Sep 18

Empower Your Workforce! Mitochondria and Mental Health – Part 1

This is Part 1 of a 2-part post.  Part 2 is coming on Sunday afternoon, so come back then for more!

Last week I attended a conference on nutrition and mental health. One of the most exciting areas we explored is the role that mitochondria play in mental wellbeing.

Mitochondria?  What are those?

Mitochondria have many functions besides energy production.  They even have their own DNA.

Mitochondria have many functions besides energy production. They even have their own DNA.

Mitochondria are the workforce of your cells.  Every contains between 100 and 1000 mitochondria (1), all working round the clock to produce energy in the form of ATP.  They are also involved in metabolising amino acids, and in brain function (2).  If mitochondria are not working properly, less ATP is produced, which may contribute to feelings of fatigue and lethargy.  One experiment found that, in people with major depression, the mitochondria in certain cells may produce 26% less energy than those of people who are not depressed (3).  Observation with an electron microscope has shown that schizophrenic patients have fewer mitochondria than healthy controls in parts of their brain, including those responsible for emotions and decision making (2).  Mitochondrial dysfunction has also been associated with conditions such as bipolar disorder and chronic fatigue syndrome (4, 5).

Why might Mitochondria become damaged?

Free radicals, can damage mitochondria and mitochondrial DNA, impairing their ability to function.

Free radicals, can damage mitochondria and mitochondrial DNA, impairing their ability to function.

It is thought that there is an association between chronic inflammation, oxidative stress and damage to mitochondria, and that this underpins a range of chronic diseases, including depression and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (5, 6).  During inflammation, defence cells produce reactive oxygen species (ROS), better known as ‘free radicals’, which are harmful to cells.  These would normally be neutralised by the body’s own antioxidant mechanisms, but where inflammation is ongoing, the system is unable to compensate, and the remaining ROS can damage cells.  This is called oxidative stress.  In mitochondria, ROS particularly appear to damage the membrane and DNA, and inhibit the system responsible for making energy (3, 6).


I have a mental health issue.  Should I take a multivitamin supplement?
Vitamins, particularly A, C and E are well-known antioxidants.  Surely it makes sense that when oxidative stress is involved you would take a vitamin supplement?  Well, not necessarily.  There is little evidence that vitamin supplements benefit people with mental health issues unless their diet is poor, and in some cases vitamins can do more harm than good.  I would rather my clients ate a diet rich in many different vegetables and fruits, where they should get the vitamins they need, and glean the additional benefits of the fibre and beneficial plant chemicals which these foods contain.  Supplements have their place, but not for everyone.  Besides, eating great food is tastier and more satisfying than popping a pill!

Colourful fruits and vegetables contain a wealth of beneficial compounds, so enjoy!

Colourful fruits and vegetables contain a wealth of beneficial compounds, so enjoy!

So what can I do?
A varied diet, based around vegetables, fruits, lean protein, healthy fats and whole grains is a good basis for general health, including mental health (7).  Limiting the total amount of food you eat has shown benefit (5), but can be challenging.  Some of the specific nutrients which have been associated with improved mental health are thought to work by supporting the health of mitochondria.

In my next post I will tell you about 3 key nutrients, and where to find them, so please join me on Sunday for Part 2.



  1. http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/biology/bio4fv/page/mito.htm [Accessed 18 September 2015].
  2. Shao, L., Martin, M.V., & Vawter, M.P., (2008). Mitochondrial involvement in psychiatric disorders. Annals of Medicine 40(4), 281-295.
  3. Abdallah, C.G., Jiang, L., & Sanacora, G., (2014). Glutamate Metabolism in Major Depressive Disorder. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 171(12), 1320-1327.
  4. Sequeria, A., Rollins, B., & Vawter, M.P., (2015). Mitochondrial mutations in subjects with psychiatric disorders. PLoS One 10(5), e0127280.
  1. Markham, A., Bains, R., Franklin, P., & Spedding, M., (2013). Changes in mitochondrial function are pivotal in neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders: how important is BDNF? British Journal of Pharmacology, 171(8), 2006-2229.
  2. Morris, G., & Berk, M., (2015). The many roads to mitochondrial dysfunction in neuroimmune and neuropsychiatric disorders. BMC Medicine 13(68), 1-24.
  3. Opie, R.S., Itsiopoulos, C., Parletta, N., Sanchez-Villegas, A., Akbaraly, T.N., Ruusunen, A., & Jacka, F.N., (2015). Dietary recommendations for the prevention of depression. Nutritional Neuroscience.  Epub ahead of print.


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