Mitochondria, Free Radicals, and Oxidative Stress

Every cell in the body needs mitochondria for energy production. So if you have unhealthy mitochondria, you will have unhealthy cells, unhealthy tissues, unhealthy organs, and unhealthy body systems–opening a door to dysfunction and disease.  I truly believe that our health can be directly correlated to the health of our mitochondria. 

What do mitochondria do?

Mitochondria are tiny organelles (think of them as micro-organs) contained within nearly all your cells. One of their many critical roles is to produce energy by combining nutrients from the sugars and fats you eat with oxygen from the air you breathe. Since we require a lot of cellular energy, our bodies have about 10 million billion of them.

Mitochondria issues often go beyond feeling tired or weak. Imagine a car that is in dire need of a tune-up. It runs, but maybe a bit rougher than it should or it might have smoke coming out of the tail pipe indicating an issue with the engine. Or maybe it uses more gas than it should due the motor’s inefficiency. 

It’s same with us. If our mitochondria are not working effectively, we run slower and produce a lot of “smoke” or free radicals. With increased free radicals, there is a much greater chance of engine damage.

Mitochondria are vital to your overall health as they also clear out unhealthy cells and mitochondria before they can contribute to the processes that lead to the development of chronic disease. On the other hand, your mitochondria are prime sites for ROS production and free radical damage.

What happens over time if our mitochondria don’t work well?

Unhappy mitochondria create a lot of oxidative stress and something called the “Cell Danger Response”. According to Dr. Naviaux, MD, over time long periods of stressors (be it physical, emotional, etc.) signal a “danger” message to the cells –which directs the mitochondria to shut down to conserve energy. With fewer mitochondria, we become tired, weak, or “rusty”. To make things worse, impaired mitochondria produce higher levels of free radicals leading to additional mitochondria loss, perpetuating the problem. 

In addition to countless areas of our body, our brain is especially sensitive. Since neurons are easily damaged by oxidative stress, they handle its suppression locally with  proteins that act like  an antioxidant— one of which are mitochondrial uncoupling proteins (UCPs). Their job is to slow the production of energy and instead use the resources to make heat, hopefully then limiting the number of free radicals being produced. Since neurons require a considerable energy for their activities, this can lead to ongoing fatigue, brain fog, moodiness, lethargy, inaccurate thinking, memory, etc. 

What are free radicals? 

Unfortunately, to understand what a free radical is, we have to take a quick detour into chemistry.  

As a reminder, ” Atoms are the basic units of matter and the defining structure of elements. The term “atom” comes from the Greek word for indivisible, because it was once thought that atoms were the smallest things in the universe and could not be divided. We now know that atoms are made up of three particles: protons, neutrons and electrons”. 

Electrons orbit the atom in layers called shells. Each shell needs to be filled by an exact number of electrons. When electrons fills a shell,  it begins filling the next one. When an atom has an outer shell that is not full, it is called a free radical. 

Atoms with a full outer shell are stable, but ‘free radicals” are not. In an effort to “stabilize”, free radicals bind with another atom, causing them to become free radicals.

What is oxidative stress?

When a normal oxygen atom loses an electron, it becomes an unstable free radical and tries to bind with other atoms or molecules. Unfortunately, excess free radicals can set off a chain reaction as one atom takes an electron from the next .Oxidative stress occurs when cells cannot adequately stop excess free radicals. This is the “oxygen paradox”. Oxygen is essential for aerobic life, yet excessive amounts of its free radical metabolic by-products can be toxic.

Oxidative stress  plays a major part in the development of chronic and degenerative illness and causes damage to DNA, mitochondria, cells, tissues, etc. You can read more here about the specific detrimental health effects of excessive oxidative stress on the body. 

Since oxidative stress is a normal occurrence, our body tries to counteract it through the production of antioxidants. Antioxidants donate an electron to a free radical. This spares damage to nearby cells, limiting oxidative stress.

Without enough antioxidants, disease can occur. Many believe the aging process is due to free radicals exceeding our antioxidant capacity. As we age, we also lose mitochondria. Between the age of 40-70, people typically lose 1/2 of our mitochondrial capacity. 

Can free radicals ever be a good thing?

Although free radicals can caused by exposure to external sources (pollution, cigarette smoke, radiation, medication), it is also a byproduct of normal metabolism with over 90% produced by our mitochondria.

Free radicals can be both beneficial and detrimental, depending on their  levels. At low or moderate levels, they support health. Free radicals have beneficial effects on cellular signaling and immune function. They are necessary for the mitochondrial regulation and can act as weapons for the host defense system which release free radicals to destroy invading pathogens. They regulate many crucial cellular functions, such as the creation of melatonin and nitric oxide, and the optimization of important metabolic such as hunger, fat storage, and aging.

