How Mitochondrial Function Impacts the Immune System and Autoimmune Disease

Jul 8, 2024 | autoimmune disease prevention, cortisol, dietary lifestyle, exercise, immunity, Longevity, mitochondria, stress reduction

Mitochondrial function plays a crucial role in the immune system and reversing autoimmune disease. Mitochondria are not just the powerhouses of cells; they also regulate various cellular processes, including immune responses. 

In recent years, scientific research has shown a crucial link between mitochondrial function and the immune system. This article dives into how mitochondria shape our body’s defense mechanisms and how mitochondrial dysfunction can lead to immune system imbalance.

Mitochondria: More Than Just Energy Factories

While mitochondria are primarily recognized for their role in generating ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the energy currency of our cells, they also serve as key players in immune system regulation. Immune cells require a significant amount of energy to perform their functions, including cytokine production and cell division. Mitochondrial dysfunction leads to reduced ATP production, impairing the immune response.

Mitochondria are involved in various processes that directly impact immune cell function, including:

  1. Apoptosis: Programmed cell death, essential for eliminating infected or damaged cells
  2. Calcium signaling: Crucial for immune cell activation and communication
  3. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) production: Mitochondria produce ROS as important signaling molecules in immune responses.
  4. Antiviral Response: These ROS contribute to the immune system’s antiviral response by activating signaling pathways that trigger the expression of antiviral genes, helping the body defend against viral infections.

Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Immune System Dysregulation

When mitochondria fail to function optimally, it can have profound consequences for the immune system. Mitochondrial dysfunction has been linked to a range of immune-related disorders, such as:

  1. Autoimmune disease: Mitochondrial abnormalities have been observed in conditions like lupus, multiple sclerosis (MS) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Given autoimmune disease is one big disease attacking many body parts, it means we’d find mitochondrial dysfunction no matter what name has been given to an autoimmune disease. 
  2. Chronic infections: Impaired mitochondrial function can hinder the body’s ability to combat persistent viral or bacterial infections.
  3. Inflammatory disorders: Mitochondrial dysfunction can contribute to chronic inflammation, a hallmark of many immune system issues.

The Mitochondrial-Immune Cell Interface

Immune cells, particularly T cells and macrophages, rely heavily on mitochondrial function to carry out their protective roles. Here’s how mitochondria influence specific immune cell types:

  1. T Cells: Mitochondria regulate T cell activation, differentiation, and survival. During an immune response, T cells switch from oxidative phosphorylation to glycolysis for rapid energy production. Mitochondrial dysfunction can impair this metabolic shift, leading to T cell exhaustion and ineffective immune responses.
  2. Macrophages: Mitochondria play a crucial role in macrophage polarization, determining whether they adopt a pro-inflammatory (M1) or anti-inflammatory (M2) phenotype. Mitochondrial dysfunction can skew macrophage polarization, contributing to chronic inflammation and impaired tissue repair.
  3. Neutrophils: Mitochondria regulate neutrophil apoptosis, which is essential for resolving inflammation. Mitochondrial dysfunction can lead to prolonged neutrophil survival, exacerbating inflammatory damage.
  4. Metabolic Regulation: Mitochondria are central to cellular metabolism, and their function influences immune cell metabolism. For example, in macrophages, mitochondrial metabolism regulates the balance between inflammatory (M1) and anti-inflammatory (M2) phenotypes. This metabolic regulation is crucial for maintaining a balanced immune response.

Mitochondrial DNA and Innate Immunity

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is the genetic material found in mitochondria, which are the energy-producing organelles in the cells. When mitochondria are damaged, mtDNA can be released into the cell’s cytoplasm. This released mtDNA acts as a “damage-associated molecular pattern” (DAMP), which is a type of molecule that can trigger an immune response.
When mtDNA acts as a DAMP, it can trigger inflammatory pathways in the immune system. This means that the immune system recognizes the mtDNA as a foreign or dangerous molecule and initiates an inflammatory response to deal with it.

