Taming Anxiety Requires Healthy Brain Mitochondria Function

By Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

November 11, 2019

Taming Anxiety Requires Healthy Brain Mitochondria Function
A profound change is occurring in how scientists view anxiety. Fascinating research findings show just how fundamental mitochondrial health is for mood and mental vitality. In the case of depression, it is well known that high levels of inflammation and mitochondrial stress underlie the disorder; however, research on mitochondria and anxiety lags behind. Recent findings show that healthy mitochondrial function is the fundamental energetic backbone of how your brain manages mood and anxiousness. A healthy mood requires healthy mitochondria.

Acquired Mitochondria Distress

Mitochondrial function is a booming topic of research. Early mitochondrial research was on life altering severe genetic disorders. Over the years, the focus has expanded beyond genetic disorders to include acquired disorders. Acquired mitochondrial disorders occur as the result of many stressors from free radical and oxidative stress, medication side effects and toxicity, nutrient insufficiency, toxins, and aging, etc.

Concerns linked with acquired mitochondrial breakdown include fatigue, heart, lungs, immune system, blood sugar, obesity, adrenals, premature aging, wrinkles and hair loss, neurodegeneration, and so much more. All tissues in the body except red blood cells are rich in mitochondria – especially the brain.

Brain Energy Demands and Survival

Your brain is one of the most metabolically active organs in the body. Only the heart and kidneys surpass the brain’s energy budget or expenditure. The average adult brain weighs about three pounds but consumes 20 percent of your oxygen and 25 percent of glucose intake. Within your brain’s nerve tissues, mitochondria use oxygen and glucose to perform cellular respiration which produces ATP that energizes cells for their own function.

This process is vital as your brain neurons rely on mitochondrial energy production for survival. In addition, healthy energized mitochondria producing ATP are essential for neurotransmitter production, stress tolerance, and numerous nerve cell reactions.

Energy is Currency for the Brain and Body

Every single response or stressor (real or perceived) that your brain attends to is involved with energy currency or ATP and triggers a mitochondrial response. All of the signals that your brain sends out to the rest of body via your nervous system depend upon the energy currency of ATP produced by mitochondria.

Every molecular reaction in physiology such as hormone synthesis, breathing, heartbeat, immune reactions, tissue remodeling, nerve and neurotransmitter release and reuptake, and more depends on this currency which is energy provided by mitochondria. Energy is currency for the brain and body funded by mitochondria.

This foundation of ATP currency, mitochondria, and nerves are essential to how your brain manages cognitive functions, vital processes, and the formation of emotions. The brain needs healthy mitochondria for a positive, stress-tolerant mood making it an essential focus for health and well-being. Breakdown in the brain mitochondria opens the door for concerns like an anxious mood and premature aging

The Stress Straw That Broke the Camel’s Back

Under the bombardment of chronic stress (physical, mental, emotional, toxins, etc), mitochondria change in structure and function to accommodate the burden. If the load is too much like the straw that broke the camel’s back, then mitochondrial dysfunction occurs with diminished ability to make vital energy. This affects the brain, and endocrine and immune systems that give rise to symptoms with diminished stress tolerance, fatigue, anxiousness, low mood, poor mental focus and so forth.

Mitochondria are easily affected and injured by free radicals like Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS). ROS production is in turn affected by several things including steroid hormone levels like cortisol and estrogen, dietary antioxidants, and lifestyle. Imbalances with any of these factors affect mitochondrial function that impacts mood.


With today’s modern stress and demands, cortisol levels are commonly ramped up, out of balance or out of rhythm. Cortisol levels may be too high at one time of the day or too low at another time reflecting brain stress. Other patterns may be chronic high cortisol levels throughout the day or there may be a normal rhythm, but lower levels of cortisol. Any of these scenarios impact the formation of ROS free radicals in your brain which influences mitochondria function, your emotions and stress tolerance.


Another powerful force affecting mitochondria pertains to estrogen. Estrogen levels and hormone transitions strongly affect mitochondrial function at a fundamental level and influence oxidative stress in your brain and body. Estrogen controls mitochondria biogenesis or formation of new mitochondria, cellular oxygen consumption, antioxidant defense and more. This adds new light to the mental health effects related with estrogen, hormone shifts with menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and especially menopause.

