What Are Mitochondria?

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

What are mitochondria? They are the microscopic “power plants” inside your cells that produce the energy that runs your body.  Mitochondria are microscopic refineries that make adenosine triphosphate (ATP)  − the body’s basic fuel − from oxygen and the foods you eat. If you want to maintain your energy levels and age healthfully, take good care of them!

Function of Mitochondria

Just as a car runs on gasoline, your cells run on ATP.

What cells have the most mitochondria? It’s your heart muscle cells – with about 5,000 mitochondria per cell – that contain far more mitochondria than any other organ in body! That’s because the constantly-beating heart works harder than any other organ in your body! Heart muscle cells have extra-special demand for ATP to keep the heart pumping 24/7 over a lifetime. By comparison, the tissue of the biceps muscle has about 200 mitochondria per cell.

I am a committed “mitochondriac,” obsessed with the importance and care of these infinitesimally-tiny structures that churn out the energy that stokes each cell and, in sum, stokes your heart and the rest of your body. I wasn’t taught anything about mitochondria in medical school but realized after years of clinical practice that health and vitality relate directly to the health and vitality of the mitochondria. As they go, so go you. Their status is your status.

Thousands of studies have now been published on mitochondria and the abnormal mitochondrial dynamics involved in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, diabetes and obesity, autoimmune conditions, cancer, heart disease and stroke, and even aging itself. More than 50 million people in the U.S. are said to be affected by conditions involving mitochondrial dysfunction.

Accumulated insult of mitochondria erodes the flow and leads to toxicity, DNA damage, tissue deterioration, and organ impairment – and that means impairment to any organ. What causes such damage and decline?

Everything from chemical and electric pollution to pharmaceutical drugs, and to the very nature of the energy-generating activity of mitochondria themselves that produces a massive amount of free radical oxidative stress.

Cardiovascular disease is the major cause of death in the Western world, and becomes more serious with age. For years in my clinical practice I addressed the problem of ailing hearts and arteries with an integrated approach that targets specifically the mitochondria of cardiovascular tissue. To me, “fertilizing” the mitochondria has been a major reason for my success in boosting heart health in particular, and overall health and longevity in general.

The Sinatra Solution: Fertilize Your Mitochondria Nutritionally

The concept works the same way as a caring gardener treats his or her plants. You use natural fertilizers and then watch your plants grow and reach for the sun. As I have told my patients many times, you want to give similar loving care to your mitochondria into order to keep them healthy, vibrant, and long-living.

I don’t have direct proof – nobody does – that the use of selected nutritional supplements and food improves the health, performance, and longevity of your critical cellular powerhouses. However, logic, research, and clinical observation make it obvious, at least for me, that the status of your mitochondria directly relates to how we age, why and when we get disease, and why some people die prematurely.

Over the years I have taken dozens of patients off heart transplant lists by boosting their bodies – and theoretically, their mitochondria – with nutrition. I’ve had doctors call me and say they are amazed that their patients are still alive and doing so well. To be sure, it wasn’t just the food and supplements I recommended, but an overall program of physical activity, stress reduction, and thinking positively that helped turn around declining hearts. But behind all that is the core issue: how much energy are your mitochondria generating to run your body?

One day out of curiosity I did a quick search of recent medical research on mitochondrial status and heart health and longevity. One study from the University of Washington pointed to the “central role” of mitochondrial oxidative stress in cardiac aging and disease. Another from the University of North Carolina focused on lifetime mitochondrial stress as a cause of aortic stiffening, an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The quantity of papers related to the heart was pretty impressive and there were countless additional papers on mitochondria status related to a wide variety of other conditions.

A vast body of research clearly demonstrates the health and anti-aging benefits of a Mediterranean-type of diet, high in fruits and vegetables, which, in turn, are high in phytonutrient antioxidants. One study that particularly fascinated me identified hydroxytyrosol, a compound found in extra-virgin olive oil, as one of the most important phytonutrients in the Mediterranean Diet responsible for lowering the incidence of cardiovascular disease. The study, conducted by researchers at Shanghai’s Institute for Nutritional Science, concluded that hydroxytyrosol stimulates the growth, development, and enhanced functionality of mitochondria.

