Mitochondria do much more than just provide power to cells.
Don’t get me wrong. They have everything to do with energy. And because they are so important to energy production, they play a key role in metabolism. And as a result, are center stage in the field of Metabolic Psychiatry.
We hear that mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell absolutely everywhere. Or at least I do in the circles I hang out in. And you will see it stated all through the blog posts on this website. Communicating that mitochondria are the powerhouses of your cells is really the easiest and most simplistic way to get across to you that you need them for neuronal energy. It’s easy to understand. If we don’t have working batteries in a flashlight, the flashlight won’t work. And if our batteries are going dead, it will kind of work, but not very well. And that goes for our brain when we have mitochondrial dysfunction going on. Cells cannot do the multitude of work they need to do to keep you humming along properly.
But for those of you who want to know more, it’s important to know that mitochondria are SO MUCH MORE than the powerhouses of your cells. So in the interest of a slightly more complete understanding of what these magical little organelles do I have written this blog post!
Note: I do not use the word magical lightly. If you don’t like the word magical, by all means, substitute the word quantum. Because that is also accurate and pretty darn cool. But beyond the scope of this small article (I am no physicist).
So let’s get into the other things that mitochondria play crucial roles in other than just amazing energy production.
There are physical stressors and psychological stressors. And your body’s ability to handle stressors of any sort comes down to mitochondrial function. Have you been exposed to a virus or bacteria that is stressing your immune system? Mitochondria regulate your immune system function. Are you dealing with a psychological stressor that is challenging you in your life? Mitochondria are in charge of your cell’s ability to adapt, survive and become more resilient by initiating changes in both gene expression and metabolism. If you don’t have healthy and abundant mitochondria to support cells then more cells die, or worse. They turn into zombies (senescence) that pump out some nasty inflammatory signals that increase your oxidative stress and worsen your symptoms.
If it is a cell that makes hormones, it is a cell that requires more energy than most and that means your mitochondria are basically in charge of hormone synthesis. That’s right. Sterol hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, and cortisol. Mitochondria hold the key. Right down to providing the enzymes needed to initiate hormone production.
This is why your functional medicine treatment for adrenal fatigue is not working. Giving you plant sterols to replace your own cortisol does not address the mitochondrial dysfunction that is going on. This is why going on hormone replacement therapy is not actually a “root cause” intervention. If your hormones are out of whack, it is a sign of mitochondrial dysfunction. The point of intervention is to improve your mitochondrial function.
Tell your friends.
Cleaning up messes
Almost every article on this website talks about the role of oxidative stress in mental illness and neurological disorders. Oxidative stress is what we call the burden of trying to repair the damage that occurs due to Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS). When your mitochondria are abundant and healthy you generally have all the help you need in order to repair the normal levels of damage that happen from being alive and moving through the world.
Abundant and well-functioning mitochondria are required in order to keep oxidative stress in check. And keeping oxidative stress in check is required to have a working brain. Oxidative stress that is not kept in check leads to neurodegenerative processes that affect mood and cognitive functioning. Mitochondria are instrumental in the functioning and maintenance of your body’s own internal antioxidant systems. And as I have stated repeatedly throughout all the blog articles, you are not going to Vitamin C, turmeric or curcumin your way out of an oxidative stress burden coming from poorly functioning or inadequate numbers of mitochondria.
Ask any number of people taking giant doses of antioxidants per their functional medicine practitioner’s recommendation that are still struggling to feel well.
Tell your friends about that part, too.
But mitochondria are way more than the cleanup crew when mayhem ensues. They help maintain cells in all kinds of ways. They regulate the number of cells created, help control what connections get pruned away and which ones stay, and are instrumental in the recycling process that is a part of healthy cell functioning (autophagy, cell apoptosis – the good kind of cell death). It’s not just about cleaning up the messes after they have happened. Mitochondria are ensuring healthy gene expression and cell functioning to reduce the likelihood that a big mess is going to occur in the first place.
The bottom line here is your genes won’t express themselves right without healthy functioning mitochondria. About 20 years ago they figured out that mitochondria were needed to transport a protein that helped regulate gene expression. Mitochondria have their own DNA and that DNA codes for proteins that regulate gene expression. And that gene expression has effects on stress responses, metabolism, and antioxidant function. When researchers play with mitochondria by essentially breaking them (reducing their functional capacity) they find that more epigenetic problems occur.
What does that mean?
It means if you don’t want your genes expressing themselves in funky ways that cause problems and symptoms and make you (and your brain) age faster, you better put your focus on learning how to have kick-ass healthy, and happy mitochondria.
Mitochondria like to hang out at synapses. If your mitochondria are sparse in number or something gets in the way of their ability to travel where they are needed, then you don’t make your neurotransmitters. And if your mitochondria are sparse in number or inefficient or sick then neurotransmitters can become imbalanced.