Optimizing Mitochondrial Health for Immune System Support

Given the profound impact of mitochondrial function on the immune system, optimizing mitochondrial health is a key strategy for maintaining robust immune system balance and defenses.  Here are some key approaches:

Light Exposure and Circadian Rhythm Are the Foundation

  1. Optimizing light exposure is crucial for maintaining healthy mitochondrial function and, consequently, supporting the immune system. 
  2. Exposure to natural sunlight, particularly early in the day, helps regulate circadian rhythms, which are intimately linked to mitochondrial function. Check out my blog that dives deep into how early morning sunlight positively impacts your hormones, sleep and much more
  3. Nature’s light (aka sunlight) is a rich source of near-infrared (NIR) photons, which play a vital role in subcellular melatonin production. 
  4. Don’t wear sunglasses unless on water, snow or in another environment where sunlight is being amplified. Sunglasses (and contacts) block the sunlight from entering your eye. 
  5. Melatonin is the primary biomarker used in circadian theory. It is produced by mitochondria in many cells in response to near-infrared (NIR) photons and is consumed locally to combat free radicals. 
  6. The human body has evolved sophisticated optical mechanisms to gather and localize NIR photons in critical areas, such as blood vessels, the retina, the brain, and even the developing fetus. 
  7. Modern society has shifted away from natural sunlight exposure, with artificial light sources often lacking the crucial NIR component. 
  8. To support mitochondrial function and immune health, it is essential to prioritize exposure to natural sunlight and minimize exposure to artificial blue light, especially at night, as it will disrupt circadian rhythms and mitochondrial function.  

Note: Using blue light blocking glasses at night is one way to reduce the disruptive effects of artificial light at night (ALAN).  Spectra479 is the brand several of us on the team use and are having great results. Spectra479 provides testing of their lenses and offers great quality for a reasonable price https://spectra479.com/drbilstrom. Use code DRBILSTROM for 15% of your purchases. These make fantastic gifts for family members.  The version that goes over glasses is a team favorite!

It’s important to note that artificial blue light can also get into the body through skin, so covering up while using devices after sunset will also help.

Dietary Lifestyle Changes

  1. Remove ultra processed foods as often as you can.  Processed foods increase the deuterium content in the water of your mitochondria.  Excess deuterium slows down the mitochondria and as a result, your innate healing process.  
  2. Include more seafood in your diet. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega-3 fatty acid found in seafood (most prevalent in fatty fish), algae and seaweed. 
    1. DHA has been shown to improve mitochondrial function through its antioxidant activity. It also enhances mitochondrial biogenesis, leading to the formation of new mitochondria and the repair of damaged ones. 
    2. DHA regulates mitochondrial gene expression, optimizing mitochondrial function and energy production. 
    3. DHA improves mitochondrial membrane fluidity, enhancing the efficiency of mitochondrial processes. 
    4. DHA has anti-inflammatory properties, which can help reduce inflammation and protect mitochondrial function.
  3. Improve the quality of water you drink. Spring water and reverse osmosis water are great choices for your mitochondria.
    1. Spring water is naturally filtered through layers of rock and soil, removing impurities while retaining essential minerals that support cellular health and mitochondrial processes.
    2. Reverse osmosis water is purified by forcing water through a semipermeable membrane, removing contaminants such as heavy metals, pesticides, and microorganisms, ensuring clean water for optimal mitochondrial function.
    3. Avoid water sources with high levels of harmful substances, such as chlorine or fluoride, which can damage mitochondria and impair immune function.
    4. Drinking clean, high-quality water provides your mitochondria with the hydration they need to function optimally and support your overall health.
    5. Spring water will also have less deuterium than other water.  You can buy “deuterium depleted water – DDW” however it is very expensive, and usually not necessary if you improve your diet in other ways.  For patients with cancer, there have been studies that showed benefits of including deuterium depleted water as part of the protocol for remission.
  4. Intermittent fasting can help stimulate the production of new, healthy mitochondria and improve cellular autophagy (the process by which cells remove and recycle damaged components), which will contribute to better immune system function.

Mitigate Non-Native Electromagnetic Fields (nnEMF)

In our modern world, we are constantly exposed to non-native electromagnetic fields (nnEMF), from sources like power lines, cell phones, cell towers, Wi-Fi routers, and other electronic devices. While these technologies have revolutionized our lives, growing research suggests that nnEMF exposure can have detrimental effects on our health, particularly on our mitochondria in several ways:

  1. Increased oxidative stress: nnEMF can lead to an increase in reactive oxygen species (ROS) production within mitochondria, causing oxidative stress and damage to mitochondrial DNA, proteins, and lipids.
  2. Altered mitochondrial membrane potential: Exposure to nnEMF can disrupt the mitochondrial membrane potential, which is essential for efficient ATP production, leading to a decrease in energy output and an increase in ROS.
  3. Impaired electron transport chain: nnEMF may also interfere with the mitochondrial electron transport chain, a series of protein complexes crucial for ATP production, further contributing to reduced energy production and increased oxidative stress.

