Sunday, November 18, 2012

Viva la Mitochondria!

Mitochondrial Dysfunction
Last week, I found myself in the swank ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel in midtown Atlanta. Unlike the functions I attend for my government clients, this one had swag bags, free hors d'oeuvres and soft drinks, and an open bar for VIPs. It was a nice event.  But I wasn't there to soak up the atmosphere - I was there to listen and learn and to support  one of my clients, the Foundation for Mitochondrial Medicine, who sponsored the program.*  

And I'm so glad I went. The program was impressive: top researchers and clinicians from Harvard, the Mayo Clinic, Georgia State University, and private practice in Atlanta shared their research into how mitochondrial dysfunction is at the crux of the diseases and conditions they study, conditions ranging from autism to Parkinson's disease and that include muscular dystrophy, ALS, and more. The illustration above provides a graphic representation of the central role mitochondrial dysfunction plays in many common diseases. You can read more about it here.

A brief primer on mitochondria:  These organelles, found in almost every cell in our bodies, are responsible for many functions in the body and brain. Perhaps their main contribution to our health is taking chemical elements from the food we eat and the air we breathe and turning it into adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which is the fuel on which our bodies run. But mitochondria perform other tasks in our bodies, as well: organ-specific ones, like working in the liver to detoxify ammonia that is created as a waste product of protein metabolism; or regulating calcium so that neurons can function smoothly; and even telling cells when to die, an important housekeeping tasks that ensures the availability of robust cells to take care of our bodies' business.

So when mitochondria become damaged, either through inborn genetic mutations or through environmental assaults, diseases and conditions can develop that range from moderate to severe, from feeling fatigued to being unable to breathe, move, see, or think clearly. Researchers also suspect that damage to our mitochondria are responsible for the aging process itself.

This is terribly exciting research. Importantly, this particular group of researchers is working not just on laying out how mitochondrial dysfunction results in disease, but how to fix the problems. Currently, the most helpful therapies, such as CoEnzyme Q, exercise, excellent nutrition, specific supplements, and rest are pretty basic. But that gives you an idea how important those aspects are, and how much we take them for granted in supporting our bodies' daily energy needs.

Of special interest to me is how fragile mitochondria are. Many things, including some drugs, pesticides, and other chemicals, including air pollution, can damage them. And, last I looked, we are all living in an increasingly polluted world, which might help explain why certain diseases are increasing. Excellent nutrition, therefore, offers a basic defense from the continuous assault of chemicals we all experience. And it's not just the protective nature of good foods that is important, but also recognition of the damaging aspects of bad fats and artificial additives, including the creation of free radicals when they are metabolized that can harm the delicate mitochondria.

This post is more "gee-whiz"than most of my posts, but I really think mitochondrial medicine is one of the great promises for understanding, preventing, and treating some of the most common and debilitating diseases and conditions of our time. If you look around your family tree and map out diseases and conditions in various family members (this post can help you get started), you might find patterns between the generations, one of which may be linked to mitochondria. That can give you a clue about how clean you need to make your personal environment, whether it's the foods you eat, the air you breathe, or how you control pests in your house and weeds in your yard, in order to support mitochondrial health. The evidence is strong that the combination of family genetics and one's personal environment can make the difference between good health and disease and now we're beginning to understand that high-functioning mitochondria may be one of the key sentinels standing guard over our well being. Therefore, since we can't do much about the genetic hand we are dealt, we need to be vigilant about creating personal environments that support these vital sources of energy and cellular protection.


Did you know that mitochondria are believed to be ancient bacteria that were ingested by single-celled organisms, where they eventually created a mutually beneficial relationship by providing energy to the organism in return for a safe place to live? The enhanced energy is why organisms could evolve from one cell to many.

* disclaimer: The Foundation for Mitochondrial Medicine is one of my clients. It pays me to do scientific writing and strategic communication counseling. This blog posts represents my own opinions and not those of the Foundation. I was not asked to write this post, did not have anyone from the Foundation vet it, and take full responsibility for its content. I'm just really excited about this field of medicine.

Image from the Foundation for Mitochondrial Medicine.