Brain Health and Mitochondria
The Relationship Between Energy Production and Aging
Mitochondria are small structures found within every cell in our bodies (except red blood cells). They are the powerhouses of our bodies (they make up approximately 10% of the bodies weight), converting the food we eat into adenosine-5’-triphosphate (ATP), which is the body’s main source of cellular fuel. We are constantly using this energy, which is especially true for our brains.
While the brain only represents 2% of an adult’s weight, it consumes 20% of the energy produced by the body. Mitochondria are involved in many important processes in the brain, including fueling electrical impulses and cell maintenance.
Mutations in mitochondrial genes can cause disease, but even normal mitochondria become less efficient as they age. Numerous studies have shown that there is a correlation between impaired mitochondrial function in the brain and many neurodegenerative diseases, including those related to aging such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
In a recent study entitled “Mitochondrial Aging Defects Emerge in Directly Reprogrammed Human Neurons due to Their Metabolic Profile”, researchers used a new method to discover that cells from older individuals had impaired mitochondria (and therefore reduced energy production).
Most studies of mitochondria use chemical stresses to stimulate aging - what was unique about this study is that they used a method which they developed to directly convert skin cells into neurons. Using skin cells collected from humans ranging in age from birth to 89 years old, the researchers could study the effect of age on the mitochondria.
The researchers found that mitochondria in the skin cells showed few age-related changes. However, once the cells were converted to neurons, mitochondria from older donors were significantly different. Mitochondrial genes related to energy generation were turned off and the mitochondria were less dense, more fragmented and generated less energy.
The researchers hypothesize that the mitochondria of the neurons were more impacted by aging than the mitochondria of skin cells because the neurons rely more heavily on mitochondria for their energy needs. Jerome Mertens, a co-corresponding author of the study, suggested a good analogy “If you have an old car with a bad engine that sits in your garage every day, it doesn’t matter. But if you’re commuting with that car, the engine becomes a big problem”.
How Do We Support Our Brains’ Mitochondria?
Given how important mitochondrial health is for the proper functioning of our brains, any strategy would help to protect these mitochondria so they are less affected by aging will help us to live longer, healthier and happier lives.
Below are some of the lifestyle, diet, and supplementation strategies you can implement to help ensure your mitochondria are functioning optimally.
Even 2000+ years ago, Hippocrates knew that good health started with diet. In our modern world of fast, processed foods, it’s easy to get into the habit of eating the foods that are most available to us while hoping the pharmaceutical industry will fix us when the inevitable deterioration of our health follows.
Fresh, Nutrient-Dense Foods
To protect our brain’s mitochondria, we need to start by ensuring that we eat a diet of fresh, nutrient-dense foods. Our brains run well on antioxidants, phytonutrients, fiber, healthy fats and proteins.
What specific foods should we focus on incorporating into our diet?
- Fresh fruits and vegetables, including greens (spinach, kale, arugula), brightly coloured vegetables (beets, peppers, carrots) and sulfur-rich veggies (broccoli, cauliflower). The best way to get access to these foods (and good meat etc.) is to visit your local farmers market and make friends with the wonderful people who grow these amazing, organic foods. An added benefit of this is that we strengthen our local communities and become more self-reliant.
- Healthy fats, high in omega-3 fatty acids such as organic grass-fed beef or wild caught fish, nuts, seeds, avocados, and bone broths.
- Use avocado oil, lard, ghee, or coconut oil for cooking as they have high smoke-points. This will ensure that the oil doesn’t get oxidized such as in the case of using olive oil or seed oils. Olive oil is healthy, but not for cooking at high heat (Avocado oil has the highest smoke point).
These foods will help to build and strengthen the membranes of your mitochondria. They “burn clean”, giving us lots of energy and limiting the production of free radicals (free radicals are charged, highly active molecules that careen around the body, reacting with tissue. We need them but in low amounts).
Foods to Avoid
Eating nutrient devoid, processed foods wear down our mitochondria. We evolved eating nutrient dense foods - our mitochondria were not designed for our modern diets.
The empty calories of processed foods full of sugar, refined grains, and seed oils force mitochondria to burn a lot of junk, generating free radicals and inflammation in the process. In addition to this damage, there is the spike in blood sugar levels and damage from the toxins in these foods to contend with (trans fats, chemical additives, etc).
In addition to food, most drinks are especially bad and often loaded with sugar. Simple, filtered water is the best thing we can drink. Drinking water can become boring though - adding lemon juice or carbonation is a nice way to make water more enjoyable. It’s amazing how sweet lemon juice can taste when you’re no longer addicted to sugar, and it also helps to reduce acidity in our bodies.
