It’s becoming increasingly clear that chronic dysfunction of mitochondria is another underlying factor that contributes to poor brain function and mental illness.
Mitochondria are unique structures within every cell of your body. You have trillions and trillions of them, making up approximately 10% of your total body weight. They are considered the “powerhouses of the cell,” generating most of the energy in your body by converting your nutrition into adenosine-5’- triphosphate (ATP). ATP is your body’s main source of cellular fuel. You are constantly using it, and your brain needs enough of it to work properly (106-107).
Along with your gut bacteria, your mitochondria are critically important and need to be supported to overcome depression and anxiety, and reach optimal brain and mental health.
Mitochondria are especially abundant in your brain cells and involved in many important biological processes in the brain, including the regulation of free radicals and neurotransmitters. In fact, monoamine oxidase (MAO), the enzyme responsible for the metabolism of monoamine neurotransmitters, is localized within the outer mitochondrial membrane (91-93).
So not surprisingly, numerous studies show that there is a correlation between impaired mitochondrial functioning in the brain and many psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases, including bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer's disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, schizophrenia, psychosis, panic disorder, social anxiety, generalized anxiety and other stress-related diseases (82-90, 94-100, 102-104).
Yes, you read that right. Every single one of those conditions has been linked to mitochondrial dysfunction. In fact, many researchers are convinced that mitochondrial dysfunction is involved in almost every chronic disease (108-110).
Mitochondria dysfunction decreases ATP energy production and increases oxidative stress, which are commonly found in the brains of people suffering from brain and mental health disorders. Cognitive symptoms of mitochondrial dysfunction can also include impairments in attention, executive function and memory. Unfortunately, a number of psychiatric drugs damage the mitochondria and worsen dysfunction (105).
But luckily, there are ways to halt and reverse mitochondrial decay.
Below are a number of strategies I’ve used over the years to support my mitochondria and you can use them to regain optimal brain and mental health.
Eat Nutrient-Dense, Whole Foods
Not surprisingly, eating lots of fresh, nutrient-dense whole foods is the most impactful action you can take to power your mitochondria.
In order to thrive, your mitochondria need phytonutrients, antioxidants, healthy fats and proteins.
Dr. Terry Wahls, MD, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa, is a leading expert on the relationship between nutrition and mitochondrial health.
She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) more than a decade ago but reversed the neurodegenerative brain disease by repairing her mitochondria with an intensive nutritional strategy. She outlines how she recovered her health in her book The Wahls Protocol.
Research on her protocol shows that patients witness a “significant improvement in fatigue” (67).
She recommends eating six to nine cups of vegetables and fruits every day, including green veggies (kale, spinach), brightly colored vegetables (beets, carrots, peppers), and sulfur-rich veggies (broccoli, cauliflower).
My Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health also contains a bunch of foods that you should be eating on a regular basis for optimal mitochondrial health.
Dr. Wahls also has a fascinating TED talk that you can watch below if you're interested in learning more.
Avoid Certain Foods and Ingredients
Eating poor-quality foods can also wear down your mitochondria.
Genetically, your mitochondria were not designed to deal with our current food environment and lifestyle habits.
On top of this, your mitochondria are expected to perform proficiently for much longer, as our ancestors rarely lived to the age of 80.
That’s why you should avoid refined sugars, processed flours, industrial oils and trans fats. They can damage your mitochondria and prevent them from properly producing energy.
Dr. Wahls also recommends you avoid all gluten, dairy and soy products for optimal mitochondrial health. I feel much better avoiding them completely.
Eat More Essential Fats
Healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, help build and strengthen the membranes of your mitochondria. They’ve also been shown to improve mitochondrial functioning in brain (5-7).
Not surprisingly, exercise strengthens your mitochondria by increasing oxygen and blood flow and activating biochemical pathways that produce new mitochondria (8).
Runners have more high-functioning mitochondria than non-runners, and strength training and high-intensity interval training also increase the number of mitochondria and improve the efficiency of your existing mitochondria (9, 10).
There is strong evidence to suggest that LLLT supports the mitochondria.
Research shows that it reduces oxidative stress and increases the production of ATP energy in mitochondria (39, 40).
These mitochondrial benefits have also been seen directly within the brain. Studies show that LLLT increases mitochondrial activity within brain cells, and this leads to beneficial effects in behaviour (41).
On top of all this, LLLT treatment has been shown to increase the number of mitochondria and mitochondrial oxygen usage within the brain (42, 43).
