Chronic diseases are the leading cause of death in the United States. These diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes, are often times incurable. However, in many cases they are preventable. Unhealthy behaviors such as lack of exercise and poor nutrition are extremely harmful to one’s health overall and oftentimes play a role in the development of these diseases.
The good news is that there are steps you can take to significantly decrease your risk of developing a chronic condition like cancer or diabetes. Though widely credited as the “powerhouse” of the cell, mitochondria is often forgotten when it comes to improving one’s health. For decades medical professionals have overlooked the role of mitochondria in the development, prevention, and treatment of chronic diseases, as well as its importance for general health. Mitochondrial DNA plays a bigger role than you likely know in cancer, diabetes, and other metabolic disorders.
What are Mitochondria?
To understand the function and significance of mitochondrial DNA, you must first understand the mitochondria. You may recall from your science classes in school that there are two types of cells: prokaryotic and eukaryotic. Prokaryotic cells, the simpler of the two, are the very basic cells possessed by organisms such as bacterium. These single-celled organisms are known as prokaryotes. Prokaryotic cells differ from eukaryotic cells in a few key ways, including the lack of a nucleus or organelles.
Eukaryotic cells are much more complex than their prokaryotic counterparts. More advanced organisms like plants, animals, and humans are eukaryotes. Eukaryotic cells possess many different organelles that perform various functions for the cell. One of the organelles found in every multi-cellular eukaryote is the mitochondria. They are often referred to as the cell’s powerhouse because they’re responsible for producing the bulk of the cell’s energy, or ATP. ATP is necessary for all other biological processes within the body. Mitochondria break down chemicals such as glucose to form oxygen in the process known as cellular respiration. Another extremely important quality of the mitochondria is that they possess their own DNA.
What is Mitochondrial DNA?
Most people understand the basics of genetics. Everyone inherits their DNA from their parents. A copy of each gene in the body is inherited from your father, and another copy is inherited from your mother. The process of mixing the DNA from your mother and father in standard, nuclear DNA is known as recombination.
But, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is different. mtDNA does not recombine; it is only inherited maternally. Mitochondrial DNA possess its own genome that is separate from nuclear DNA. Unlike nuclear DNA which can change due to recombination and the process of combining genes from the mother and father, mitochondrial DNA is passed down completely unchanged.
As previously explained, mitochondria play an extremely important role in overall cell function. If abnormal mtDNA is inherited from one’s mother, there will be health implications. It’s extremely difficult for cells to function without properly working mitochondria, which means mitochondrial abnormalities can lead to extreme cell dysfunction or even cell death. Some organs that suffer as a result of damaged mtDNA include the brain, liver, kidney, and heart. Malfunctioning mtDNA also can play a role in the development of diseases such as cancer.
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Mitochondrial DNA and Cancer: The Warburg Effect
Dr. Otto Heinrich Warburg was a prominent physician in the 20th century. He received the Nobel Prize in 1931 for his discovery of cellular respiration enzymes. In addition to this discovery, Dr. Warburg is well known for his theory about the underlying cause of cancer, known as The Warburg Effect.
While in some cases the development of cancer can be attributed to factors such as environmental exposures, the majority of the time there is no explanation for what causes someone to develop cancer. One thing that makes it so difficult to find the root cause of cancer is that oftentimes, even within individual tumors, component cells will have different sets of mutations. One shared trait that is commonly seen is that the cancerous cells have an unusually high rate of aerobic glycolysis.
Dr. Warburg’s hypothesis centered on this discovery that many cancerous cells undergo cellular respiration differently than healthy cells. The Warburg Effect stated that rather than the typical cellular respiration process to create energy, cancerous cells convert glucose to lactate during aerobic glycolysis. Importantly, it is believed that this aerobic glycolysis may be the result of reduced mitochondrial function. Thus, many cancers could really be a metabolic disease.
Though there are conflicting viewpoints surrounding the Warburg hypothesis, the role of mtDNA in cancer proliferation and malignant tumor growth continue to be researched today. Recent studies have pointed out that mtDNA mutations may be associated with cancer risk. Additionally, mitochondrial DNA variations may interfere with cancer treatments and hamper their effectivity.
Mitochondrial Metabolism and Cancer Treatment
Each year, over one million people are diagnosed with cancer in the United States alone. Despite this extremely high prevalence, scientists have yet to find an effective cure for the disease. Currently, best practices include extremely aggressive treatments including chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Though sometimes effective, these treatments are far from being a cure.
These forms of treatment attack all of the cells in one’s body, not just the cancerous cells. By killing off healthy cells as well as cancerous ones, chemotherapy and radiation can have very negative effects on someone’s overall health, even when they do effectively eliminate cancerous cells. Some widely experienced side effects of these treatments include nausea, anemia, and higher susceptibility to infection. Some effects, such as extreme fatigue, “brain fog,” and difficulties with memory last well beyond when the therapy period has ended. These negative experiences that persist beyond when treatment has ended are known as long-term side effects.