They act as natural biological signals that respond to environmental stressors such as toxins and chemicals in the environment. They are responsible for the anticancer effects of pro-oxidative chemotherapy drugs. They play a role in the beneficial effects of exercise, as your body produces more free radicals when you exercise, simply due to the increase in mitochondrial energy production.

How can I support my mitochondria? 

Mitochondria support may be a slow process. For example, some folks might have trouble with common mitochondrial supplementation such as CoQ10. For them, it might be akin to starting up that worn out car and immediately taking it drag racing–which ultimately leads to more engine damage.

It is best to start with stress relief strategies, gentle exercise, and then the gradual use of targeted supplements. Please work with a healthcare provider to determine what is best for you. 

What is mitochondrial hormesis?

It turns out that we can exercise our mitochondria just like a muscle. With exposure to controlled oxidative stress, we can teach our mitochondria to response to higher and higher levels of oxidation. 

Hormetic stress creates a transient burst of free radicals that stimulates our cellular antioxidant production to increase. This in turn stimulates the cells to repair the damaged and dysfunctional parts and to rebuild more robust parts capable of handling greater stress loads. This leads to the production of greater numbers of stronger, healthier mitochondria. Stronger and more resilient mitochondria ultimately leads to a long-term reduction of oxidative stress.

Some activities include:

  • Exercise
  • Intermittent Hypoxic Training or controlled oxygen “stress”. Breathing exercises such as Alternate Nostril Breathing, Breath of Fire, or any breath holding exercise.
  • Sauna: Both FIR and NIR are great for mitochondria, brain function, detox, etc.
  • Intermittent fasting
  • Cold therapy
  • UV light

In the report, “How increased oxidative stress promotes longevity and metabolic health: The concept of mitochondrial hormesis(mitohormesis),”, evidence suggests that calorie restriction and specifically reduced glucose metabolism induces mitochondrial metabolism that extends life span in various model organisms.

Can nitric oxide help my mitochondria?

Nitric oxide (NO) has such major health benefits that it was named “Molecule of the Year” in 1992. NO acts as a powerful signaling molecule which influences function of virtually every bodily organ (a signaling molecule works by fitting into receptors on cell walls to trigger a biochemical reaction).

NO supports immune, brain, and reproductive function. It helps prevents cardiovascular disease, stimulates mitochondrial growth, enhances lung function, regulates insulin,  aids in detoxification, supports kidney function, and much more. You can earn more about it here

But for our discussion, NO is a potent vasodilator that increases oxygen and substrate supply to our mitochondria. Increasing NO supply allows us to build more mitochondria.  I often recommend NO burst exercises as a hormetic exercise for mitochondria.


A word of caution. If you happen to have a lot of inflammation in your body, you can generate an “inflammatory” form of nitric oxide which can be converted  to a potent free radical, superoxide. This makes sense since the body believes there might be some kind of chemical or infectious agent to ward off. 

Unfortunately, high superoxide can be a building block for Peroxynitrite or as its scientific formula indicates, the “ O NOO” free radical. ONOO is even more destructive to tissue than superoxide.

How can I protect myself against excess free radicals?

Our body is smart and has very powerful antioxidants built right in,

On average, our bodies produce 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 free radicals daily. Since one antioxidant neutralizes a single free radical, there is no way that we can consume these many antioxidants on a daily basis. However, internal antioxidants like glutathione, catalase and superoxide dismutase (SOD) neutralize free radicals at a rate of 1,000,000 to 1. 

Do antioxidants help protect against free radicals and oxidative stress?

Through methylation, we can produce antioxidants as needed. This allows for beneficial oxidative stress to occur, but at the same time, resources are available to neutralize excessive oxidative stress.

But if we take antioxidants when unhealthy, some researchers believe we might be facing trouble. According to British chemist and science writer David Bradley noted in his blog, Reactive Reports, “It’s always struck me as odd that you would want to ingest extra antioxidants anyway, given that oxidizing agents are at the front-line of immune defense against pathogens and cancer cells …Suffice to say that taking antioxidant supplements … may not necessarily be good for your health if you already have health problems, especially if you are dealing with cancer or an infection.”

Given that glutathione is s much more effective, I am on the fence about this. That being said, taking antioxidants such as Vitamin C, or E or nutrients that support the production ,utilization, and recycling  of glutathione (such as good multivitamin, alpha lipoic acid, NAC, etc.) might be warranted. SOD can also be taken in supplemental form.

Keep in mind that some folks have genetic or cofactor issues that do not allow them to effectively defend against free radicals. Please work with a healthcare provider to determine the best support for you.

Can ozone help against free radical damage?

Ozone has been successfully used for acute and chronic infectious diseases, It displays anti-inflammatory properties and has been shown to protect cells from oxidative stress.

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