It’s not all in your head…
What if mental illness had nothing to do with chemical imbalances or unlucky genetics? What if it was a sign of cellular damage that once addressed, could be healed?
It’s not in your head, it’s in your mitochondria.
Mitochondria got my full attention when I read about Terry Wahls. After being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, she sought conventional treatment and was in a wheelchair for 7 years. As a medical doctor, she knew she’d continue to decline. Desperate to reclaim her health, she scoured medical journals and saw one word over and over again: mitochondria.
Using diet and supplements to repair her mitochondria she was able to walk after spending 7 years in a wheelchair. Then she was able to cycle and eventually run. Her book “Minding My Mitochondria” and diet protocol has helped people from around the world do the same. While this sounds like a miracle, it’s just the result of addressing cellular damage.
If supporting mitochondria could reverse damage from a degenerative neurological disorder, I became fascinated with what it meant for mental wellness.
Studies (link) have conclusively linked impaired mitochondria with countless psychological diseases including bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and schizophrenia. I’ve treated patients with these conditions, but most people who come to my center are dealing with smaller but equally frustrating issues. A majority of patients tell me they feel tired, unmotivated, have brain fog. Some forget important appointments and others constantly misplace things. Almost all feel overwhelmed nearly every waking moment.
I have been there too. One day I was mid sentence with a patient and I literally lost my words. My mind went totally blank. I actually could not remember what I was saying or the conversation we were having before. My patient had their eyes locked on me and I had to admit I lost my train of thought and apologize.
It was embarrassing in the moment, but after embarrassment faded, I was scared. My memory had been getting shotty here and there as well. As a psychologist, you must always be “on” and my brain just wasn’t up for that task.
Now understand it was due to compromised mitochondria. Working to heal them, I’ve brought my mind back to its natural state: vibrant, focused, and emotionally regulated. With dedication and patience my foggy brain has become a distant memory.
Compromised mitochondria inhibit your ability to change
People see therapists because they want something to change. Almost always they’re looking to change their own behavior. I’ve never met a patient who didn’t know ways they could accomplish change. Yet they stay on the cycle of stuck. Chronic stopping and starting has left their self esteem in the gutter.
What many people don’t understand is that their cells are working against them.(this in quote form)
Mitochondria are too busy dealing with toxic overloads to provide the energy that’s needed for optimal body functioning. Our brains may take the biggest hit.
It’s not their lack of ability. They aren’t lazy. They are not incapable of change. They just haven’t set the body up to aid the brain. In short, they’re not functioning fully.
The good news is working to repair mitochondria can undue past damage, and regenerate new cells. The body has self healing capabilities, it just needs the proper tools.
So what are Mitochondria?
Mitochondria are in each and every one of your cells. We are made of trillions of cells and inside each of them the mitochondria works tirelessly to produce energy. Their primary job is to take the food you eat and convert it into energy. This energy then goes to do nearly everything that keeps you alive. Your organs, hormones, endocrine system, all use this energy. It also is used to metabolize cholesterol and neurotransmitters, make new cells, regulate respiratory systems, and rid the body of toxins. Their health determines how quickly you’ll age.
The brain is selfish. It needs an incredible amount of energy to perform its daily functions. About 25% percent of the energy produced by mitochondria goes to the brain. The problem is, other organs are also fighting for that energy to do their tasks. When the brain does not get the energy necessary, it becomes starved. Consequences from this are symptoms that look different in every person. Some may be mild others can be devastating. It’s my belief that all can be healed.
While we are human, we are also living, breathing energy. (in quote form)Without mitochondria producing energy, we’re no longer alive. Ideally, mitochondria want to produce optimal energy. The standard american diet has made this impossible so all systems suffer. Sugar, flour, and processed food all have no calories to produce energy and are toxic to the mitochondria. They must work to cut through these toxins. Instead of producing energy these “foods” are turned into free radicals. Free radicals in large amounts over a period of time become oxidative stress. Inflammation also occurs and, if this process continues, it becomes chronic. Chronic inflammation is at the root of nearly every disease we know today. Prolonged stress, medication, sedentary lifestyles, lack of sleep, and alcohol can also cause damage.
