We all know what it feels like to feel under the weather: drained energy, lethargy, full-body aches, drowsiness, brain fog–sound familiar? They’re the results of the immune system at work fighting off illness, and it goes without saying that the immune system demands a lot of energy to do its job. Mitochondria, the main metabolic engine, are abundant in immune cells to help meet those energy demands. Mitochondria are well-appreciated for their role in bioenergetics, but beyond their role in energy production, emerging data points to their integral role in immune function regulation.1
Mitochondria and immune function
As the first line of defense, the innate immune system needs to function effectively to balance inflammatory challenges. There is data that suggests that mitochondria work as signaling agents and participate in innate immune response to cellular damage, stress and infection to viral pathogens via the Pattern Recognition Receptors (PRRs).2 Several downstream signaling cascades come from PRRs, including toll-like receptors, which in turn activate inflammatory agents like NfkB.2 Furthermore, mitochondrial DNA proteins also signal molecular patterns called DAMPs that trigger the expression and activation of PRRs and play an important role in inflammasome activation.2, 3 In regard to adaptive immune function, mitochondrial metabolism was found to be a requirement for T-cell activation through the generation of mitochondrial reactive oxygen species.3 Based on these findings, optimal mitochondrial function is critical for overall immune system function.
Objectively measuring mitochondrial health
With most immune system ailments, it can be difficult to get a clear-cut idea of what is happening in the immune system. Whether you are running a simple complete blood count test, HbA1c, or a detailed functional medicine test such as an oxidative stress panel, or organic acids tests, the key is to use these markers as baseline for your patients. If they are chronically ill, then it can be said that they have a triggered immune system that needs the right kind of support to balance out these challenges. To reiterate, the support should start with optimizing mitochondrial function.
Supporting mitochondrial health
Supporting the mitochondria should be foundational in any treatment protocol, especially when focused on supporting the immune system. Here are three steps to improved mitochondrial health:
1. Remove triggering agents.
Countless factors can trigger inflammatory responses in the body, affect mitochondrial function and trigger a cell danger response, including stress, environmental toxins and poor dietary habits. Removing such triggers as much as possible should be considered as the first step on the road to improved cell health.
2. Refill the metabolic tank.
Essential micronutrients are a must when it comes to supporting the mitochondria, especially since most of the energy production pathways require nutrients like B vitamins and magnesium. Mitochondria have built-in antioxidant enzymes that work to attenuate oxidative stress. Nutrients such as zinc, manganese and N-acetyl cysteine are needed to help support these antioxidant systems and downregulate oxidative stress. Many reputable guidelines for mitigating inflammasome activation include application of ingredients like green tea, resveratrol, sulforaphane and alpha lipoic acid. All these ingredients also play an essential role in the quality of mitochondria and mitochondrial biogenesis.
3. Reprogram immune system function.
By incorporating the above steps into patient recovery programs, you should receive subjective notes from patients saying they are feeling better. Objective markers used to test baselines can be retested, and both you and your patients will notice positive changes in immune system function on their journey to wellness.
1 Weinberg, Samuel E., et al. “Mitochondria in the Regulation of Innate and Adaptive Immunity.” Immunity, vol. 42, no. 3, Mar. 2015, pp. 406–417, 10.1016/j.immuni.2015.02.002. Accessed 24 Mar. 2020.
2 Walker, Melissa A., et al. “Powering the Immune System: Mitochondria in Immune Function and Deficiency.” Journal of Immunology Research, 2014, www.hindawi.com/journals/jir/2014/164309/. Accessed 28 Apr. 2020.
3 Angajala, Anusha, et al. “Diverse Roles of Mitochondria in Immune Responses: Novel Insights Into Immuno-Metabolism.” Frontiers in Immunology, vol. 9, 12 July 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6052888/, 10.3389/fimmu.2018.01605. Accessed 28 Apr. 2020.
Mia Iyer, DC is a Board-Certified Chiropractic physician who received her doctorate from National University of Health Sciences. With a passion for research, she focused her clinical rotations on publishing relevant peer reviewed journal article(s). Working in an integrated healthcare clinic, Dr. Iyer has successfully treated her patient population using an integrative approach, utilizing multiple evidence-based modalities addressing the root of the illness. Her continued passion for research and integrative lifestyle medicine opened doors to the Lifestyle Matrix Resource Center where she currently holds the position of Immune Foundations Brand Manager.