It’s no surprise that the inner-workings of the human body are complex and nothing short of a miracle. So many natural processes that keep us alive are automated for us by the assembly line that exists within. We’re going to get down to the core of it today – our cells – and look at the best foods for mitochondrial health.
The entire body at its core is comprised of cells. 37.2 trillion cells to be exact. At the centre of most of those cells is the control centre – or the mitochondria. It takes a bit of cooperation amongst cellular processes to keep us well and alive, and all that science-y stuff is actually pretty cool.
It’s also incredible to consider the link between things like the gut microbiome and mitochondria, and how that relationship impacts our overall health. The best part of all is how much we can make a positive impact on those processes through the healthy choices we make.
Today, I’ll be digging into some of the intricacies of our cells and uncovering the mystery, and how to eat for optimal mitochondrial health.
How do mitochondria respond to nutrition?
In essence, mitochondria have much to do with our bodily functions and disease. Mitochondria respond to nutrition – think of them as the “digestive system” of the cells.
Moreover, mitochondria synthesise proteins for its own use. The mitochondria are intelligent, and it knows how to allocate energy after breaking it down! It only makes sense that the foods we choose to eat play a crucial role in the optimisation of mitochondrial functioning.
The “mysteries” of mitochondria are uncovered in their interaction with other cells and overall cellular functioning. Therefore, determining the way this facet of health impacts our well-being and the way we can make an impact on that is highly specific and complex.
The risks of poor mitochondria health
- Heart disease. Essentially, the mitochondria don’t receive enough oxygen as early onset heart failure compromises the availability of oxygen and triggers a stress signal to the body to tell it so. Delivering antioxidants to the cells can potentially lessen dysfunction and prevent heart failure.
- Cancer. DNA damage – identified within cells – is an early marker of cancer. Mutated mtDNA cells are a telling sign of malignant tumours and their growth. Above all, cancer is a cellular disease at its core, so the health of our mitochondria plays a role in both prevention and therapeutic treatment. By optimising mitochondrial metabolism in ways such as providing the body with enough micronutrients, we can do our best to slim down the chance of cancer. Micronutrient deficiencies have long-term effects, and cancer is thought to be one of them. Let’s eat our superfoods!
- Mitochondrial disease. This is a very broad spectrum of disease, and there are literally hundreds of mitochondrial diseases. These manifest as a result of mutations in mtDNA. Finally, you should know that different mutations can cause the same disease, so it’s not always easy to trace the trouble to the source.
- Fatigue. While fatigue isn’t quite as life-threatening as cancer, it can be a painful and persistent problem with seemingly no solution. Visiting the doctor for prolonged fatigue is not going to be a clear diagnosis. Poor mitochondria function could be to blame. Poor nutrition, prolonged use of certain medications, antibiotic use, and other factors can diminish ATP production and leave our cells without the energy they need to function at peak performance.
The best foods for mitochondria health
When it comes to addressing nutrition, it’s important to look at it broken down into smaller pieces. Today, I’m going to be looking at five different vitamin and mineral complexes that nourish the cells and share my top picks for the best food sources of those compounds. I believe that supplementation is best done through the diet as many foods provide a more bioavailable source of essential nutrients which is why real food nutrition is so important!
Remember: there are no medications specifically designed for our mitochondria. Nutrition and lifestyle is by far the most effective way to biohack your cellular health.
B vitamins are water-soluble vitamins that act as coenzymes. These coenzymes then fuel the enzymes that are essential to proper cellular function. According to research, any deficiency of an individual B vitamin can compromise mitochondrial function. There, you can read more about each B vitamin’s role in mitochondrial health. Essentially, they are required for coenzyme formation.
- Liver. The liver is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. Like many animal foods, its nutrients are very available to the body and the cells. The liver is especially high in B vitamins, but it also contains some vitamin D, CoQ10 (also on the list) and iron – all of which can be particularly difficult to obtain from food.
- Sardines. Don’t love sardines yet? It’s time to begin this love affair because they are one of my superfoods, and your cells love this blend of nutrients! A single serving of sardines offers up 338% of your daily recommendation for vitamin B12 – what I like to call the “energy vitamin.”
- Lamb. Grass-fed lamb isn’t only delicious and rich with protein and healthy fats. It also provides an incredible B complex with high amounts of vitamin B12 plus B1, B2, B6, folate, and biotin. It’s a great addition to a normal B complex supplement, providing many of the same benefits (but again, with more bioavailability).
