Mitochondria are microscopic organelles – specialized structures found in living cells. They exist in large numbers within just about every cell in our bodies. Mitochondria evolved originally from some of the very first bacteria on Earth. Millions of years ago, when the Earth was still barren of life, select bacteria learned how to use the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere to make energy. Throughout evolution, a strain of these organisms joined with larger cells and co-evolved into animals, plants, and fungi, and eventually into humans.
Known as the “powerhouse of the cell,” mitochondria are our batteries; synthesizing our food and the air we breathe into energy. They are responsible for a whopping 90% of our energy production. Every thought, every physical action we make, is powered to a great degree by these tiny organelles. If our mitochondria stop working, we die within seconds. No energy, no life. Those ancient bacteria are central to our survival.
ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome) can be, in part, caused mitochondrial dysfunction. When you feel your batteries running low and your eyelids drooping, it may be your mitochondria calling for help! Luckily, some supplements help boost mitochondrial function and improve stamina. The following is a list of six, including descriptions of how they work:
The process of mitochondrial energy synthesis results in some molecular waste. The waste molecules, known as free radicals, are highly reactive and can damage or destroy surrounding tissue, including mitochondria themselves. Inefficient mitochondrial function as a result of illness can result in greater production of free radicals, creating a vicious cycle of tissue damage and loss of stamina. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) and glutathione are two nutrients to the rescue!
1. Coenzyme Q10
Coenzyme Q10 is an antioxidant naturally produced by mitochondrial membranes to mitigate the effects of free radical damage. CoQ10 also helps mitochondria produce energy more efficiently. A healthy body will naturally synthesize enough CoQ10 to balance the effects of free radicals, but someone with ME/CFS may need a little boost.
Darin Ingels, ND, suggests starting with 100 mg of CoQ10 twice a day and building up to 600 mg twice a day if necessary. Since CoQ10 is fat soluble, be sure to include some good quality fat in your diet to metabolize it.
Glutathione is the body’s master antioxidant. It helps enzymes in the liver break down heavy metals and biotoxins such as mold – which can contribute to ME/CFS symptoms. In mitochondria, glutathione helps neutralize free radical damage just like CoQ10.
Stomach acid neutralizes glutathione, so you need a liposomal form if you take it orally. Liposomal glutathione is protected from stomach acid and absorbed in the GI tract. The most efficient form of glutathione, however, is intravenous (you can find it through a functional medicine doctor). But IV glutathione is expensive, so many people opt for liposomal oral supplements instead.
Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide plus hydrogen, or NADH, is a naturally occurring coenzyme in the body and plays a critical role in mitochondrial energy production. A 2015 study of chronic fatigue syndrome patients showed that combining NADH and COQ10 supplements improved energy synthesis. NADH may also help with memory and cognitive function.
D-ribose is a molecule naturally produced in the liver, adrenal glands, fatty tissue, nerves, and muscle tissue. It is a critical part of mitochondrial energy production. Though a healthy body should make enough d-ribose, people with ME/CFS may benefit from supplementation. In a 2006 study, 60% of patients reported a subjective increase in energy and wellbeing while taking D-ribose
D-ribose resembles sugar and can be taken in powder form as a natural sweetener (one that doesn’t raise blood sugar levels).
5. Broccoli Sprout Extract
Broccoli sprouts are chock full of a compound called sulforaphane. Sulforaphane helps to activate detoxification enzymes in the liver – keeping you clear of the heavy metals and biotoxins that can contribute to fatigue. It also protects the inner mitochondrial membrane by limiting oxidative stress caused by free radicals – like CoQ10 and glutathione.
Broccoli sprout powder is available online, as well as broccoli sprout extract, a more concentrated form. Either can be stirred into juice or lemonade. The sprouts have a grassy taste that may take a little getting used to, but I have learned to like it!
Carnitine is a nutrient that helps transport fatty acids into mitochondria, where they are combined with oxygen during energy synthesis. Carnitine also assists with detoxification and may boost immunity.
About 75% of carnitine comes from eating meat and dairy products. The rest is created by the body. It isn’t uncommon for people to be deficient in carnitine, even if they eat meat, due to difficulty with absorption in the GI tract.
Darin Ingels, ND, suggests choosing an acetyl-L-carnitine supplement, due to its superior absorption in the brain. Take 1000mg daily and increased to 2000mg in divided doses if necessary.
Generally, all these supplements are well-tolerated and have little risk of side effects. But as always, be sure to talk with your doctor about what supplements will best improve your personal mitochondrial function. With the right support, you may feel a noticeable lift in your stamina and your spirits.
Shona Curley lives and works in San Francisco. She is co-owner of the studio Hasti Pilates, and creator of the website www.redkitemeditations.com. Shona teaches meditation, bodywork and movement practices for healing Lyme disease, chronic illness and pain.
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