Mitochondrial Dysfunction — What You Need To Know
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Many years passed before I realized that my daughter might have mitochondrial dysfunction. I attributed her main symptoms—fatigue and slow processing speed—to a number of different causes, none of them related to those tiny organelles inside her cells that I had learned about back in high school biology class.
But as the years went by and I dove into the science surrounding my daughter’s health, I learned that she—and many children just like her—may have mitochondrial dysfunction. When I learned about the signs and symptoms of the condition, my radar went up. Today, I'll share with you details about mitochondrial dysfunction—what you need to know to help your child.
What the Heck is Mitochondrial Dysfunction?
If you’re thinking, “mito-what?” you’re not alone. If you don’t remember the details of your high school biology class (and who does?), then you might not remember this important cell organelle. Mitochondria are responsible for the production of ATP, adenosine triphosphate, which is the body’s energy currency. It’s used to transfer chemical energy needed for all metabolic reactions in the body.
Mitochondria are found in every cell—from five hundred to two thousand per cell, depending on the type of tissue the cell is found in and how energy dependent that tissue is. Mitochondria even have their own DNA. (In other words, they are important.) The mitochondria break nutrients down to produce ATP, a process that generates free radicals within the mitochondria called reactive oxygen species.
Free radicals are oxidative molecules that must be neutralized by antioxidants or they damage cells and tissue. The body’s master antioxidant, glutathione, is the primary antioxidant that neutralizes reactive oxygen species to reduce oxidative damage to the mitochondria. Glutathione plays a major role in protecting the integrity of the mitochondria.
What’s the Difference Between Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Mitochondrial Disease?
Mitochondrial disease impacts high-energy-dependent tissues like the brain, digestive tract, and immune system, creating extreme clinical symptoms that result in neurological disease, gastrointestinal disease, or immune dysfunction. Mitochondrial dysfunction is more subtle, creating symptoms that are less severe and that can mimic those of other causes.
Mitochondrial disease is diagnosed by muscle biopsy, a painful procedure that often results in false negatives. Clinicians tend to address mitochondrial disease and dysfunction without a definitive diagnosis. A trial of varying therapies that address mitochondrial dysfunction is usually performed.
Signs and Symptoms of Mitochondrial Dysfunction
The signs and symptoms of mitochondrial dysfunction are varied and center around high-energy input organs and systems. They include:
- Language impairment (apraxia)
- Social impairment
- Poor growth
- Gastrointestinal dysfunction (constipation or diarrhea)
- Developmental delay or regression
- Low muscle tone
- Cognitive delay (usually slow processing)
Causes of Mitochondrial Dysfunction
If you find your child in that list, you’ll want to investigate whether something is interfering with his mitochondrial function. The following list includes some common causes of mitochondrial dysfunction in our children:
- Heavy metal exposure (mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, aluminum)
- Pesticide exposure
- Diesel exhaust exposure
- Propionic acid endotoxin exposure from clostridia gut pathogen
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Salicylates (like aspirin)
- Valproic acid
- Hypoxia (exposure to lower-than-normal oxygen levels)
- Decreased metabolic reserves (nutrients, glutathione)
How to Address Metabolic Dysfunction in Our Children
If you think your child may have metabolic dysfunction, talk to her practitioner about treatment options. There are a number of ways to improve energy production in the body.
Boost nutrition. Nutrition is often the first place to look. Increase meal frequency and quality to be sure your child’s nutrient intake is healthy and more continual.
Improve hydration. The body is made up of 80 percent water, so good hydration is key to cell integrity. For healthy nutrient transfer to occur within and between cells, healthy cell membrane function is needed, which is reliant on the cell’s hydration.
Avoid toxicants. Heavy metal exposure can come from amalgam fillings, large cold water fish, old paint and plumbing pipes, drinking water, soil, certain environments, and certain metal products. Pesticides are found on many foods. Diesel exhaust pollutes the air near major highways and in large cities. Digestive infections increase exposure to bacterial toxins. All should be avoided.
Avoid certain medications. Talk to your child’s health practitioner about avoiding medications that affect mitochondrial function. Opt for alternatives when available. Risperidone, in particular, is a common medication prescribed to our children that negatively affects mitochondrial function. Find out if there is a better option.
Minimize illness. As much as possible, try to avoid illness or exposure to illness. Fevers can be a big setback for mitochondrial health. Manage fevers as best you can. A healthy diet and proper hydration go a long way to keeping your child well.
Avoid environmental temperature extremes. The body will not have to expend so much energy to cool or heat the body if you keep your child out of extreme temperatures.
Support your child during medical procedures. If your child is undergoing surgery or a procedure that requires fasting, do all you can to support her and minimize additional stressors so that she can weather the procedure with minimal negative impact.
Encourage moderate exercise. Exercise actually increases the number of mitochondria in cells. It may seem counterintuitive, but by gradually increasing your child’s exercise, you will soon see a beneficial effect on his energy level and strength.
Talk to your child’s practitioner about nutritional supplementation. There are a number of supplements that can be helpful. Some dietary supplement formulas contain combinations of the following ingredients. Your practitioner may begin by introducing certain supplements first to try to increase the impact and minimize the number of supplements your child needs.
Those supplements with the strongest research support include:
Additional supplements found to be helpful in clinical practice include:
- Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
- Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin C
- Alpha-lipoic acid
- Vitamin K
- Folinic acid
- Methyl-B-12 (methylcobalamin)
- Ginkgo biloba
I like to track my daughter’s food and supplement intake so that when we make any changes to her protocol, we are able to notice the effects more clearly. I have created a Food, Mood, Sleep and Poop Journal to help you track your child’s diet and supplement intake as well as mood, sleep and bowel habits. I also created a one-page Protocol & Therapy Review Worksheet to help you keep your child’s protocol on hand when you need to review it or share it with others.
I know this is all a lot to remember, so I've summarized all you need to know to get started to speak to your practitioner and evaluate your child to see if they are affected by mitochondrial dysfunction and what you should do about it on one page.
I would love to continue the conversation. Do you think your child could benefit from more energy or an improvement in processing speed like my daughter has? Leave a comment or question here on the blog, or head over to our Facebook group, the My Child Will Thrive Village.