Mitochondrial DNA is big on the alternative scene these days. Brain research and the role mitochondria play has given rise to many new products. Some are quite expensive and promise great brain health and to recharge the mitochondria. The question is, should we take them? Will they really help? And should we jump on this bandwagon?
I won't tell you the answer to these questions because you have to decide what's right for you, of course. However, I will say we herbalists have an advantage, particularly when we couple our knowledge with TCM. Simply put, the tiny powerhouses we call mitochondria are nothing more than Spleen Qi; we immediately know what herbs supplement Spleen Qi -- astragalus, ginseng, and reishi, for starters. Taking these herbs alone will build your mitochondria (and if you want to spark your ATP as well, then include Kidney Yang tonics).
Admittedly I wrote a blog about this three years ago, but the commercial push has grown big and vast since then so I think it bears retelling. Here it is.
A combined Western Medicine/TCM study that was done in China yielded surprising results in the connection between the Spleen in both medicines.* In the study, a tiny camera was introduced into the mucosal lining of the stomach in both normal patients and those with the TCM symptoms of deficient Spleen Qi -- poor digestion, low appetite, gas, bloating, acid regurgitation, loose stools, undigested food in the stools, malnutrition, weakness in arms and legs, fatigue, poor muscle development, edema of abdomen, hips and thighs, blood spots under the skin, easy bruising, lack of sensation of taste, prolapsed organs, frequent bleeding, abdominal distension, obsession, worry and anemia.
The results of the study showed a marked correlation between the quantity and quality of mitochondria in the normal patients versus those with deficient Spleen Qi (keep in mind here that the mitochondria are the "powerhouses" of the cells and so relate to Qi, or "energy," in the body).
In the normal patients the mitochondria were abundant in number while in those with deficient Spleen Qi, the mitochondria were not only fewer in quantity, but the ones present were damaged, swollen and/or had poor reticulation. This affected many aspects of the body, such as poor digestion, decreased hemoglobin levels and reduced muscle strength.
As an example, the deficient Spleen Qi patients in the study experienced abdominal flatulence, abnormal stools and undigested food in the stool after intake of a high protein diet. All of them had obvious quantitative and qualitative changes of their mitochondria and displayed a decreased number of the enzyme secreting cells (zymogen granules) necessary for normal digestion. A deficiency of Spleen Qi was thus found to correspond to an insufficiency of digestive enzymes and a reduction of enzyme activity, interfering with digestion of proteins.
There are many more correlations between the functions of the Spleen in TCM and that in Western Medicine, but it'll have to wait for a full article, or a book Michael and I have talked about writing for over a decade on comparing the two medicines. This blog post is meant to just give you a taste and hopefully, inspire you to explore the comparisons between the two medicines on your own.
In the meantime, there are many herbs that tonify Spleen Qi and they may well increase the number, improve the function and correct the damage and malformation of the cells' mitochondria. This is good news. Readily available and well known, they include: ginseng, dioscorea (Chinese wild yam) codonopsis, astragalus and jujube dates. Give them a try and see if they don't improve your brain function, too, since strong Spleen Qi enhances the ability to focus and memorize.
*Traditional Chinese Medicine Digest, Vol. II, 3 & 4, 1987, The People's Medical Publishing House, SHK international Services, Ltd., 22/F, 151 Gloucester Road, Hong Kong.