By understanding mitochondrial DNA and its role in cancer, new opportunities emerge for targeted cancer therapy. For example, scientists are investigating the efficacy of targeting aspects of mitochondrial metabolism to hinder cancerous cell and tumor growth. It’s also possible that targeting the mitochondria could make current practices of chemotherapy more effective.
Mitochondrial DNA and Other Chronic Diseases
In addition to its role in cancer, mtDNA impacts the body’s overall metabolism. It is well known that, over time, unhealthy behaviors such as overeating and physical inactivity are extremely harmful to your health. These behaviors increase one’s chance of developing chronic illnesses like diabetes and cancer. Though the outcome of these behaviors is understood, many people do not understand the underlying biological mechanisms of why these behaviors are so harmful to one’s health. Once again, the answer relates back to mitochondrial DNA.
Physical inactivity and overeating both lead to an abundance of lipids and glucose in the body. Though these energetic substrates are necessary for the body to function normally, a consistent excess beyond what the body’s tissues can process can be very harmful. Elevated glucose levels are associated with age-related diseases such as diabetes and cancer. It is also associated with a higher risk of all-cause mortality. This impact is even stronger for people with diabetes.
The over-abundance of energetic substrates overtime is referred to as metabolic oversupply. Consistent metabolic oversupply can severely damage molecules including mitochondrial DNA. mtDNA mutates over time in every person; it is a normal part of aging. But, in people with diabetic hyperglycemia, the effect is increased and occurs at a higher level and faster pace than the average person. This means that negative impacts of aging, and the chronic illnesses that often come with it, are magnified for people with metabolic oversupply of lipids and glucose. It also means that adhering to healthy behaviors that help maintain the integrity of mtDNA will have a positive impact on overall health.
mtDNA and Your Health
Mitochondrial DNA and mitochondrial metabolism are important factors in everyone’s health, even if you do not currently suffer from cancer, diabetes, or other chronic diseases. As discussed, unhealthy lifestyle factors can play a role in damaging mtDNA, which in turn damages overall metabolism and contributes to the development of these chronic diseases. But, there are things you can do to avoid damaging the mtDNA and maintain a healthy metabolism.
Like all parts of the body, mitochondria thrive when there is an abundance of micronutrients from nutrient dense foods such as vegetables, berries, and high quality proteins in the diet. One example of a nutrient dense food that can help protect your mitochondria, and thus your metabolism, is spirulina. Spirulina is a superfood derived from blue-green algae that is full of antioxidants and phytonutrients. Spirulina does many positive things for the body, such as increasing the body’s ability to fight off infection and improving brain health. That’s why spirulina is a key ingredient you should look for in any nootropic supplement.
In addition to aiding general health, spirulina has many qualities that make it ideal for protecting mitochondrial DNA. One of these things is the abundance of a variety of B vitamins. B vitamins are water soluble nutrients that are essential for cellular functions, including proper functioning of the mitochondria. Research shows that the mitochondria is damaged when there is a deficiency of any B vitamins. This can impact both the oxidation function of mitochondria, and metabolic function. With multiple B vitamins present in spirulina, the superfood is an excellent choice to help maintain healthy mitochondrial function and a healthy body.
Though they can cause metabolic oversupply when consumed in excess and left unused, lipids are a crucial energetic substrate that the mitochondria utilize to convert oxygen into energy to power the whole body. Medium chain triglycerides, or MCT supplements, are a great way to consume healthy fats. In general, eating a high fat, low carbohydrate diet is good for your health.
When you consume excess carbohydrates that the body does not use as energy, the energy is stored in your liver as fat. Eating healthy fats help fill you up and reduce cravings for carbohydrates that the body does not need for energy. MCT is a great choice for fat intake because it is very easily digested, easily absorbed for use rather than storage, and helps regulate the metabolism. All of these things reduce the risk of metabolic oversupply and protect the mitochondria, which in turn protects you from damaging your metabolism and contributing to the development of chronic diseases.
Along with the food you eat, other lifestyle factors can influence the health and function of your mitochondria. Just as overeating and physical inactivity contribute to metabolic oversupply and damage to the mtDNA, caloric restriction and increased physical activity can help improve mitochondrial function, metabolism, and overall health.
Though most people know that exercise is healthy and that they should incorporate it into their diet, it can be hard to find the motivation or time to fit it into your schedule with the other stressors of daily life. Nootropics help provide you with energy and focus needed to feel good throughout the day, when it comes to work, home, the gym, and other aspects of your life.
Momental’s MIND and MEND nootropic supplements can help you get through your day more efficiently, and obtain a more regenerative night’s sleep. The latter is crucial to maintaining metabolic health, as people tend to crave processed carbs and other sugary, unhealthy foods when they are sleep deprived. Overconsumption of these foods contribute to metabolic oversupply and damage the mtDNA.
Chronic diseases are on the rise, and current practices clearly have not been successful at hampering their growth. Though often overlooked, focusing on the mitochondria could be key to maintaining more positive health in the present, and avoiding ailments like cancer and diabetes in the future. If you feel like you don’t have any extra time or energy in your current schedule, nootropic supplements like Momental’s MIND and MEND can help you feel better, sleep better, and have more energy throughout the day so that you can focus on your health.