight to 12 servings of fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains every day.

Take mitochondria-protective and energy-boosting nutrients. These include acetyl-L-carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, n-acetyl-cysteine (I recommend NAC Forte which is not derived from China), NADH, D-ribose, resveratrol and magnesium BisGlycinate (my favourite is Buffered Magnesium BisGlycinate with L-Taurine). While not a cure-all, these nutrients, taken in conjunction with a whole-food, plant-based diet, can provide metabolic support for those low on energy.

Increase omega-3 fatsto help build your mitochondrial membranes. Coldwater fish, such as wild salmon, sardines and herring, are good sources of omega-3 fats, as are flaxseeds and omega-3 eggs. They all help strengthen the fragile cellular membranes that make your mitochondria work the way they’re supposed to.

Even as we are learning how mitochondrial injury is one of the common pathways to so many illnesses, we are also learning how to protect and defend ourselves. Getting a metabolic tune-up is not only possible, it’s also necessary for most of us to feel our best. Eating a colorful plant-based diet, reducing toxic exposures and getting adequate exercise are all key factors in protecting and restoring our energy metabolism to optimal function — and to enjoying the full, vibrant life force within our grasp.

Read 8635 times Last modified on Wednesday, 05 August 2015 09:57
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