Processed foods/drinks are harmful to us. They were designed in a lab to be as addictive as possible, and our mitochondria end up paying the price. There's nothing wrong with enjoying them once in a while, but when they are a regular part of our diet our health suffers.
The Ketogenic Diet
The ketogenic diet is a low-carb, high-fat diet.
The body has two fuel sources, carbohydrates (glucose) or fat (ketones). When consumption of carbs is restricted, your body enters a metabolic state called ketosis, in which your body and brain run on fatty acids called “ketones” instead of glucose.
Brains cells function with far greater efficiency when they are utilizing fat (ketones) as a fuel source instead of sugar. Mitochondria that are fueled by ketones instead of glucose produce more ATP with less free radicals. Often, people who switch to a ketogenic diet describe the effect as “having the lights turned on”. When the brain fog goes away, we are left with a highly efficient thinking machine.
In terms of age-related brain diseases, lots of research has been done on the ketogenic diet since the 1920’s and shows that the ketogenic diet is effective in reducing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
It appears that ketones may protect neurons and reduce the risk and/or slow the progress of dementia and memory loss. A 2012 study compared memory between a group following a high-fat diet and one following a low-fat diet. The high-fat group showed significant improvements compared to the low-fat group and the improvements were directly correlated to ketone body levels.
More research is needed, but it’s clear that the brain does well when fueled by ketones.
Intermittent fasting can help to put your body into ketosis, creating ketones for your mitochondria to use as fuel. One of the beneficial effects of fasting is autophagy, which is a physiological process of cleaning out unnecessary or dysfunctional parts of cells. In mitochondria, this process is called mitophagy - the mitochondria’s membranes break down and the body recycles what’s healthy and uses the rest for energy or to make new parts.
Limiting the window of time that you eat each day to 6-8 hours (14-16 hours of fasting) can be an effective way to implement this strategy. Focusing on high-fat foods will make you feel satiated longer so that you don't get those carb cravings. (I personally enjoy "bulletproof coffee" - putting coconut oil and grass-fed butter in my coffee each morning as a substitute for breakfast. If you put it in a blender, it has the texture of a latte or cappuccino - yum!).
Be aware that switching from a high-carb to a high-fat diet, and fasting may not be right for everyone (and can be very difficult) and should ideally be done with the help of a medical practitioner. (As always, none of what we write is medical advice.)
In a study published in the American Journal of Physiology in 2011, researchers found evidence which suggests that aerobic exercise causes new mitochondria to grow in your brain (as well as muscles). The study was done in mice, using an eight-week treadmill running program.
What’s interesting about this study is that they found a positive association between brain mitochondrial biogenesis (growing new mitochondria in the brain), voluntary activity and endurance capacity. In addition to a healthier body and more mitochondria in the brain, they found that the mice had an increased “impulse to exercise” i.e. when left alone they would decide to run on the wheel on their own.
This is important because as we age the desire to exercise decreases. By exercising not only are we increasing the number of mitochondria in our brain (helping to slow aging and ward off brain diseases) but we’re increasing the desire to exercise, which reduces the amount of willpower that we need to continue exercising.
Sleep plays an enormous role in resetting immunity, which in turn also helps reduce the chances of chronic inflammation, autoimmunity, oxidative damage, higher incidence of disease, and mitochondrial issues.
There is still a lot that we don’t know about sleep and its relationship to brain health. We do know that during the day a metabolic waste product called beta-amyloid is built up. A buildup of beta-amyloid is linked to impaired brain function and Alzheimer’s disease.
Coenzyme Q10 (Coq10) is an essential antioxidant that protects our mitochondria from oxidative damage and also plays a key role in the production of energy.
The body naturally produces Coq10 but production peaks around age 20 and continually declines with age. Production is also diminished by common drugs such as statins and exposure to environmental toxins (oxidative stress).
Co-Q10 has been shown to be an excellent treatment for many brain-related health problems, including depression, migraines, chronic fatigue, Alzheimer’s, and ALS.
Ensuring that we are getting enough Coq10 is critical for the health of our brains.
Good food sources include grass-fed beef, organic chicken, and avocado.
Just like exercise and Coq10, PQQ is involved in the process of mitochondrial biogenesis.