Frankly, it’s ridiculous that this therapy is not more well-known and promoted by doctors.
But if you’ve read my blog for a while now, I’m sure you understand why.
You don’t have to wait for conventional medicine to catch up, and you can experiment with it yourself since it’s known to be very safe (44).
I use these two devices :
Platinum Therapy Lights Bio-450 (Combo Red/NIR) - This is a powerful all-one-device that shines 660 nm of red light and 850 nm of infrared light. I shine it on my forehead for 5-10 minutes every day or every other day. I also shine it on other parts of my head, and on my thyroid, thymus gland and gut. If you decide to get this device, you can use the coupon code OPTIMAL for a 5% discount.
Vielight 810 – This is an intranasal device with 810 nm of near infrared light that I use regularly. It penetrates deeper into brain tissue and is absorbed better by the central nervous system. If you decide to get this one, you can use the coupon code JORDANFALLIS for a 10% discount. Some research has shown a 20-fold higher efficiency of light delivery to the deep brain through the nose instead of transcranial application (125).
You can learn more about LLLT in this post.
Not only does it increase BDNF levels, but it also activates the SIRT1 gene. This gene triggers a number of positive biochemical reactions that protect and improve the functioning of your mitochondria. Caloric restriction and intermittent fasting also trigger the SIRT1 gene (11, 12, 13).
In 2006, Harvard researchers found that resveratrol may increase lifespan by protecting the mitochondria (14).
That’s why I take this resveratrol on a regular basis and will continue to do so for the rest of my life.
Caloric Restriction and Intermittent Fasting
Restricting your calories is one the best actions you can take to improve mitochondrial function.
Studies show that eating less food reduces the demand and damage on your mitochondria.
But reducing calories is tough to do and absolutely no fun.
That’s why I intermittent fast instead.
Fasting activates your mitochondria and triggers autophagy, which is an intracellular process that essentially allows the mitochondria to clean themselves by removing unwanted and damaged debris, proteins and reactive oxygen species (1, 2, 4).
This process has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease (3).
NADH is a naturally-occurring compound found in the cells of all living organisms.
It plays a key role in the production of energy within the cell and is highly concentrated within your mitochondria (45).
Depletion of NADH has been linked to a number of diseases, including depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and stabilized oral NADH has been shown to improve all of these conditions (46, 47, 48).
Although I don’t take it anymore, I’ve witnessed a beneficial effect from supplementing with this NADH through Amazon.
LLLT also increases NADH in your mitochondria.
A ketogenic diet is a very low-carb diet.
When you restrict carbohydrate-rich foods, your body enters ketosis, a metabolic state in which your body and brain run on fatty acids and “ketones” instead of glucose (36).
When your mitochondria are dysfunctional, following a ketogenic diet can be an effective strategy to fuel the mitochondria.
Ketogenic diets may help treat many different brain and mental health diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy and autism.
Exogenous ketones can help you get into ketosis quickly.
I take Optimal Ketones, and it immediately increases my mental clarity (even when I'm eating carbohydrates).
All of the B vitamins play an essential role in maintaining mitochondrial function, and your mitochondria will be compromised if you have a deficiency of any B vitamin (37).
Deficiency is more likely if you take certain medications.
I take this B complex. It includes the bioactive forms of all of the B vitamins.
Ribose is a five carbon sugar created naturally by your body. Even though it’s a sugar, research suggests it does not raise blood sugar levels. Instead, your body stores it in the mitochondria (49, 50).
Ribose is used by the mitochondria to produce ATP and if you don’t have enough, you’ll experience low energy (51).
Chronic stress can deplete ribose, and certain conditions have been linked to chronic ribose deficiency, including depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. That’s why I recommend people supplement with ribose if they struggle with these disorders because it can help reduce mental and physical lethargy (52, 53).
I don’t take it every day, but I do cycle this ribose with other mitochondrial enhancers.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is an antioxidant molecule found in every cell of your body. It’s particularly concentrated in the mitochondria, playing a key role in the production of energy and protecting the mitochondria from oxidative damage.
Without CoQ10, your body cannot synthesize ATP because CoQ10 is an essential component of the mitochondrial electron transport chain.
Many doctors are unaware that CoQ10 is an excellent treatment for many brain health issues, including depression, chronic fatigue, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Low levels of CoQ10 can cause brain fog, mental fatigue, difficulty concentrating, memory lapses, depression and irritability (68-70).
