My post today isn’t geared as much to informing you as it is to encourage some healthy pondering: What can we do to prevent disease before it even starts in the first place?
Consider this: the top three leading causes of death in 1900 were pneumonia, tuberculosis and gastroenteritis, all external causes. Now fast forward to the 21st century and you’ll see that while infectious disease is no longer an issue due to improvements in hygiene and basic nutrition, the top causes of death have been replaced by heart disease, diabetes and cancer, none of which are externally driven (for the most part). So, if we were able to obliterate the reasons we were dying a hundred years ago, shouldn’t we be healthier as a population now? What’s changed?
The individual mechanisms behind each of these conditions are complex to say the least. We can certainly busy ourselves with enough of these details and explore new treatments, new ways to test and we may even have some insights as to why our health has unfolded the way it has, but how do the cells themselves get damaged? What actually causes cells to wither and die?
Well, the answer to that is equally complex…. but here’s a thought that might help us simplify the concept: our cells require energy to function: energy to replicate and energy to repair. NOTHING in the body happens without the energy to fuel it. NOTHING. So where does energy come from? You’d be forgiven for saying “well, duh, it comes from food” and you wouldn’t be wrong, but the actual currency of energy, in the form of ATP (Adenosine TriPhosphate) is derived from little ‘organelles’ (aka mini organs) in your cells called ‘mitochondria’. These little guys RULE ALL and unfortunately, are exquisitely sensitive to damage by your body’s chemistry.
There are 2 different kinds of DNA in your body: nuclear DNA that comes from both your parents and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) that comes from your mother only. mtDNA is highly susceptible to damage by free radicals (by products of energy production) which your mitochondria actually generate. “Wait, what? I thought you just said that free radicals damage mitochondria?” In healthy cells there are usually enough antioxidants generated by healthy livers and enough coming in from the diet that the rate of free radical production is equivalent to the rate at which they’re being squelched, thus, the mitochondria are protected. The problem is, these days, we simply have way too much that diminishes our pool of antioxidants and we have lifestyle habits (most notably, diet and stress) that generate a whole bunch of free radicals that overwhelm our body’s ability to neutralize them. The result is a slow decline towards chronic disease and dysfunction that diminishes our vitality and hobbles our quality of life.
As an example, one feature that defines conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s Chorea, Parkinson’s disease and Multiple Sclerosis is a slow but steady shrinking of brain tissue. Would it surprise you to know that the brain is one of the most mitochondrial dense tissues in the body? Unexplained infertility? Did you know that estrogen is actually made INSIDE these little power houses? Poor mitochondrial function in your ovaries impacts both hormonal status and egg quality. It’s not a secret that fertility rates have plummeted in recent years, especially male factor infertility (one danish study estimated that sperm counts dropped 50% between 1940 and 1990 alone!). Once everything else has been ruled out, could exploring mitochondrial health be something to consider? Conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia are often referred to in functional medicine circles as “mitochondrial collapse”. The features? Debilitating fatigue, muscle wasting and cognitive dysfunction. Muscles are quite metabolically expensive to maintain as are the brain and heart….. when we consider what mitochondria do: generate energy, repair tissues, and maintain organ function it’s not a surprise that we see mitochondrial dysfunction (or death) manifest in these ways.
True bonafide mitochondrial disease is devastating. There’s not usually a cure and folks afflicted with mitochondrial diseases often need high levels of support for daily routines. However, in the realm of mitochondrial dysfunction, the conditions associated with this are vast. We can literally develop mitochondrial dysfunction within ANY organ system at ANY age. Understanding the function and purpose of mitochondria allows us the opportunity to not only refine our treatment programs by allowing us to work at a more fundamental level, but it also gives us a road map to aging healthfully and avoiding the pitfalls that ultimately lead to our decline in the first place.
Wanna see mitochondrial repair in action? Watch Terry Wahls TEDx talk about “Minding Your Mitochondria”. It’s an eye opener!