How Vitamins Affect Mitochondrial Health

Mitochondrial dysfunction is characterized by a loss of efficiency in the electron transport chain and reductions in the synthesis of high energy molecules such as ATP. This loss of efficiency results in faster aging and chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, ALS, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune diseases, neurobehavioral issues like autism, schizophrenia, bipolar and mood disorders, chronic infections and cancer.

Vitamins and co-factors are essential components of the mitochondrial antioxidant and enzyme systems. They assist in cellular metabolism and transportation of energy into and out of the cell. They are also essential to the mitochondrial membrane.

The ability of cells to produce high energy molecules like ATP is directly related to the ability of mitochondria to convert metabolites from food to reduced forms and transfer these components to the electron transport chain, eventually turning them ento molecular oxygen.

A consequence of the electron transport process is the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) which are highly reactive free radicals produced as a byproduct of oxidative phosphorylation.

Oxidative damage to the inner mitochondrial membrane can occur if antioxidants are out of balance.

Mitochondrial dysfunction is related to excess fatigue and a loss of overall energy needed to perform simple physical tasks. At a cellular level this can be seen as a diminished production of ATP. Premature aging, chronic diseases or oxidative damage to mitochondrial membranes can be a result of excess oxidative stress.

There is also ample evidence of chronic intracellular bacterial or viral infections that decrease the ability of the mitochondria to produce energy. Fatigue is a common complaint of chronic intracellular infections that cause a decrease in overall energy production and availability.

Vitamins, themselves, don’t supply energy directly to the body. Rather, they are co-factors in energy production and detoxification. When considering vitamin supplementation, it’s important to understand that overdoing vitamin supplementation can be as dangerous to mitochondria as a vitamin deficiency. Food sources are always preferred if possible through a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables.

Considerations for each of the following needs to be observed:

Vitamin A

Vitamin A and the retinoids, are micronutrients necessary for the human diet in order to maintain cellular functions. Vitamin A and retinoids are utilized pharmacologically in the treatment of some diseases, but it’s important to note that in spite of being an essential micronutrient with clinical application, vitamin A exerts several toxic effects regarding redox environment and mitochondrial function. Increased mortality rates among vitamin A supplements users have been reported. Utilize food as a first line option for vitamin A. Supplemental vitamin A can impact mitochondria, not always in a good way.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C enters mitochondria in its oxidized form and protects mitochondria from oxidative stress. Since mitochondria produce Reactive Oxygen Species as a result of ATP production, protection of mitochondrial membranes by vitamin C may have important implications in the near future. Eat your fruits and vegetables every day as a baseline protection from free radicals and their ability to impair mitochondrial function.

Vitamin D

New research shows for the first time a link between vitamin D levels and muscle function. Vitamin D supplementation may also be effective in improving skeletal muscle function. New findings may explain the physical fatigue commonly experienced by patients with vitamin D deficiency.

The new research shows for the first time that vitamin D levels are correlated with muscle efficiency, and that muscle aerobic metabolism improves with Vitamin D supplementation. This is clear a link between vitamin D and mitochondria. The mechanisms are still not clearly understood and future research will demonstrate whether vitamin D supplementation could impact mitochondrial function in the elderly or improve the exercise capacity of athletes.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E has been shown to prevent increases in oxidation and damage to mitochondrial membranes. In some studies, vitamin E supplementation has been shown to decrease aging and sustain mitochondrial biogenesis in animal studies.

Further research in human tissue is needed but until then, naturally occuring plant oils and eating more vegetables are good ways to improve intake of vitamin E in the diet.

B vitamins

B vitamins have recently turned out to be potent modifiers of energy metabolism, especially in mitochondria. Vitamin B3, (niacin) has been found to delay the signs of aging in animal models.

The B-complex vitamins act primarily as coenzymes which means they are substances that enhance or are critical for the action of enzymes. Without coenzymes, enzymes cannot function in the body. The B-complex vitamins play a major role in the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, and biotin assist in extracting energy from carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Niacin also breaks down carbohydrates and fat, but this breakdown occurs for the most part during exercise. Finally, pyridoxine, folate, and cobalamin assist red blood cells. B vitamins are found in carbohydrate containing foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

Vitamin-like co-factors such as CoQ10, Resveratrol and L-carnitine

Certain vitamin-like cofactors are gaining recognition in the mitochondrial community. They are naturally occuring in a healthy diet. Components of grapes, apples, naturally occuring fats and protein foods, these cofactors are also important in mitochondrial energy production and supplement studies are currently underway to determine how these elements assist in upregulating mitochondria.

There is no substitute for a poor diet with low nutrient density. As a coach, it’s important to identify where clients need to bolster nutrition, primarily through food choices and secondarily with appropriate supplementation.