UltraWellness Lesson 6: Energy, Mitochondria, and Oxidative Stress


IN THE LAST LESSON we reviewed the importance of optimal detoxification for UltraWellness. Next we will review how you can turn up your metabolic engine and boost your energy.

Are you tired and worn out? Do you feel burned out and have sore muscles, fatigue and brain fog? You might have metabolic burnout!

Imagine if you could find a way to tune up your metabolism, to increase the amount of energy you have, to be able to think clearly and feel less achy! Imagine if you could prevent diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, and dementia. Imagine if you could heal fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Imagine if you could get to the root of aging and slow the whole process down and eliminate most of the age related diseases. All that is possible by giving yourself a metabolic makeover; a metabolic tune up.

You might have heard of the rats fed high doses of resveratrol, the red phytonutrient found in red wine. They lived thirty percent longer while eating a bad diet. In fact they even became fitter and lost weight without changing their diet and eating the equivalent of the standard American poor quality diet. How could they eat more, eat bad food, not exercise, become fitter AND live thirty percent longer than the average rat?

One word. Mitochondria.

The resveratrol protected and improved the function of the mitochondria through its effects on special master aging genes. OK, so what are mitochondria and what do they have to do with having more energy, losing weight, and living to 120 years old without any disease? Everything.

It is a little tiny factory that turns food and oxygen into energy. In each cell there are hundreds to thousands of these little energy factories. They exist in greater amounts in active organs and tissues, like the muscles, heart, and brain. This is where your metabolism is happening.

What do mitochondria have to do with boosting your energy, losing weight and living to 120? Everything.

The role of your metabolism is to take the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat and process it to make energy, the fuel for life. (The fuel for your car is called gas. The fuel for your body is called ATP and it is produced from the combustion of food and oxygen.)

When they are not working properly, you suffer all the symptoms of low energy: fatigue, memory loss, pain, rapid aging, and more. Along the way, many things can go wrong that may impede your metabolism, make it run less efficiently, or practically shut it down.

Fatigue is the most common symptom of poorly functioning mitochondria. We need to keep them in top shape. The reason we poop out as we age is the constant insult and injury we give our mitochondria.

We have over 100,000 trillion of these powerhouses in our body, and each one contains 17,000 little assembly lines for making ATP, our major fuel. They use over ninety percent of the oxygen we breathe. They take up forty percent of the space inside the heart cells. The only problem is they are very sensitive to damage.

And the injury is from uncontrolled oxidative stress, which results from toxic insults, infections, allergens, stress, and just eating too much poor quality food.

Dr. Bruce Ames, the renowned scientist from the University of California at Berkeley, has spent the last decade discovering how we can give ourselves a metabolic tune up.

In one study he gave old rats who were tired, wouldn’t get on the treadmill anymore, and couldn’t find the cheese in the maze, or swim very far, two molecules that boost metabolism, that make the mitochondria run better. They are alpha lipoic acid and acetyl-L-carnitine.

Overnight these rats became young rats. They got up on the treadmill themselves, swam long distances without fatiguing and could easily find the cheese in the maze like young healthy rats. How could that happen?

Well, he simply gave the cells the raw materials they need for optimal function. As we age, our metabolism burns out from a lifetime of damage and insults. So again, the way to get healthy, the way to UltraWellness is very simple.

Ultimately the goal of UltraWellness is to give everyone a metabolic tune up. First, find the things that damage your metabolism and mitochondria. And second, give your body the things that help the mitochondria function optimally.

What damages the mitochondria?

These little energy factories are sensitive to insults. They are not well protected and easily damaged by toxins, infections, allergens, and stress. But the biggest insult over time is eating too much food, too many “empty calories”.

When the food is burned or metabolized with oxygen in the mitochondria, waste is produced in the form of free radicals that create a chain reaction of rusting or oxidation.

Unless we have enough antioxidants in our diet or we make enough in our body, we can’t protect ourselves from the damage to our mitochondria.

So when we eat empty calories, meaning sugar, flour, and processed foods that don’t have the antioxidant levels of colorful plant foods like fruits and vegetables, we produce too many free radicals that destroy our mitochondria and produce fatigue, metabolic burnout, and all the diseases of aging.