- Nutritional yeast. Nutritional yeast is so easy to add to the diet. They’re often found in the bulk section at the grocery store. These yellow-orange flakes taste cheesy so you can sprinkle them on top of savoury dishes for a cheddar kick (without the dairy). Nutritional yeast contains lots of vitamin B12.
Zinc just so happens to be an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties. It only makes sense that we can see the effects of chronic inflammation and oxidative stress on the cells. This study reveals that zinc has the potential to reduce markers of oxidative stress markers in plasma and inhibit inflammatory cytokine production. To clarify, cytokines are small proteins important for cell signalling, which is basically how the cells work/interact with one another.
- Oysters & mussels. Oysters and molluscs such as mussels are mineral powerhouses. As well as zinc, they are also high in protein, relatively low in calories, and packed with other valuable vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B-12, iron, and selenium.
- Grass-fed beef. This food is truly a staple in my diet and many other folks’ diets not only because it’s versatile and it tastes good, but it is a superfood in disguise! It’s a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids and CLA which have their own host of incredible benefits. It’s also a supercell food because a serving contains 37% of your daily zinc intake.
- Cashews. Nuts are so nutritious (and delicious). Cashews are a favourite to snack on, add to bliss balls, or make raw desserts with. They’re also a favourite for boosting zinc intake, providing about 21% of the recommended dose.
- Pumpkin seeds. Pepitas are a tasty treat and a handful provides you with a TON of zinc. 1/4 cup of pumpkin seeds provides around 17% of the RDA. Plus, pepitas are also quite rich with magnesium (another key nutrient for mitochondria health).
Coenzyme Q10, CoQ10, or ubiquitol (the fully reduced form) isn’t the easiest thing to get in food form. Our bodies actually make it, but production declines with age. It’s notoriously difficult to get into your diet, so if you think you might be lacking in it, I do recommend taking a quality supplement. However, these are a few decent nutritive sources that provide plenty of additional advantages regardless, including some of the other big “mitochondria nutrients” on this list!
The main takeaway here is that CoQ10 acts similarly to other antioxidants on our list to protect our cells from oxidative stress and damage. It aids in the production of energy by our cells, and research shows that low levels are often found in cancer patients (a disease we can trace to the cell).
Some folks who are particularly at risk for deficiency are those who regularly take cholesterol-lowering drugs as the interaction makes it more difficult for the body to absorb CoQ10. After 50 years of age, your body also becomes far less efficient at producing CoQ10.
- Eggs. I love everything about a good pastured egg. They might just be the perfect food. They’re rich with essential fatty acids, protein, and so many beautiful nutrients. The yolks provide around 0.52 mg of CoQ10 per 100-gram serving. Don’t just eat the whites!
- Grass-fed butter. Cooking with butter or drinking bulletproof coffee could boost CoQ10. A serving of butter comes in at 0.70 mg.
- Herring, mackerel, anchovies and tuna. All three seafood sources are amongst the best out there. If you want a true dose of CoQ10, these fish – fresh, smoked or canned – are your best bet. For the hardcore folks, it’s worth noting that herring heart contains 12 whole mg of CoQ10!
- Extra virgin olive oil. Per 100 grams of olive oil, you can expect a significant dose of CoQ10 at around 11.4 mg! I love olive oil for making vinaigrette at home and drizzling over roasted veggies. Double up on CoQ10 and have your seafood with a tablespoon or two.
Magnesium is a super important mineral for our cells. It aids in the production of ATP – the full-time job of our cells. Ideally, we’re producing more than we’re consuming. It’s relatively easy to become deficient in magnesium, but it’s also easy to get from a variety of whole foods, so a paleo diet can really help address the issue if you’re lacking it.
At the end of the day, the mitochondria generation requires magnesium. Give your cells the fuel they need with these foods.
- Almonds. A cup of almonds provides around 20% of the RDA for magnesium. Snacking on almonds is a solid and healthy choice, but also adding things like almond milk and almond flour to the diet in place of dairy and grains can give you the boost you need.
- Spinach. With 157 mg per cup, spinach is the go-to green for magnesium. All leafy greens have their benefits and are also rich with fibre, vitamin A, and vitamin C. Spinach makes a great base for salads, is tasty wilted into soups, and is easily blended into smoothies. Swiss chard contains approximately the same amount of magnesium.
