Mitochondria, small organelles inside brain cells, provide neurons with the energy they need to keep firing and help your brain function effectively. They’re often called the cell’s “batteries” or “power plants” or “furnaces.” In some cases a single cell will have thousands of them.
Malfunctions of these tiny cellular batteries can lead to Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s, destroying your life and memory.1,2
So protecting your mitochondria is critical for protecting your brain as you get older.
And you can do it with food. Here’s how. . .
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This “Forbidden” Food
Better Quality Mitochondria
The most effective way to help your mitochondria stay healthier: Don’t overeat. Cut back on calories.
For quite a while, studies have shown that eating less is linked to living longer. But scientists did not really understand why. Now research has begun to unravel the cellular mechanisms that may extend life expectancy – and keep the brain in better shape.
A big part of reaping those benefits centers on replacing worn-out mitochondria with new ones.
Your collection of mitochondria is constantly changing. Old, worn-out mitochondria are gobbled up by specialized immune cells in a process called mitophagy. As the old organelles are broken down, new ones are regenerated to take their place.3
Restricting the amount of food you eat and holding back on calories can make this process happen more efficiently. Eating less acts as a kind of “quality control” measure for mitochondria that, researchers say, “can provide a healthier pool of these organelles.”4
Clean Out Unneeded Calcium
Eating less also helps mitochondria rid neurons of excess calcium, a mineral that can compromise your memory and brain power.
In lab tests, researchers in Brazil have shown that cutting back calories by about 40 percent leads mitochondria to soak up excess calcium levels when they get too high in the brain.
According to researcher Ignacia Amigo, under normal circumstances calcium helps neurons communicate with each other. But when too many calcium ions accumulate, they lead to harmful over-stimulation of receptors in neurons (a condition called excitotoxicity). The resulting stress can be lethal to neurons and play a role in Alzheimer’s disease.
At the same time, the Brazilian scientists found that restricting calories also increases the function of antioxidant enzymes in mitochondria, including superoxide dismutase, glutathione peroxidase and glutathione reductase. The result was less destructive oxidative stress (i.e. free radical damage) among the brain cells and a reduced risk of losing neurons.
Get a Handle on the Hunger Hormone
The reason that restricting your calories can help the mitochondria in your brain, say scientists in Australia, is linked to the fact that eating less, or even intermittent fasting, stimulates the digestive tract to release the hormone ghrelin, known as the “hunger hormone,” which is made by cells lining the digestive tract. This is the hormone that makes you feel hungry as dinner time approaches.
In laboratory research, scientists at Australia’s Monash University found that ghrelin stimulates the part of the brain known as the hypothalamus to release an enzyme called AMPK (5′ adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase). AMPK enhances the functions of mitochondria by promoting the regeneration of healthier ones.5
The Australian scientists say that when AMPK supports mitochondrial function in the midbrain, it protects the neurons that are impaired when you suffer from a condition like Parkinson’s disease. They also believe that AMPK can help prevent Alzheimer’s.6
It’s not yet very clear how much calorie restriction you need to improve your brain’s mitochondria. Lab tests indicate dependable results by cutting calories by 30 to 40 percent. You may not have to cut that much to get some benefit.
Dr. David Perlmutter, a noted neurologist and author of the best seller Grain Brain, recommends going 16 hours a day without food – for example, from 6 PM until 10 the next morning – and doing all your eating during the other eight hours. A shorter fast of 12 or 14 hours has some benefits. The long daily fast permits some resuscitation of brain cells to take place.
And those hunger pangs? They may be your body’s way of telling you that your mitochondria are getting the support they need.