Are your mitochondria dysfunctional?
Since we are all individual, symptoms can look different for everyone. Common signs that your mitochondria could need a boost include:
-Digestion problems/gastrointestinal disorders
-Lack of focus
-Aches and pains
-Inability to regulate emotions
– Memory loss
-Feelings of depression
We want our mitochondria working for us, not cleaning up our mess. Our minds can easily feel as overwhelmed as the tiny cells inside us Here are ways to nurture and support them.
- Eat like your Ancestors
People who feel tired and unfocused are at a psychological disadvantage. A brain that’s energy starved is not motivated, which may be why you’re in constant procrastination mode The brain must be fed with real food. As fattiest organ in the body it’s suffering in a fat phobic society. Industry may have sold us the idea that fat is bad for us to sell their products, but our brain depends on it. Mitochondria need protein (amino acids), saturated fats, and micro rich vegetables to get their job done. This includes bone broth, grass fed beef, wild fish, organ meats, dark greens, small amounts of fruit and fermented foods. Gluten deserves its reputation as it can cause neurological dysfunction among many other issues. Avoid sugar. If you can’t fully avoid it, limit it. Each meal is an opportunity to change your biology for the better.
- Use Sleep for Healing
Sleep is magic to mitochondria. During sleep they don’t need to use as much energy as when you are awake. 7 hours is needed for them clean up the free radicals before they go on to cause more damage. An investment in sleep is an investment in true health. Sacrifice a couple of hours of netflix and your brain will thank you. Besides feeling properly rested, you’ve just given yourself a mitochondrial makeover. If you have trouble getting to sleep turn down the lights for at least an hour before your targeted bedtime. Keep your room dark. Proper sleep takes practice but once you tap into circadian rhythm you’ll wonder how you ever did without it.
- Ditch Cardio in favor of HIIT
If you’re spending long periods on a treadmill, you’re doing your mitochondria an injustice. HIIT or (High Intensity Interval Training) is quick bursts of moderate to intense exercise. One study showed 2 weeks of HIIT gave participants increased mitochondria function of skeletal muscles. Adapt this to your fitness level. Do sprints, push ups, kettlebells, weightlifting, jumping jacks, squats, or jumps as hard as you can for 1 minute. Then rest and repeat. It’s quick and no gym is needed. These can also be done anywhere from your bedroom, to a park, and while traveling.
- Get really hot or really cold
We’ve greatly overrated comfort. We’re rarely cold in winter and rarely sweat in summer thanks to heat and air conditioning in our homes, offices, and cars. The problem is, this is not how nature intended it. Extreme heat and cold put your mitochondria in a short burst of stress that aids them in new growth and repair. High temperatures of infrared saunas help, but if you don’t have one your shower works just as well. Turn the shower as cold as you can and stay as long as you can. I like to do this directly after a workout. It’s difficult at first, but you’ll notice how good you feel afterwards.
- Seek Peace
You know that feeling you get when a co-worker says something that rubs you the wrong way? Or how about the rush that comes over you when someone cuts you off in traffic? Your mitochondria felt that too. Your entire body felt it. You may not even be able to put a name to the emotion you felt, but it went through you like a wave. We cannot see it, but this causes mitochondrial damage depending on the individual and how often it occurs. When you feel this energy, accept it. Breathe. Say this simple mantra to yourself: I choose peace. Continue to breathe. Everytime you feel the energy of a stress response repeat this. This exercise is something I use daily and it’s been huge for me in understanding how much control of my environment I truly do have. At the same time, it creates new neural pathways in brain that limit knee-jerk reactions.
Begin here. If not, begin at least with the awareness of these little energy makers and how they may be sabotaging your best efforts. As I’m sure Terry Wahl would agree, the benefits of doing so may be beyond your wildest imagination.