Beyond stimulating the production of new mitochondria, PQQ stimulates the production of nerve growth factor (NGF), which triggers growth and branding of nerve cells. PQQ also reduces the impact of excitotoxicity in brain cells. Excitotoxicity occurs when neurons become over-stimulated, and it has been linked to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and epilepsy.
Luckily, PQQ can be found in small amounts in most foods. Fruits and vegetables are a good source, as plants store roughly 10 times as much PQQ as animals. Natto, parsley, spinach, kiwi, and cocoa are a few examples of PQQ-rich foods.
We recently went in-depth on PQQ in our article “What is PQQ? The Mitochondrial Powerhouse” if you would like to learn more about the health benefits of this incredible molecule.
ALCAR is an amino acid that plays a central role in the breakdown of fatty acids and their subsequent transport into the mitochondria (in the brain as well as the rest of your body). Acting as a carrier, ALCAR allows these fatty acids to cross the inner membrane of the mitochondria where they can be used to produce energy (ATP).
Another benefit of ALCAR is its ability to donate a portion of its structure towards the production of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is a ubiquitous neurotransmitter involved in many functions of the brain, including emotion, memory, learning, arousal, and motivation. A decline in the production and concentration of this neurotransmitter is common in aging and especially pronounced in Alzheimer’s patients.
Grass-fed beef is by far the best food source of ALCAR.
The Vitamin B complex is a group of 8 vitamins - thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folic acid (B9), and cobalamin (B12).
B vitamins are known as the “happy vitamins” or “anti-stress vitamins” but they could just as easily be called the “brain vitamins”. The B vitamins are effective against depression, and brain-aging related diseases.
There are 3 B vitamins that are particularly important for mitochondria in the brain. Vitamin B6, folic acid (B9) and B12. A study published by Oxford University found that when these vitamins are taken together they reduce brain atrophy, improved brain function, and dramatically reduced brain shrinkage in the part of the brain most affected by Alzheimer’s.
In a study published just last week, researchers found that Vitamin B3 may help to stop the death of nerve cells that occurs in Parkinson’s disease. They found that it helps to boost the mitochondria, preventing the nerve cells from dying off.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is not very common in young adults but older adults are very often deficient. Vitamin B12 is essential for the proper functioning and development of the brain and nerve cells. Our nerves have a protective sheath made from a fatty substance called myelin. Vitamin B12 helps to build and protect myelin. Many neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases are associated with Vitamin B12 deficiency.
Seniors and vegetarians are at high risk of Vitamin B12 deficiency. Fortunately, supplements are an effective method for increasing B12 levels.
Good food sources of the B vitamins include animal products (meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy), avocado, bananas, nuts, mushrooms, seeds, and beets.
Other Nutrients That Help Boost Mitochondria
There are many other nutrients that help to boost the mitochondria as raw materials for the production of ATP. The list below some of them.
- Resveratrol (red wine and grass-fed steak for brain health!)
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
Giving our mitochondria what they need to function properly so that we can maximize our brain function and slow down brain aging is not complicated.
Good sleep, healthy food with some intermittent fasting, and exercise are key not to just our brain health, but also to our overall quality of life. Stay away from unhealthy foods, avoid pharmaceuticals, and don’t beat yourself up if you need to replace bad habits with good ones and find it to be difficult. Good health is not complex, but it’s also not easy. It takes discipline, knowledge, and desire, but by making little changes to our daily routines, we can move closer to better health every day.
At Myolibria, we subscribe to the philosophy of trying to get as many of the nutrients that we need from food and only taking supplements to ensure that we are getting enough of the critical nutrients which can sometimes be hard to get enough of through diet alone.
We developed Mitochondria Balance to help our mitochondria function optimally for overall health, and that includes our precious brains. It contains ALCAR, CoQ10, PQQ and most of the B vitamins (B6 is in our magnesium balance, as it helps with magnesium and zinc absorption - we designed these 3 supplements to be taken together for optimal results).
We get messages from customers all the time, describing how Mitochondria Balance makes them feel more energetic, less sore from exercise, and mentally sharper. When our mitochondria are deprived of what they need, we feel lethargic and live in a permanent mental fog. A feeling of a light turning on and a sense of access to limitless energy is often described when improving mitochondrial functioning.
June is Alzheimer's and Brain Awareness Month. For the rest of the month, Mitochondria Balance will be available on our website for $10 off, with the coupon code "mito". Unfortunately, our products are currently only available in Canada, but we're working towards global distribution.
If you've never tried a supplement before specific to mitochondrial health, try it out and let us know what you think. As always we love to hear from our readers and customers.