- Avocado. A medium avocado provides around 60 mg of magnesium and filling, nourishing, healthy fats.
- Bananas. A medium banana provides the body with around 8% RDA of magnesium. For the ultimate magnesium boost, make the perfect green smoothie with this dynamic, magnesium-rich blend of foods!
Sulfur is an important component of the diet. It mainly comes to us in the form of cruciferous veggies and prebiotic foods with resistant starch and indigestible fibre which have their own impressive set of benefits (specifically for gut health). Sulfur is the fourth most abundant mineral found in our bodies and a primary source of antioxidants in the mitochondria. This study shows that sulfur-rich foods increase mitochondrial permeability which essentially means a stronger barrier and defence system.
Watch out for all of these foods! Eating too much raw cruciferous vegetable matter can be very uncomfortable for the digestive system.
- Kale. A healthy blend of spinach or kale – or greens ‘cycling’ – can hit all your mitochondria health needs! Kale provides essential sulfur in addition to compounds that later convert to sulfur, making it the gift that keeps on giving. I love raw massaged kale salads with olive oil, which helps the body absorb all those fat-soluble vitamins in greens.
- Cabbage. Cabbage is fabulous both cooked and raw. I love using it as a base for slaw salads.
- Onions. Onions are versatile, come in many varieties, and enhance nearly every savoury dish. They’re good raw or cooked for sulfur content.
- Garlic. Garlic is another awesome antioxidant-rich, antibacterial, antimicrobial superfood. If you’re not starting off your dishes with fresh garlic, you should be! For your cells and for the amazing flavour.
Additional supplements you can take:
- ALA. Alpha lipoic acid aids in the uptake of glucose in addition to burning through fatty acids. It’s essential for keeping cells alive because of the role it plays in biogenesis – a.k.a. the production of new organelles.
- Resveratrol. Supplementing with resveratrol can actually help mimic the benefits of calorie restriction for the cells without the work. It can be helpful in protecting cells if you don’t have a reason to restrict calories (lose weight) or are eating at a calorie surplus (to gain weight/muscle).
- CoQ10. This is a mitochondrial coenzyme, so it’s one of the building blocks of mitochondria. Supplementation can keep the cells healthy and subsequently, studies on its use have been promising regarding the prevention of cardiovascular disease. It’s easier to supplement coenzyme Q10 than to consume it.
- L-Arginine. The positive effects of this supplement can actually recreate the biochemical pathways formed from exercise and its positive impact on the cells. In short, it protects the mitochondria.
Intermittent fasting for mitochondria health
It’s not just about what you eat. It’s also about how you eat.
Intermittent fasting has a host of pretty incredible benefits and therapeutic purposes. One of those is keeping the cells youthful, vigorous, and healthy overall. Over time – just like everything that ages – our mtDNA takes a few hits and suffers some damage. Our whole body takes the brunt of it!
Calorie restriction in and of itself has benefits, and one of those is reversing the cell damage. The only problem? We can’t run a major calorie deficit forever.
Intermittent fasting helps to create a natural calorie deficit in a healthy way for prolonged periods of time or to mimic the positive effects that calorie restriction has on cellular health by restricting the eating window.
Our bodies are constantly hard at work. When we ingest food, our bodies have a big job to do as we process, absorb, and digest the matter. When we’re not taking in food, our bodies are able to relax a bit.
By giving some of these key bodily functions a rest, we can expect them to be more efficient (just like we are after the weekend). Intermittent fasting and/or calorie restriction may be linked to lessened mtDNA damage and oxidative stress, making intermittent fasting a potent antioxidant… just like many of the foods on the list!
Moreover, the production of free radicals (the things antioxidants fight) is reduced.
Intermittent fasting and caloric restriction have been studied extensively, and it’s often a piece of the puzzle in longevity, which inherently means it’s good for fighting the disease which always begins in our cells.
Thus, we’re lead to believe it’s advantageous to our cells, too. Intermittent fasting is ideal to do before going to bed when we’re burning the least amount of calories (at rest), and into the following morning. Yes – sleep counts as fasting, so you hardly have to try! By eliminating the number of hours during the day we are taking food in, we naturally eat less.
Thanks for stopping by to learn more about mitochondria health today. Hopefully, you have a better idea of how our cells work and how vital it is for us to keep them in tip-top shape.