To protect your mitochondria and support optimal immune function, it’s crucial to minimize your exposure to nnEMF. Here are some practical steps you can take:

  1. Keep your bedroom (at sleep time) free of electronic devices, especially those that emit Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signals.
  2. Use wired connections instead of Wi-Fi whenever possible, particularly for devices you use frequently, such as computers and laptops.
  3. Don’t use your laptop when plugging into the outlet (charge it when not using it and take sunlight breaks while waiting for it to charge).
  4. Keep your cell phone away from your body when not in use, and consider using a hands-free device or speakerphone to reduce exposure..
  5. Spend time in nature, away from electronic devices and sources of nnEMF, to give your body a chance to rest and recover.  
  6. Artificial blue light (see #8 above in Light Exposure) is also an nnEMF contributor.  Be aware of the light from your phone/computer screens, TVs, etc.
  7. Reducing nnEMF while sleeping is very important.  This is when your body goes into its restore, repair and heal phase.  Turning off as much nnEMF while sleeping is the optimal way to support your during sleep.    

By reducing your exposure to nnEMF, you can help protect your mitochondria from damage and support their optimal function, which is essential for a strong and balanced immune system. 

Additionally, prioritizing time in nature and away from electronic devices can provide further benefits, such as reducing stress, improving sleep quality, and promoting overall well-being, all of which contribute to a healthy immune response.

Note:  You can purchase tools for measuring the nnEMF in your environment and even set up your bedroom as an nnEMF sleep safe zone.  Check out www.LiveEMFSafe.com for a deeper dive on nnEMF data and mitigation support. This is a highly reputable and knowledgeable company. Use code DRBILSTROM for 10% of any purchase. I do receive an affiliate commission on a sale using my code, which goes to supporting this blog and social channels. 

Cold Therapy.

Cold exposure, such as cold showers and ice baths can stimulate mitochondrial function and improve immune system performance.

  1. Cold therapy has been shown to increase mitochondrial biogenesis, the process by which new mitochondria are produced within cells. This leads to a higher number of healthy, functional mitochondria that can better support cellular energy production and immune function.
  2. Exposure to cold temperatures can also activate brown adipose tissue (BAT), a type of fat that is rich in mitochondria. When activated, BAT generates heat and increases energy expenditure, which can help support mitochondrial health and overall metabolic function.
  3. Cold therapy can reduce inflammation by decreasing the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and increasing the release of anti-inflammatory cytokines. This can help protect mitochondria from damage caused by chronic inflammation and support a balanced immune response.
  4. Regular cold exposure has been shown to improve the function of various immune cells, such as natural killer cells, T cells, and B cells, enhancing the body’s ability to fight off infections and maintain homeostasis.

To incorporate cold therapy into your routine, start with short durations of cold exposure, such as 30-second cold showers, and gradually increase the duration as your body adapts. 

Alternatively, you can try ice baths under the guidance of a trained professional. As with any new practice, it’s essential to listen to your body and consult with a healthcare expert in cold therapy before starting, especially if you have any pre-existing health conditions.

Balance Cortisol Levels (aka Stress management)

  1. Chronic stress can impair mitochondrial function, so adopting stress-reducing practices like mindfulness, meditation, repetitive prayer, tai chi,  yoga, etc. will help balance cortisol. 

To understand more about the importance of balancing cortisol, and supplements that can support the process, checkout this blog 👉https://drdavidbilstrom.com/best-supplements-to-reduce-cortisol

Exercise

  1. Regular physical activity has been shown to improve mitochondrial function and enhance immune cell responsiveness.  
  2. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is another method know to improve mitochondrial function

Conclusion

By understanding how mitochondria shape immune responses and taking steps to optimize mitochondrial health, you can access new avenues for enhancing immune function and preventing immune-related disorders. 

As research continues to explain the complex interplay between mitochondria and autoimmune disease, targeted lifestyle interventions aimed at supporting mitochondrial function are emerging as powerful tools in the fight against immune system imbalance and autoimmune disease.

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