Researchers have found that CoQ10 levels are significantly lower in the depressed patients (71).
Unfortunately, chronic oxidative stress and medications can further deplete CoQ10.
But supplementing with CoQ10 can increase your mitochondrial energy production and reduce symptoms of depression and chronic fatigue (71).
Ubiquinol is a lipid-soluble form of CoQ10. I haven’t taken it but it is the most active form of CoQ10.
If you decide to supplement with CoQ10, you should take it with a healthy fat source such as coconut oil to increase absorption because it is fat soluble.
Food sources with high natural concentrations of CoQ10 include organic red palm oil and grass-fed beef heart (72, 73).
It’s been shown to preserve and enhance memory, attention, and cognition by protecting the mitochondria from oxidative damage and promoting the growth of new mitochondria in the brain (56-59).
Since it helps grow new mitochondria, it may help you if you suffer from depression, since fewer mitochondria have been found in people with depression (63).
Reactive nitrogen species (RNS) and reactive oxygen species (ROS) cause severe stress on brain cells and mitochondria, and PQQ has also been shown to suppress RNS and ROS (60-62).
Researchers have found that supplemental PQQ can be neuroprotective by increasing mitochondrial activity levels (64-66).
I recommend taking 10-20 mg each day along with CoQ10, as they are synergistic. Taking them together leads to further improvements in cognitive function (57).
You can get it here.
It's also included in this supplement.
Check out the “Neuroprotective” section of the PQQ Wikipedia page for more information on the brain health benefits of this compound.
Magnesium is a vital mineral within your body, and the mitochondria are considered magnesium “storage units” because they hold onto a lot of your body’s magnesium.
Magnesium protects the mitochondria and plays a role in the production and transfer of ATP within the mitochondria. And research shows that if you have a deficiency in magnesium, your brain cells will have fewer mitochondria, and they will be less healthy (54, 55).
Acetyl-Carnitine (ALCAR) and Alpha Lipoic Acid
Acetyl-Carnitine (ALCAR) is an acetylated form of the amino acid carnitine.
Carnitine is an amino acid that improves mitochondrial activity and plays an important role in energy production by transporting fatty acids directly into the mitochondria of your brain cells. It is required to produce ATP and deficiencies are associated with reduced mitochondrial function in the brain (74).
Supplementing with ALCAR makes it easier for fatty acids to cross your blood-brain barrier and nourish the mitochondria within your brain. This can improve your mood, memory and energy levels.
Several studies show that ALCAR eases depressive symptoms and improve quality of life in patients with chronic depression (75-78).
And individuals with autism often have reduced levels of carnitine within their brain (79).
ALCAR is included in the Optimal Brain supplement.
ALCAR is also synergistic with Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA), meaning that when you take them together, they are more effective at supporting the mitochondria in your brain.
It’s been shown to improve cognition by reducing oxidative stress, and protecting existing mitochondria and creating new mitochondria in the brain (80, 101).
Other helpful nutrients that support your mitochondria and provide raw materials for them to produce ATP:
NAC (17, 18)
Arginine (15, 16)
Vitamin C (20)
Vitamin B1 (21, 22)
Trace Minerals (23)
Vitamin D (24)
Paying attention to your mitochondria is crucial for optimal brain and mental health, and luckily there are a number of dietary and lifestyle habits that can protect and support mitochondrial function.
The following steps will ensure your body and brain have healthier and more abundant mitochondria:
Eat nutrient-dense, whole foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables
Avoid refined sugars, processed flours, industrial oils, trans fats, gluten and dairy
Restrict calories and/or intermittent fast
Follow a cyclic ketogenic diet and/or take Optimal Ketones
Over time, if you follow these strategies, you can improve your mitochondrial health and naturally restore your mood and energy levels.
Please share this post with one of your friends or family members who you think might benefit from protecting and supporting their mitochondria, because it really is an underappreciated and unknown aspect of optimal brain and mental health.
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About the Author
Jordan Fallis is a health and science journalist and researcher, and the founder of Optimal Living Dynamics, a website that has helped more than 1.5 million people improve their brain and mental health. His work has been featured in the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and the Canadian Pharmacists Journal. Jordan has also interviewed, consulted, and worked with more than one hundred medical doctors, health practitioners and leading researchers. He spends a lot of time scouring medical research, writing about what he finds, and putting the theories to the test on himself.
Medically reviewed by Dr. Terry Wahls, MD