Mitochondrial health is currently a trending topic in the scientific literature. Not that long ago, we would have merely described mitochondria as the powerhouse of the cell. While that’s still an accurate description, the mitochondria do so much more than provide cellular energy!

As we now know that mitochondria perform many essential functions beyond energy production, it’s becoming clear that these structures positively influence most areas of cell biology and medicine. (8) The excitement surrounding mitochondria’s impact on health is illustrated by the burgeoning research now available in the scientific literature.

 

 

Woman cooking
Healthy eating habits that help support the mitochondrial function play an important role in healthy aging.

 

Role of mitochondria

Mitochondria are involved in multiple important pathways and processes that intimately influence health and disease, including:

  • Antioxidant defense
  • Apoptosis
  • Bioenergetics
  • Biosynthetics
  • Redox status (3)

What do mitochondria do? The role of mitochondria is to help regulate immunity, inflammation, and brain function on a cellular level. They contribute to the growth, differentiation and death of cells throughout the body, and that’s why mitochondrial dysfunction is associated with most age-related disorders, as well as common chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases. (10)

For obvious reasons, employing diet, lifestyle, and dietary supplement strategies to help support mitochondrial function is paramount. In part one of this series, we’ll address the importance of optimal nutrition to support mitochondrial function.

Mitochondrial diet

When you eat, you are providing your body and cellular mitochondria with the nutrients they need to function optimally. It’s no surprise then that the health of your mitochondria is impacted by your diet.

Calorie restriction

When it comes to food and mitochondria, the key is to prevent or even reverse mitochondrial dysfunction. Two dietary measures may help keep mitochondria functioning at peak capacity: fasting and caloric restriction.

According to a 2013 review, caloric restriction (CR) decreases mitochondrial reactive oxygen species (ROS) and increases mitochondrial biogenesis. (2) Another 2013 review concluded that an approach that includes CR, physical activity, and CR mimetic supplementation may help promote mitochondrial efficiency. (5) More about physical activity and supplementation in parts two and three of this series.

 

 

Woman using a smart phone
Intermittent fasting is growing in popularity due to its ability to support mitochondria.

Intermittent fasting

One form of calorie restriction is intermittent fasting (IF), which has also become popular in the scientific literature because it confers many benefits, including providing important support to mitochondria. Most of the research on IF and mitochondrial function has been done on animals. For example, a 2018 study showed that fasting helped protect mitochondria and helped them maintain efficient respiration, a process that generates cellular energy, while improving blood glucose and lipid profiles in the body. (4) This is consistent with a 2012 animal study that showed that IF resulted in a decline in oxidative molecular damage and an increase in mitochondrial function. (10)

Although IF can exert similar benefits to CR, the effects of IF on mitochondrial function are limited and inconclusive. The research on CR is stronger than IF because IF may or may not always result in successful CR; however, both show promise in supporting and protecting mitochondria. (9)

Ketogenic diet

Similar to IF, a lot of research regarding the ketogenic diet and mitochondria is in vivo. The ketogenic diet may enhance the ability of mitochondria to control inflammation and oxidative stress. This diet can also optimize the way the body uses energy. (6)

According to a 2018 review, “By dramatically shifting energy metabolism towards ketogenesis and fatty acid oxidation, ketogenic diets are likely to have a profound effect on mitochondrial function.” (6) By enhancing mitochondrial function, the ketogenic diet may also improve the body’s resistance to certain chronic conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative diseases. (6)

Mediterranean diet

If restricting calories and fasting is too challenging, you may want to consider the Mediterranean diet. While the research specific to mitochondria is limited, the Mediterranean diet may beneficially impact mitochondrial health by positively influencing reactive oxygen species. (11)

A 2004 review explained that the healthy dietary fats found in the Mediterranean diet are what help protect mitochondria. (1) This is consistent with other research that shows the Mediterranean diet is an ideal anti-aging diet. In addition to healthy fats, the Mediterranean diet also features other nutrients that have been shown to support mitochondria, including CoQ10 and resveratrol. (11) Read more about these and other supportive nutrients in part three of this series on mitochondria!

The bottom line

When it comes to protecting and enhancing mitochondrial function, diet does matter. One option may be choosing the whole foods, unprocessed approach of the Mediterranean diet. For the more adventurous, caloric restriction or intermittent fasting may be the route to go for mitochondrial support. If you’re a patient, be sure to speak with your integrative healthcare provider before making any substantial changes to your diet and wellness plan.

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  1. Battino M, Ferreiro MS. (2004). Aging and the Mediterranean diet: a review of the role of dietary fats. Public Health Nutrition. 7(7):953-958.
  2. Gouspillou G, Hepple RT. (2013). Facts and controversies in our understanding of how caloric restriction impacts the mitochondrion. Experimental Gerontology. 48(10):1075-84.
  3. Herst P, Rowe MR, Carson GM, Berridge MV. (2017) Functional mitochondria in health and disease. Frontiers in Endocrinology. 8:296.
  4. Lettieri-Barbato D, Cannata SM, Cassagrande V, et al. (2018). Time-controlled fasting prevents aging-like mitochondrial changes induced by persistent dietary fat overload in skeletal muscle. PLOS ONE. 13(5).
  5. Martin-Montalvo A, de Cabo R. (2013). Mitochondrial metabolic reprogramming induced by caloric restriction. Antioxidants & Redox Signaling. 19(3):310-320.
  6. Miller VJ, Villamena FA, Volek JS. (2018). Nutritional ketosis and mitohormesis: potential implications for mitochondrial function and human health. Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism. 2018.
  7. Osellame LD, Blacker TS, Duchen MR. (2012). Cellular and molecular mechanisms of mitochondrial function. Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 26(6):711-723.
  8. Picard M, Wallace DC, Burelle Y. (2016). The rise of mitochondria in medicine. Mitochondrion. 30:105-116.
  9. Sergi D, Naumovski N, Heilbronn LK, et al. (2019). Mitochondrial (Dys)function and insulin resistance: from pathophysiology molecular mechanisms to the impact of diet. Frontiers in Physiology. 10:532.
  10. Singh R, Lakhanpal D, Kumar S, et al. (2012). Late-onset intermittent fasting dietary restriction as a potential intervention to retard age-associated brain function impairments in male rats. Age. 34(4):917-33.
  11. Tuttolomondo A, Simonetta I, Daidone M, et al. (2019). Metabolic and vascular effect of the Mediterranean diet. International Journal of Molecular Science. 20(19):4716.