One thing I have long believed, and research agrees, is the mitochondrial-unfriendliness of the typical nutrient-poor American diet filled with sugar and processed, fried, and hydrogenated oils. Bruce Ames, Ph.D., a respected molecular biologist and aging expert at the University of California, regards the common nutrient deficiencies generated by the American diet as a profound cause of mitochondrial decay and accelerated aging and disease. I’ve spoken with him in the past and he is right on the mark.

I have also long believed that nutritional supplements can make a big difference in your mitochondrial health. Here’s what I would recommend:

  • A high-quality multi-vitamin and mineral formula. These foundational supplements contain important factors like B complex nutrients, essential minerals, and beneficial extracts of plant-based antioxidants.
  • The “awesome foursome”of CoQ10 (100-200 mg daily), carnitine (1-2 g), magnesium (200-400 mg), and d-Ribose (5-15 g in divided doses).

The Awesome Foursome

I call these four supplements the awesome foursome for a good reason. They have proved over time to boost the energy of my patients, even the sickest ones.

CoQ10 is a powerful antioxidant that also participates intimately in the enzymatic process that produces ATP. Anthony Linnane, Ph.D., a distinguished Australian molecular biologist and expert on mitochondrial aging, has conducted multiple studies strongly suggesting that CoQ10 can help ameliorate the mitochondrial DNA mutations that contribute to aging and degenerative diseases.

In 2011, a University of California-San Diego researcher linked Gulf War Illness symptoms to mitochondrial dysfunction. In the Gulf War, troops were bombarded by toxicity, including multiple vaccinations, chemical and biological warfare agents, and depleted uranium from tank armor and bullets. Although the research hasn’t yet been published, the researcher announced at a press conference how CoQ10, my favorite nutritional supplement, helped reduce many of the symptoms still affecting ex-soldiers twenty years later. To me, this finding was not surprising knowing what I know about CoQ10. But the revelation was highly significant because it helped get out an important message – to the medical community that needs to hear it the most – that non-pharmaceutical help is available for Gulf War Syndrome, and by extension, other mitochondrial disorders as well.

Carnitine transports fatty acids to the mitochondria and helps remove toxins. So it performs two critical functions.

Magnesium deficiency, a very widespread nutritional deficiency, has been linked to mitochondrial DNA mutation, oxidation, and cell death. So magnesium is a supplement must.

D-ribose is a naturally occurring sugar derivative of ATP and can help keep mitochondria functioning at a higher level, even in the presence of ischemic episodes like angina and heart attack when the heart is deprived of oxygen.

  • Alpha lipoic acid (75-150 mg). In laboratory experiments with aging rodents, a synergistic combination of this first-class antioxidant and acetyl-l-carnitine, another form of carnitine, has been found to restore youthful function to mitochondria, and resultant gains in mobility, cognition, heart, and immune function.
  • Vitamin C (500-1,000 mg). Vitamin C is an important antioxidant as well as raw material for collagen, the body’s structural protein. A number of studies show it can significantly protect the mitochondria against oxidative stress. One fascinating laboratory study, from Saudi Arabia’s King Saud University, demonstrated how a robust vitamin C level significantly helps protect and restore enzyme activity in the aging mitochondria of fibroblasts, cells that make the collagen and elastic fibers that comprise connective tissue. Cardiac fibroblasts form one of the largest cell populations, in terms of cell numbers, in the heart, contributing to structural, biochemical, mechanical, and electrical properties of the heart muscle.
  • Melatonin (.5-10 mg or more). Not only does melatonin help you sleep, but studies show that as a superb antioxidant it protects your mitochondrial integrity as well. In one animal study, melatonin and vitamin E remedied, through different antioxidant and enzyme effects, mitochondrial dysfunction related to diabetes. My recommended dosage for vitamin E is up to 400 IUs maximum, and should include other potent E antioxidants, gamma tocopherol or delta tocotrienol.
  • Resveratrol (30 mg). This famous phytonutrient component of red grape skins has been linked in experiments to extended lifespan in diverse species. In 2006, Harvard researchers described how resveratrol, among other things, increases the number of mitochondria in fat mice and may represent a nutritional weapon against obesity and diseases of aging.

The Bottom Line

Many of you may already include these strategies in your daily routines, but it certainly won’t hurt to be reminded again in case you have lapsed here and there. In my mind, fertilizing your mitochondria is the best way to prevent power brownouts as you get older.


© 2014 HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.

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