Imagine that a slow, progressive process of deterioration that contributes to, or is the cause of, practically every known disease is occurring inside of you at this very moment. It is the result of dietary choices, lifestyle habits, stress, and environmental exposures.

Imagine also that you have the antidote.

This process of deterioration is called oxidative stress. It is part of the inevitable entropy, or chaotic breakdown, that is the basic principle of life, like an orderly house that inevitably becomes disorganized, requiring regular attention.

We are familiar with the process—it is the rust on our car, the brown color that appears on an apple when opened and exposed to air, and the rancid vegetable oil in our cupboard, even the wrinkles that form on our skin and sunburn.

What we don’t realize is that our own tissues are rusting, our own fats are going rancid, and our brains are melting as we go about our daily life. What starts this process is some insult—too many calories, smoking, a sunburn, exposure to toxins, anti-nutrients, sugar, and more – that tips the balance starting a chain reaction of cellular and tissue damage.

The good news is we have a built-in anti-rusting system and mitochondrial protection system, but it is overwhelmed by the work we ask of it. Like all the systems in the body, the problems arise when we are out of balance.

The system is called the REDOX system, after the chemical process of REDuction and OXidation. Reduction is the neutralization of damage from oxidation or rusting. But oxidation is not all bad. In fact, our white blood cells kill bacteria and viruses by releasing hydrogen peroxide and other compounds we call free radicals.

These radicals are not a left wing political group, but unstable electrochemical molecules that are missing an electron, which makes them unstable and “lonely.” They bump into neighboring molecules and steal an electron, making them, in turn, unstable, thus triggering a chain reaction that leads to disaster. This is the process we call oxidative stress. Much of the damage we experience as disease is the end result of oxidative stress that occurs in the mitochondria, the energy powerhouse of the cell.

In fact, one of the biggest generators of free radicals is the burning of food in the mitochondria. Free radicals are the metabolic waste products from turning food into energy. Toxins, infections and allergens and even junk food also can create them. The bottom line is the more free radicals we make, the less energy we produce because we damage the cells ability to make energy in the mitochondria. The ultimate loss of energy is death.

This is why over consumptive/under nutrition or eating too many calories and not enough nutrients is at the heart of so much illness. We eat too many calories and anti-nutrients, but not enough antioxidants from our food to compensate. It is why the only proven method to prolong life is calorie restriction. Getting our redox system back into balance and protecting our mitochondria is the key to optimal health and a vital, energetic old age.

Much research has been done on antioxidants and disease, and the results are mixed. We are used to looking at things through the wrong model. Studying a single anti-oxidant that we isolate from food, like beta-carotene, is completely counter-physiologic.

If fact, it underscores the fundamental lack of knowledge by most doctors about nutrition and the redox system.

We are looking for answers based on the drug model—a single drug, a single effect, a measurable outcome. You give a pill for high blood pressure and the blood pressure goes down. Studying oxidative stress is completely different.

First, antioxidants are part of an overall team that controls and manages the excess free radicals we produce. You couldn’t put Michael Jordon on a basketball team by himself and except him to win a championship. Why would we expect that one antioxidant alone could do any benefit? In fact, you could guarantee that Michael Jordon would lose EVERY game if he played by himself.

Second, by definition, any anti-oxidant becomes an oxidant.

In other words, the anti-oxidants work by giving up one electron to neutralize the free radical, and then by definition they become a free radical. They in turn need to be neutralized by another free radical, down a chain like a hot potato, until they are finally neutralized by the mother of all antioxidants, glutathione, which can be recycled and restored.

This is why studies show that beta-carotene can increase cancer, or vitamin C may cause DNA damage. In addition, some of the most powerful antioxidants are not in vitamins and minerals, but in food, such as the proanthocyanidins in grapes and berries.

This provides an important lesson. We should obtain the bulk of our antioxidants from food—namely whole, real, unprocessed plant foods. And we should take antioxidants as a team, not individually.

Whew! That’s a lot of biochemistry and physiology, and I really wouldn’t go into so much detail if it weren’t so important.

