My brain totally broke in 2010 and I felt like I had developed ADHD, depression, and dementia all at once. By scouring the scientific literature, interviewing and consulting with doctors and researchers, and experimenting with my own body and mind, I finally came to understand that it wasn’t just one thing that had caused my brain and body to break, but the accumulation of many things.
One of the main problems: chronic dysfunction of my mitochondria.
What Are Mitochondria?
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.
Along with your gut bacteria, your mitochondria are critically important and need to be supported in order to 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.
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.
Mitochondria dysfunction decreases ATP energy production and increases oxidative stress, which is 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.
But luckily, there are ways to halt and reverse mitochondrial decay.
Here are a number of strategies I have used over the years to support my mitochondria, and you can use them to regain optimal brain and mental health.
Eat Healthy Foods
Not surprisingly, eating lots of 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, 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 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).
Your mitochondria also need healthy fats. Omega-3 fatty acids in particular help build and strengthen the membranes of your mitochondria, and have been shown to improve mitochondrial functioning in brain. That’s why Dr. Wahls recommends eating organic grass-fed beef or wild-caught fish, such as salmon, every day. Avocados, nuts, seeds, coconut and olive oil are also rich in healthy fats.
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.
Exercise strengthens your mitochondria by increasing oxygen and blood flow and activating biochemical pathways that produce new mitochondria. Research also shows that runners have more high-functioning mitochondria than non-runners, and strength training and high-intensity interval training increase the number of mitochondria and improve the efficiency of your existing mitochondria.
I’ve interviewed a number of brain health experts over the years, and exercise has been the most common recommendation for optimal brain health and mitochondrial support.
Eliminate Unhealthy Ingredients
Eating poor-quality foods can also wear down your mitochondria. Our mitochondria were not designed to deal with our current food environment and lifestyle habits. 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 eliminate all gluten, dairy and soy products for optimal mitochondrial health. I agree with her and feel much better avoiding them completely.
Resveratrol is a beneficial antioxidant compound found in grapes and red wine. 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 and brain.
In 2006, a study by Harvard researchers found that resveratrol may increase lifespan by protecting the mitochondria.
Follow a Ketogenic Diet
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.
Ketones are an alternative source of energy for your brain cells and their mitochondria. 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.
Try Low-Level Laser Therapy
Low-level laser therapy (LLLT) is a treatment that uses low-level (low-power) lasers or light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to stimulate brain cells, helping them heal and function better. Research shows that it reduces oxidative stress and increases the production of ATP energy in mitochondria. Studies also show that LLLT increases mitochondrial activity within brain cells, and this leads to beneficial effects in behavior.
Lastly, LLLT treatment has been shown to increase the number of mitochondria and mitochondrial oxygen usage within the brain.
Restrict Calories and Fast Intermittently
Studies show that eating less food reduces the demand and damage on your mitochondria. However, reducing calories is tough to do and not very enjoyable.
That’s why I fast intermittently 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. Research has shown this to reduce the risk of cancer, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Supplement with Nutrients That Support Your Mitochondria
Lastly, there are a number of helpful nutrients that support your mitochondria and provide raw materials for them to produce ATP.
- 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.
- 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. Deficiency is more likely if you take certain medications.
- Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is an antioxidant molecule that is particularly concentrated in the mitochondria, and low levels can cause brain fog, mental fatigue, difficulty concentrating, memory lapses, depression and irritability. Supplementing with it can increase your mitochondrial energy production and reduce symptoms of depression and chronic fatigue.
- Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) is a vitamin-like enzyme and potent antioxidant that has been shown to preserve and enhance memory, attention, and cognition by protecting the mitochondria from oxidative damage. It also promotes the growth of new mitochondria in the brain, which combats depression.
- Acetyl-Carnitine (ALCAR) is an acetylated form of the amino acid carnitine. It improves mitochondrial activity and makes it easier for fatty acids to cross your blood-brain barrier and nourish your mitochondria. Carnitine is required to produce ATP and deficiencies are associated with reduced mitochondrial function. Therefore, supplementing with ALCAR can improve your mood, memory and energy levels.
- R-Lipoic Acid (RLA) is the most stable and bioavailable form of lipoic acid, a mitochondrial enzyme and antioxidant. It is fat soluble and can easily cross your blood-brain barrier. It’s been shown to improve cognition by reducing oxidative stress. It also protects existing mitochondria and creates new mitochondria in the brain.
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 above steps will ensure your body and brain have healthier and more abundant mitochondria.
Over time, by improving your mitochondrial health, you can naturally restore your mood and energy levels.
Jordan Fallis is a brain and mental health journalist and biohacker. His work has been featured in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Canadian Pharmacists Journal, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Jordan spends a lot of time scouring medical research, writing about what he finds, and testing different theories on himself. Through his research and self-experimentation, he has discovered unconventional solutions to mental illness that have allowed him to permanently overcome his own depression and anxiety. His passion is sharing these cutting-edge discoveries with people who desperately need them.
You can also grab his Free Grocery Shopping Guide for Optimal Brain Health here.