Is Mitochondrial Medicine A Breakthrough or a Dead End?

As many as 2 million American suffer from Mitochondrial Disease and yet few of us have either heard of it or can say what mitochondria are.

Simply put mitochondria are tiny little energy producing organs found in each of our muscles and most cells.

How small are they? About 1 millionth of a metre or yard so it hard to see what is going wrong in this type of disease and to fix it too.

We know that one of the main purposes of our diet is to provide us with the energy we need to live our life. Our food has energy and we can see how much by looking at the calories provided because calories measure the amount of energy in the food and we get to use that energy when it is digested.

But that only gets the calories to our stomach and bloodstream, what happens then?

It is then that our trusty mitochondria take the digested food molecules and burn them to liberate the stored energy and use it to power our muscles and organs.

They supply energy to our muscles and organs so they can function properly and the energy an organ needs the more mitochondria it has.

Since the heart muscle needs energy all the time heart muscle cells need thousands of mitochondria. But the nervous system needs to work around the clock too so the nerves and the brain need their own reliable supply of energy from their own mitochondria.

" Mitochondria are responsible for creating more than 90% of the energy needed by the body to sustain life and support growth "

The other main property of mitochondria is the DNA connection.

Mostly when we hear about DNA it is the DNA in the nucleus of each cell – the DNA that carries genes from our parents and which is formed by the union of sperm and egg. This so-called "Nuclear DNA" is the major mechanism of inheritance and somehow gets all the attention.

But mitochondria have a different line of inheritance and all of it comes from your mother.

So the DNA in the nucleus of the cell comes from our mother and father and the DNA from our mitochondria comes exclusively from our mother.

And so with a disease that limits how well mitochondria can do their job of getting energy from food we can expect that tiredness and fatigue would be one of the symptoms. But this is not tiredness that can be slept away nor is it fatigue that comes from overwork.

It is an inability to extract the energy we need for life from our food and that results in energy intensive parts of the body being unable to function well.

Parts of the body like our brain, our liver and our muscles.

With these parts struggling to function you can see that mitochondrial disease can be crippling and if the disease is progressive it just gets worse.

Sometimes mitochondrial disease is mistaken for Multiple Sclerosis or Autism and even Alzheimer's or Parkinson'. There are so many possible ways in which a lack of energy can show up it is an absolute nightmare for the Neurologist to diagnose.

Brain imaging may help and muscle biopsies too. Look for example at the red areas showing damage in the muscle fibres in the image on the left.

The symptoms may also be poor vision, lack of growth in a child or thyroid disorder and the build-up of symptoms may trigger a diagnosis simply because nothing else fits or makes sense.

How To Treat a Mitochondrial Disease

There are 3 approaches that can treat mitochondria problems.

The most dramatic is a form of In vitro fertilisation called mitochondrial donation. In a similar manner to people donating healthy blood which can be used in surgical operations those with problematic mitochondria can receive a mitochondrial donation.

Here is a real example, the case of Alana Saarinen. Her parents Sharon and Paul had gone through 4 attempts to have a baby using IVF or In Vitro Fertilisation, sometimes called a test tube baby.

None worked.

Sharon Saarinen, Alana's Mum to be, was found to have mitochondrial disease so she received a donation or transplant of healthy mitochondria from a volunteer.

Sharon Saarinen then had a "Test Tube" conception with Paul Saarinen's sperm. That then lead to a healthy embryo and a healthy baby Alana Saarinen. Technically this made Alana a baby with 3 parents – her nuclear DNA came from her Mum and Dad and 1% of donated mitochondrial DNA from the donor.

According to her mother Alana is a healthy and normal child and the operation or procedure a very rare one.

According to the Wiki "The United Kingdom became the first country to legalize the procedure after the Parliament and House of Lords approved The Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Mitochondrial Donation) Regulations[11] in February 2015, to come into force on 29 October 2015."

As to whether this will prove to be a far sighted and pioneering innovation or just s short sighted technical fix remains to be seen.

Nurture Your Mitochondria

Want to make your bones stronger or boost your immune system against flu? Then you can do that simply by taking extra vitamin C which will help with both goals and you can always fight flu even more with familiar and effective herbs such as, Echinacea or Black Elder.

Want to turbo charge those mitochondria and make them even mightier? We can do that too and here's how…

There are several nutrients known to protect and optimise mitochondrial function. The obvious one is CoQ10 also called ubiquinol. Dose depends on your whole health picture but 100 mg is a typical dose and a good supplement for all of us to take routinely.

Then we come to the energy vitamins which we call B Complex. Several of the B vitamins help with the process of extracting energy from our food and so boost the ability of the mitochondria to work well.

Carnitine is something more associated with body building but it does help nutrients to get into mitochondria and it also takes out the trash after wards, something not always called cellular detox but that is what it is.

A good high quality multi – not a bargain basement one- will then give the body all the important minerals it needs. Minerals such as Iodine, Magnesium and Zinc.

O and I nearly forgot to mention it – to get the most out of your mitochondria you need to help yourself to a super healthy selection of foods – it's called the Mediterranean diet and it has keep millions of people healthy for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Lastly we come to exercise…

Exercise Your Mitochondria

You know the phrase, "Use it or lose it"? It's true about muscle strength, brain acuity and it's true about mitochondria too.

Exercise make demands on the body. Weight bearing exercise stimulates bones to make them stronger and all exercise pushes us beyond our normal range of activity and breathing and we have to grow and expand to cope with that.

Exercise stimulates the body to produce more mitochondria where ever demanded and with more mitochondria we have more energy and a greater ability to cope with whatever is thrown at us.

And in spite of so much publicity given to aerobic exercise it is high intensity exercise that is the most effective.

Just a few minutes of high intensity exercise 3 times a week will outperform longer periods of aerobic exercise but the key is to exercise not dither about what type – walk jog run lift weights, use your body weight but do please exercise and make your loyal and hardworking mitochondria even mightier.

We've heard of the amazing technology of the mitochondrial donation as a breakthrough but we can help ourselves now without waiting for scientists and more discoveries.

We can help to optimise our mitochondria with better diet and anti-oxidants as mentioned above and good old exercise too.

Our health is partially a matter of genes but mostly it is our decisions and our lifestyle that make a biggest impact on our life and health.

AuthorAlex Newell ND

I love learning and being healthy so as soon as I came across Yoga, read and practised to get the health benefits. When I was approaching middle age my health declined under the onslaught o stress and possibly poor diet, I had a perfect opportunity to learn more and I qualified in both Osteopathy and Naturopathy. Our health really is in our own hands and not in the hands of "The Doctor" or our Genes :-)

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