So here’s what to do to protect your mitochondria and prevent rusting.

  • Eat less processed, junk food, sugar and empty calories. In fact you should really avoid them altogether.
  • Detoxify—get rid of environmental and internal toxins.
  • Address inflammation.
  • Balance your hormones.

Here are things to boost and protect your mitochondria:

  • Exercise—interval training increases the efficiency and function of the mitochondria and strength training increases the amount of muscle and number of mitochondria.
  • Eat whole real, colorful plant food—8-12 servings of fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains every day, they are full of antioxidants and phytonutrients.
  • Take mitochondria protective and energy boosting nutrients such as acetyl-L-carnitine, alpha lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, n-acetyl-cysteine, NADH, D-ribose, resveratrol, and magnesium aspartate.
  • Increase omega-3 fats to help build your mitochondrial membranes.

Taking care of your mitochondria will allow you to increase your energy, lose weight, and age well. It is a cornerstone of creating UltraWellness.

In the next and final lesson, I will explain how important the role of the mind/body, body/mind relationships are for your well-being and health.

Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below—but remember, we can’t offer personal medical advice online, so be sure to limit your comments to those about taking back our health!

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, MD


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26 Responses to UltraWellness Lesson 6: Energy, Mitochondria, and Oxidative Stress

  1. David November 15, 2010 at 9:24 pm #

    Do you think 6 – 9 grams of vitamin C per day may cause a problem, people like myself and others following the Pauling therapy protocol to help reverse heart disease regularly take that much (along with lysine and proline). I have been enjoying your website and I am currently reading ultrametabolism and the ultramind solution. Thanks, David

    • Profile photo of Mark Hyman, MD
      Mark Hyman, MD May 25, 2011 at 11:38 pm #

      Thank you, David, for your message and your interest in Dr. Hyman’s work. Questions regarding conditions like these cannot be answered in a responsible manner via the Internet.

      If you would like information on becoming a patient at The UltraWellness Center please see “How to Become a Patient” at http://www.ultrawellnesscenter.com. That site is designed to give prospective patients a comprehensive source of information about The UltraWellness Center. You may also feel free to call The UltraWellness Center at (413) 637 9991.

      Regardless of becoming a patient at The UltraWellness Center, it sounds like you need to consult with a doctor. Please seek medical attention for the issues that you outlined in your message.

      Wishing You the Best of Health!

  2. cristina February 19, 2011 at 11:55 pm #

    i need help. i understand & totally AGREE with everything you are saying and am suffering from all the above, how do i explain to a regular M.D. i am desperate gaining lot’s of weight for unexplainable reasons. I exercise 4 day’s a week with a certified trainer and eat very clean( protein, fruit ,vegetables ect. ) wHAT ELESE DO I DO. Please see me or e- mail me, I will fly anywhere to get help as long as some understands my symptoms. DESPERATE!!!!!

    • Profile photo of Mark Hyman, MD
      Mark Hyman, MD May 29, 2011 at 3:36 pm #

      Thank you, Cristina, for your message and your interest in Dr. Hyman’s work. Your question and constellation of symptoms represents a complex medical condition. Questions regarding conditions like these cannot be answered in a responsible manner via the Internet.

      If you would like information on becoming a patient at The UltraWellness Center please see “How to Become a Patient” at http://www.ultrawellnesscenter.com. That site is designed to give prospective patients a comprehensive source of information about The UltraWellness Center. You may also feel free to call The UltraWellness Center at (413) 637 9991.

      Regardless of becoming a patient at The UltraWellness Center, it sounds like you need to consult with a doctor. Please seek medical attention for the issues that you outlined in your message.

      Wishing You the Best of Health!

  3. grow July 31, 2011 at 10:02 pm #

    Super information it is surely. My father has been seeking for this info.