Sedentary Lifestyle Stalls Out Energy Production

Diet and lifestyle imbalances immensely influence mitochondria. Consumption of high calorie, nutrient poor foods with sedentary lifestyles are enormous stressors to mitochondria. Excess calorie intake and lack of exercise impedes normal mitochondrial electrical activity that results in a loss of ATP currency. ATP production is stalled out with overconsumption of calories - similar to a car or lawn mower engine that is flooded and won’t start.

Exercise Turns on Mitochondria and Stabilizes Brain Stress

Exercise is essential to the electrical activity of mitochondria. It helps mitochondria repolarize or reboot ATP production which helps balance out oxidative stress and ROS production. Lack of physical activity puts a monkey wrench in how mitochondria do their daily job.

Caloric intake and physical activity promote life and death changes to mitochondria. We can learn from one scientist’s comment studying mitochondria diet and lifestyle “It has been known for over 70 years that laboratory rodents, if maintained on a restricted calorie diet, will be healthier, more active, more intelligent, and will live longer and have few cancers.”

Exercise must be in moderation as if you overdo exercise that too creates higher levels of oxidative stress. Work within your energy envelope and gradually increase your output. Your body needs a balance with physical activity and caloric intake.

Exercise in moderation is a powerful mood stabilizer for so many individuals and often works better than medications. Even just doing short bursts of activity such as High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) helps rapidly boost energy which in turn supports mood and helps anxiety and depression. Strength training boosts mitochondrial function, too.

If you have a current sedentary lifestyle and you think you can do the same physical activity now compared to 20 years ago, think again. Your mitochondria number and size have drastically decreased. Slowly increase your physical activity. Seniors even benefit by using interval type exercises.

Physical activity and exercise is so powerful that it can help even the most troubling anxiety disorders such as PTSD and separation anxiety disorders. Exercise helps mitochondria and brain tissues remodel, counteracting the stress that broke the camel’s back.

Dietary Antioxidants

In addition, diets that lack fruits and vegetables result in depletion of antioxidants. Make sure you consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Ideal intake is 9-13 servings per day. Use organic foods as much as possible.

Antioxidants are needed to quench free radicals that damage mitochondrial structure and function. Of particular interest for brain mitochondria and mood stress include the Ayurvedic herb Bacopa maneri and acetyl-l-carnitine. Bacopa has been used for thousands of years for brain health.

Acetyl-l-carnitine(ALC), helps neurotransmitter function and nerve repair in the brain. It helps mitochondria with burning fatty acids, which is necessary for the production of ATP currency. ALC quenches free radicals in the brain caused by acute stress which supports mood stability.

Other essential nutrients for mitochondrial function and brain support include coenzyme q10, PQQ, resveratrol, B vitamins especially B1, B2, and B3, magnesium, manganese, iron, lipoic acid, cysteine/NAC, fisetin, and grape seed extract

You can also use herbal adaptogens like ashwagandha, holy basil, rhodiola, and eleutherococcus to aid your brain and adrenals with managing stress load and tolerance. Laughter, prayer, spending time in nature or with friends or pets, belly breathing, stretching, and hugs are great for your brain, stress-anxiety, and mitochondria.

Consider use of natural plant-based estriol if needed for optimizing low estrogen states. Many individuals may need to support the natural detoxification process of removing estrogen overload. This includes fiber, probiotics, and cruciferous vegetable compounds such as I3C and DIM

Anxiety disorders have exploded in just the last few decades and are the most common mental health concern. An estimated 18 percent of the population or nearly one out of five individuals is affected by anxiety. We are in a time when diets and lifestyles and even our environment with wireless technology goes against mitochondrial health and has great implications for mental health. In light of the growing body of literature on how mitochondria stress and brain-nerve energetics link with anxiety, you can see just how profound this is for mental health.

Mood changes are often the first sign of brain stress and challenges to vitality. Mitochondrial activity and function is of foremost concern for the sheer function of stable energy production throughout the body and brain. Taming your anxiety requires healthy brain mitochondria function.

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