Your mitochondria are organelles (little organs within a cell) that do the work of turning your food into energy for you. Much like plants turn CO2 into oxygen, mitochondria take pyruvate (the substance your body produces from glucose) and spits out a molecule called ATP, or Adenosine Tri-Phosphate. ATP is the energy currency on which your body runs.

Causes of Mitochondrial Dysfunction

For most of us, this process works as it should. Genetic mitochondrial diseases are rare (about one in 5000), but unfortunately, toxic exposure is another possible cause of mitochondrial dysfunction. Substances that can disrupt mitochondrial function include:

  • Heavy metals
  • Pesticides and solvents
  • Phthalates and plasticizers
  • Combustion byproducts
  • Pharmaceuticals, including H2 blockers like cimetidine and ranitidine, statins, and certain antibiotics like tetracyclines. This article has a more exhaustive list of possible culprits. 

Symptoms of Mitochondrial Dysfunction

When the mitochondria cease to do their jobs properly, fatigue is the first result, since the mitochondria produce over 90% of the usable energy in the body.

After that, symptoms affect the parts of the body which require the highest amount of ATP. These include the brain, muscles, heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, and GI tract. Common symptoms are therefore pretty broad:

  • Muscle weakness and breakdown (rhabdomyolysis), loss of muscle coordination
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Autism (which may be a cause or an effect, according to this article)
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Migraines
  • Seizures
  • Insulin resistance and diabetes
  • GI disturbances
  • Neuropathy and autonomic nervous system dysfunction
  • Visual and hearing problems
  • Learning disabilities
  • Heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney disease

Diagnosis of Mitochondrial Dysfunction

There’s no sure-fire way to diagnose Mitochondrial Dysfunction. For those with inherited Mitochondrial Disease, DNA testing or a muscle biopsy can be done. For those who suspect Mitochondrial Disease due to toxic exposure, the following blood tests together can strongly suggest the diagnosis:

  • Lactic acid
  • Pyruvate
  • Carnitine (free and total) and an acylcarnitine panel
  • Ubiquinone
  • Ammonia
  • Urinalysis (ketosis without being on a ketogenic diet)
  • Creatine kinase
  • An AST/ALT ratio greater than 2

Treatment of Mitochondrial Dysfunction

Oxidative stress from toxic exposure plays a big role in mitochondrial dysfunction; therefore, antioxidant therapy is a primary treatment approach.

  • CoQ10. The antioxidant CoQ10 is part of the Electron Transport Chain (ETC) inside the mitochondria; this study and this study both discuss its efficacy for mitochondrial dysfunction. If you take CoQ10, I recommend the ubiquinol form, as it is far more absorbable.
  • NAC. This study shows that N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC), the precursor for the powerful antioxidant glutathione, has also been effective in treating mitochondrial dysfunction.
  • Phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine. This study and this study discuss Lipid Replacement Therapy: in addition to antioxidants, this treatment replaces the phospholipids (phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine) which make up much of the body’s cell membranes, including the membranes of the mitochondria.
  • Alpha Lipoic Acid. Another powerful antioxidant, ALA works best synergistically with other antioxidants.
  • B Complex Vitamins. Thiamine (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), and Niacin (Vitamin B3) are especially important (even better if you can get reduced B3, or NADH), but all of the B vitamins are necessary for mitochondrial function.
  • L-Carnitine or Acetyl L-Carnitine. A derivative of the amino acid lysine, L-Carnitine conjugates (alters) fatty acids so that they can get into the mitochondria to get turned into ATP. This study shows its efficacy.