  4. bruce January 21, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    I have enjoyed reading about your practice. I am a low carb eater paying attention to omega 3s and omega 6s
    You mention a plant based diet. What do you think about grass fed and pastured meats as well as full fat pastured dairy?
    Many thanks

    • Profile photo of Mark Hyman, MD
      Mark Hyman, MD January 26, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

      Hi Bruce,
      Thank you for your interest in Dr. Hyman’s work. Yes, we are a huge supporter of moderate intake of grassfed meat within a strong framework of a plant-based diet. The dairy would be recommended only if you are not allergic or sensitive. There are more risks than benefits with dairy and we strongly suggest the experimentation of alternative milks such as almond, hemp or rice. Here is some more info on dairy:http://drhyman.com/dairy-6-reasons-you-should-avoid-it-at-all-costs-2943/

      As for the calcium issue, there are many foods you can get your calcium from! Dark leafy greens to sardines ( in a can!) are just some examples.

      In good health

  5. Dorris May 26, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

    I am a real fan! I have your book, Blood Sugar Solution, on my Kindle and the Blood Sugar Solution Cookbook in my kitchen. I read your blog and watch your videos. For six months in my new way of eating, I ate only fruits, vegetables – especially low glycemic veggies and tons of Kale, Collard Greens, Chard & Spinach – and for dessert lots of berries, other fruits and an occasional baked sweet potato. I finally endured the headache and am now caffeine free. Six months into this way of eating I found your books and added grass fed beef, wild salmon, free range chicken and omega 3 eggs. I hate to take vitamins, tho I’ve taken them hit and miss most of my adult life & made sure my kids took theirs. I’ve read your recommendations and take a good multi- vitamin/mineral supplement, plus those recommended in your book for certain conditions/ I feel much better than I have in years, but still have some muscle pain in my legs and knees. Why, I can’t tell. I walk some in spite of the pain. Recently I gave up nightshade plants (my favorites, of course) and hope that will make a difference. Thank you and your staff so much for what all of you do…you are making a difference. God bless.

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  9. Chris December 24, 2013 at 10:27 pm #

    Maybe if youre doing everything you can, sometimes we must appreciate the body does wear out eventually despite the most nutritious diet. Geneology and dna can give us inherent weaknesses. I think with muscle/skeletal issues, exercise is a great lubricator, massage or heat. Maybe try swimming as it loads the muscle but less stress on joints, which tend to be problematic as we get older. Then a 20 min sauna after and bath twice a week in epsom salts.
    Science and physicians dont have all the answers – yet!

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  11. Cathy April 9, 2014 at 7:28 pm #

    Does anyone know what role mental attitude can have on mitochondrial recovery? Not in the mental-attitude-matters-in-everything way but in a real, concrete way? I am not saying ONLY mental attitude but mental attitude and dietary changes, supplements, etc…..

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  13. Sarah Pevehouse June 18, 2014 at 9:35 pm #

    In the solution portion of the post you suggest to eat more whole grains but less processed foods. I’m not sure these two suggestions go well together. Thoughts?

  14. Lisa Bloomquist June 28, 2014 at 7:29 pm #

    Thank you very much for bringing attention to the role that mitochondria play in chronic disease! They play a huge, and largely under-recognized role in every “mysterious” chronic disease there is – from chronic fatigue / M.E. to Parkinson’s. Oxidative stress even plays a huge role in cancer.

    You touched on it, but I would like to encourage you not to downplay the role that pharmaceuticals play in destroying mitochondria and inducing oxidative stress. I’ll give examples from the pharmaceutical that caused a multi-symptom, chronic, illness in me at the age of 32 – Cipro, a fluoroquinolone – but there are many other pharmaceuticals that damage mitochondria.

    Please take a look at how fluoroquinolones cause mitochondrial destruction and oxidative stress. All of these articles can be found on the Links & Resources page of floxiehope.com (I’m not putting in the links because some comments aren’t approved with too many links) –

    Journal of Young Pharmacists, “Oxidative Stress Induced by Fluoroquinolones on Treatment for Complicated Urinary Tract Infections in Indian Patients“
    Science Translational Medicine, “Bactericidal Antibiotics Induce Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Oxidative Damage in Mammalian Cells“

    When the FDA updated the warning label for fluoroquinolones to note that PERMANENT peripheral neuropathy was a possible side-effect, they noted in their documents explaining the decision that the damage mechanism for fluoroquinolones was mitochondrial dysfunction and oxidative stress. I am happy to send you the document if you’d like. Please email me at floxiehope at gmail.

