Mitochondria: This First Responder May Ease Chronic Inflammation

This organelle's critical role combatting cellular stressors may help heal our misfiring immune system
By Armen Nikogosian, Southwest Functional Medicine

Mitochondria are the microscopic power plants found in nearly all cells in the body and are responsible for producing most of the energy we use on a daily basis. While their energy-producing function is critical for normal cellular activity, it has been recently discovered that they also behave as “first responders” when the cell is exposed to chemicals, viruses, or other stressors that can damage DNA.

In a recent study published in Nature Metabolism, researchers found that mitochondria act as the first line of defense in sensing DNA stress. The mitochondria will sense that the cell is under attack and warn the rest of the cell to prepare to protect itself.

It has been theorized by other researchers that in these situations the mitochondria undergo something called the cell danger response (CDR). The CDR occurs when mitochondria detect a cellular stressor that induces them to shift from an energy-producing organelle to that of an inflammation-producing organelle. In an acute situation, such as an infection, this would assist the immune system in keeping the body in balance and help clear the stressor in a timely manner. The new findings that mitochondria play a role in the early detection of cellular stressors further supports the CDR theory.

While the primary purpose of this recent study was to find new cancer treatments that prevent tumors from becoming resistant to chemotherapy, we can use this information to further our search for achieving optimal health by improving energy production, maintaining immune balance, and, potentially, reducing chronic inflammation in our bodies.

Achieving optimal health is intricately linked to mitochondrial function for anyone over the age of 40.

Mitochondria are the batteries of the cell and dysfunction is present in a whole host of chronic conditions, most notably aging. After age 40, our mitochondria begin a process of natural decline that mirrors the deterioration of our bodies during the aging process.

Mitochondrial function is also depressed in chronically ill adults and the growing portion of children who are chronically ill.

Mitochondrial support with diet, lifestyle changes, and supplements is the first step in any successful effort to slow aging, or recapture energy and vigor. Supporting our mitochondria is also a foundational treatment for any chronic inflammatory condition.

In today’s world, we increasingly see signs of mitochondrial dysfunction at younger and younger ages. Chronic inflammation and the increase in chronic medication use in young people are leading causes of this early-onset dysfunction and should be a first consideration for doctors who treat patients with mitochondrial issues.

Mitochondrial support consists of diet, lifestyle factors, and replacing nutrients crucial to this important organelle.

Diet

Going gluten-free and eating a low-grain diet with reduced simple sugars can alleviate mitochondrial dysfunction. Adding high-quality dietary fats, anti-inflammatory nutrients, and certain “superfoods” known to enhance mitochondrial function can also help. These superfoods include almonds, avocados, grass-fed beef, coconut, olive oil, wild salmon, and green tea, to name a few.

Lifestyle

A sedentary lifestyle isn’t healthy for anyone, but it can be worse for someone suffering this affliction. Regular daily exercise tailored to the unique needs of the individual can help. Another good habit is intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating, which gives the body proper time to rest and allows cells to carry out autophagy, which is essentially a process by which cells recycle themselves.

Supplements

Supplement treatments replace nutrients known to make the mitochondrial function more efficient. Some examples are coenzyme Q10, carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E, and others. Dosing is done based on weight and typically goes far beyond the RDA recommendations or standard dosing as recommended by supplement companies.

An experienced functional medicine practitioner should be able to formulate a mitochondrial support program suited to the unique needs of the individual and their associated problems.

While mitochondrial support has traditionally been used to improve symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, and other issues centering around energy production, these new findings, which link mitochondria with the early response to cellular stress, may reveal completely new aspects for treatment.

Many patients with mitochondrial dysfunction have decreased immune response and recurrent infections. It was thought for many years that improved immune responses through mitochondrial support were related to better cellular energy efficiency, however, improvements in mitochondria’s “first responder” function much better explain this treatment outcome.

The diversity and power of our immune system is vast, with new aspects being discovered every year. What other immune functions can mitochondrial support improve? Although this recent study doesn’t delve into the intricacies of activating and deactivating inflammation, promptly reducing the inflammatory response should be possible with better mitochondrial function. A “first responder” should be able to sense when the cellular stressor has decreased or disappeared, allowing the immune system to turn off its attack more promptly.

Researchers have often observed chronic inflammation being reduced in patients through adequate mitochondrial support but didn’t have a mechanism to explain how this happened.

With these findings, we may have found this mechanism. With more than 60 percent of Americans possessing at least one condition associated with chronic inflammation, adding this new treatment to our toolbox may benefit millions of people.

Armen Nikogosian, M.D., practices functional and integrative medicine at Southwest Functional Medicine in Henderson, Nev. He is board-certified in internal medicine and a member of the Institute for Functional Medicine and the Medical Academy of Pediatric Special Needs. His practice focuses on the treatment of complex medical conditions with a special emphasis on autism spectrum disorder in children, as well as chronic gut issues and autoimmune conditions in adults. 

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