And imbalanced neurotransmitters lead not only to mood problems but cognitive problems, too. You need healthy and abundant mitochondria to synthesize, release, and reuptake your neurotransmitters and then produce the enzymes that break them down. I know we all think that the idea is to have your neurotransmitters hanging out in the synapses longer, but that can cause its own set of problems when they can’t be broken down.
It’s a feedback loop. The neurotransmitters produced and utilized then give mitochondria important messages that are used to optimize your brain functioning. Nobody is rooting for your brain function success like your powerful, little mitochondrial friends. Who is cheering on your stable mood attainment? Who is wanting you to feel smart, present, and capable?
It’s your mitochondria.
To psychiatrists using primarily medications to try to increase or decrease certain neurotransmitters without considering mitochondrial health, I encourage you to explore some of the Metabolic Psychiatry training opportunities provided on the page below.
If you focused on no other area of improved function in your recovery than mitochondrial function, you would be doing yourself a fantastic service. There are excellent ways to improve mitochondrial function, and one of the most powerful interventions for increased mitochondrial number and improved mitochondrial function consists of a ketogenic diet.
Why? Because ketogenic diets increase the number of mitochondria and improve the health and functioning of mitochondria. The ketogenic diet is a mitochondrial intervention that affects metabolism and all the other important activities so important to brain function that were outlined in this short article.
Below are some articles that talk about why ketogenic diets, and the subsequent upregulation of mitochondria that results, are wonderful treatments for various diagnoses.
If you don’t see the diagnosis you are interested in reading about, just scroll down to the search bar at the bottom of the page!
Now that you have a better idea of some of the functions mitochondria provide, you are in a much better position to enjoy the blog posts on this website.
If you would like to explore an online program in your journey to learn all the ways you can feel better, I encourage you to learn more about my Brain Fog Recovery Program.
Anderson, A. J., Jackson, T. D., Stroud, D. A., & Stojanovski, D. (2019). Mitochondria—hubs for regulating cellular biochemistry: emerging concepts and networks. Open biology, 9(8), 190126. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsob.190126
Bennett, J. P. (2019). Medical hypothesis: Neurodegenerative diseases arise from oxidative damage to electron tunneling proteins in mitochondria. Medical Hypotheses, 127, 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2019.03.034
Bennett, J. P., & Onyango, I. G. (2021). Energy, Entropy and Quantum Tunneling of Protons and Electrons in Brain Mitochondria: Relation to Mitochondrial Impairment in Aging-Related Human Brain Diseases and Therapeutic Measures. Biomedicines, 9(2), Article 2. https://doi.org/10.3390/biomedicines9020225
Dzeja, P. P., Bortolon, R., Perez-Terzic, C., Holmuhamedov, E. L., & Terzic, A. (2002). Energetic communication between mitochondria and nucleus directed by catalyzed phosphotransfer. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99(15), 10156–10161. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.152259999
Kanellopoulos, A. K., Mariano, V., Spinazzi, M., Woo, Y. J., McLean, C., Pech, U., Li, K. W., Armstrong, J. D., Giangrande, A., Callaerts, P., Smit, A. B., Abrahams, B. S., Fiala, A., Achsel, T., & Bagni, C. (2020). Aralar Sequesters GABA into Hyperactive Mitochondria, Causing Social Behavior Deficits. Cell, 180(6), 1178-1197.e20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2020.02.044
Metabolic Mind (Director). (2022, November 30). Mitochondria in the Brain and Body—Martin Picard PhD. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u51JSv4AK-0
Palmer, C. (2022). Brain Energy (1st ed.). https://a.co/d/hKy6x2A
Picard, M., Zhang, J., Hancock, S., Derbeneva, O., Golhar, R., Golik, P., O’Hearn, S., Levy, S., Potluri, P., Lvova, M., Davila, A., Lin, C. S., Perin, J. C., Rappaport, E. F., Hakonarson, H., Trounce, I. A., Procaccio, V., & Wallace, D. C. (2014). Progressive increase in mtDNA 3243A>G heteroplasmy causes abrupt transcriptional reprogramming. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(38), E4033–E4042. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1414028111
Safiulina, D., & Kaasik, A. (2013). Energetic and Dynamic: How Mitochondria Meet Neuronal Energy Demands. PLOS Biology, 11(12), e1001755. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1001755
Spinelli, J. B., & Haigis, M. C. (2018). The Multifaceted Contributions of Mitochondria to Cellular Metabolism. Nature Cell Biology, 20(7), 745–754. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41556-018-0124-1
West, A. P., Shadel, G. S., & Ghosh, S. (2011). Mitochondria in innate immune responses. Nature Reviews Immunology, 11(6), Article 6. https://doi.org/10.1038/nri2975
Zhu, X.-H., Qiao, H., Du, F., Xiong, Q., Liu, X., Zhang, X., Ugurbil, K., & Chen, W. (2012). Quantitative imaging of energy expenditure in human brain. NeuroImage, 60(4), 2107–2117. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.02.013