    Here is a fascinating article that was just put online (it will be published in September) about how fluoroquinolone use appears to be a risk factor for development of type 2 diabetes. http://www.medical-hypotheses.com/article/S0306-9877(14)00217-5/abstract (one link will be okay, right?)

    Other pharmaceuticals also damage mitochondria. Fluoroquinolones seem to throw people into the vicious cycle of mito damage and oxidative stress more severely than many other pharmaceuticals though.

    I also suggest this article –

    Molecular Interventions, “Mechanisms of Pathogenesis in Drug Hepatoxicity Putting the Stress on Mitochondria“

    It goes over the NO / ONOO- cycle well and it also touches on how repairing cells that are in the mito damage / oxidative stress cycle isn’t as easy as simply adding more antioxidants to the mix. So, it’s really important not to mess people up in the first place.

    Long comment – sorry. Thanks again for the very nice article!

    Lisa Bloomquist

    • Sharon August 3, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

      I have fibromyaglia. Do you have any recommendations for supplements to help cure this insidious disorder?

      Any wisdom would be dearly appreciated.

      • Profile photo of Dr. Hyman Nutrition Staff
        Dr. Hyman Nutrition Staff August 4, 2014 at 8:47 pm #

        Hi Sharon,
        Thank you for your interest In Dr. Hyman’s work. Unfortunately he cannot provide you personalized medical advice in this forum. In order to provide you the proper care you need we hope you will seek the attention of a local qualified Functional Med practitioner soon. To locate a doctor near you who practices functional medicine like Dr. Hyman, go to http://www.functionalmedicine.org/practitioner_search.aspx?id=117 and scroll down to where it says “locate a practitioner” and enter your location. Progress accordingly from there.

        You can also make an appointment to be a patient at Dr.Hyman’s UltraWellness Center in Lenox, MA. Please go to: http://www.ultrawellnesscenter.com/becoming-a-patient/.
        Wishing you the best of health,
        Dr. Hyman Staff

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  16. Sharon August 3, 2014 at 12:54 pm #

    Your article confused me. If antioxidants cause a chain reaction, inducing even more free radicals, then should we take antioxidants in supplement form? If so, which ones do you consider “safe” and beneficial?


    • Profile photo of Dr. Hyman Nutrition Staff
      Dr. Hyman Nutrition Staff August 4, 2014 at 8:56 pm #

      Hi Sharon,
      Start with 8-12 servings of colorful fruits and vegetables each day with are rich in antioxidant vitamins and phytonutrients. Add sulfur-rich vetagetables as well (garlic, onions and cruciferous vegetables in the cabbage family) to boost your glutathione levels. Here is a great post about glutathione that will help you with a strategy to protect your cells every day: http://drhyman.com/blog/2010/05/19/glutathione-the-mother-of-all-antioxidants/.
      Wishing you the best of health,
      Dr. Hyman Staff

  17. Dewey Rivkin August 4, 2014 at 7:42 pm #

    Great article! May I suggest the addition of 2 nutrients. The first is PQQ, which just for starters spurs the cells to grow new mitochondria. The 2nd is fulvic acid, which enhances the utilization and longevity of co-q 10.

  18. Nic September 16, 2014 at 5:27 pm #

    Interesting stuff. Pretty sure fluoroquinolone antibiotics damage mitochondria. Levaquin is my poison. Going to ask my integrative medicine doctor about her thoughts on mito and healing from Flouroquinolone Toxicity.

  19. Magdalena September 17, 2014 at 4:58 pm #

    There appears to be a mitochondrial disorder in my family as a lot of deaths have resulted from this disease, the children living only up to 4 months. What can I do to prevent from handing down this dysfunction to my children? Can I correct this genetic disorder by strengthening my own mitochondrion?

  20. Pnagt March 8, 2015 at 6:03 pm #

    does one need to get all of the mitochondria protective and energy boosting nutrients you mentioned, to get results?
    If money is an issue, would you pick one or two that work best for supporting one`s mitochondria ?
    Thank you .
    (I have constant,intense fatigue and diabetes type 1)

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