If you're like most women over 40, you're wired and tired, paradoxically simultaneously stressed and exhausted. You're overwhelmed with To-Dos and short on resources to help you get them done, and that can make you anxious. Meanwhile, you've been anxious for so long that your body is drained and you feel tired. Integrative health expert Fred Pescatore, MD, estimates that more than 90% of women over 40 are in this wired-and-tired state. And he believes that a breakdown of the cell's tiny energy engines called mitochondria are to blame. Fortunately, natural supplements for mitochondrial dysfunction can help.
While anti-anxiety medications — including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Paxil and Prozac, as well as benzodiazepines like Xanax and Valium — are widely prescribed for folks who feel anxious, these medications carry with them significant side effects and risks. And they don't actually cure the problem that's causing the wired-and-tired feeling — they simply mask it.
The rise of anxiety combined with a general dislike of anxiety meds has set the stage for a surge in popularity of natural anti-anxiety 'meds' like ashwagandha. The hesitation to trying this route? People wonder how long natural approaches like ashwagandha supplements take to work for anxiety. Luckily, experts say the supplement begins to relieve symptoms of mitochondrial dysfunction within days. Read on for more on what supplements help cure mitochondrial dysfunction.
What is mitochondrial dysfunction?
Mitochondria are cellular structures that serve as tiny power plants inside cells, Dr. Pescatore explains. But chronic stress causes the adrenal glands to work overtime and pump out high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This damages mitochondria and saps their energy-generating ability. The result: Women suffer symptoms such as fatigue, foggy thinking, digestive difficulties and more. Scientists refer to this state as mitochondrial dysfunction.
Women over 40 are especially vulnerable to mitochondrial dysfunction since mitochondria decline in number and activity over time. And considering that estrogen preserves mitochondria’s structure and function, dips in the hormone that occur due to menopause can speed the degradation of the mitochondria. So can sugary and processed foods, which trigger cellular inflammation that damages mitochondria. Damaged mitochondria in turn lead to more inflammation, which creates a vicious cycle.
How to tell if you suffer from mitochondrial dysfunction
If you’re frequently fatigued and suffer from two or more of the following symptoms, mitochondrial dysfunction could be the cause:
Foggy thinking/mental fog
Achy or stiff joints
Muscle pain or weakness
Doctors trained in integrative and functional medicine can diagnose mitochondrial dysfunction with blood and urine tests. But the problem is so widespread, all women who suffer from stress and exhaustion can benefit from mitochondria-boosting strategies.
The history of ashwagandha as a healing supplement
Ashwagandha, often referred to as "Indian Ginseng" or "Winter Cherry," is a medicinal herb that has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine, a traditional Indian system of medicine. Its botanical name is Withania somnifera. Ashwagandha is best known as an adaptogen, which means it can help the body adapt to stress and restore balance in whatever way that's required. And this can vary from person to person.
It's available in the form of tinctures, capsules, teas and powders. The herb is used traditionally to improve strength and stamina, reduce stress and anxiety, boost thyroid function, calm inflammation and enhance memory and cognitive function. Modern-day researchers have also revealed that ashwagandha supplements can help cure the mitochondrial dysfunction that leads to that wired and tired state.
The best supplement for mitochondrial dysfunction: ashwagandha
Taking herbal ashwagandha supplements has been shown to ease stress and enhances the ability of mitochondria to generate energy, reversing mitochondrial dysfunction and leading to effortless weight loss. In fact, research in the journal Phytomedicine reveals ashwagandha has an anxiety-easing action that’s similar to the prescription drug Ativan. And in a PLOS One study, daily dosing lifted participants’ energy levels by 30% within 8 weeks by improving sleep.
“Most of my patients report a noticeable difference in energy after taking ashwagandha for three to five days,” notes Dr. Pescatore, who advises taking 250 mg. twice a day. But if this dose makes you too drowsy, start with 125 mg. twice daily, and work your way up to 250 mg. twice daily if you don’t get the benefits you need within several days. One to try: Swanson Ultimate Ashwagandha 250 mg. (Buy from iHerb.com, $12.19). (Click through to our sister publication to learn more about the health benefits of ashwagandha.)
More ways to beat mitochondrial dysfunction naturally
To restore your energy and tamp down anxiety, consider these natural supplements and home remedies that treat mitochondrial dysfunction.
Cozy up with a cup of green tea
Polyphenol compounds found in green tea boost the number and activity of mitochondria. For that reason, Dr. Pescatore recommends sipping 3 cups daily. Also smart: Eating a rainbow array of fruits and vegetables like blueberries, pomegranates, purple cabbage and red onions which owe their vivid colors to the high amounts of polyphenols they contain. (Not a tea fan? Click through to learn how to use green tea when cooking vegetables instead.)
Stroll around the block
Another easy way to nourish your mitochondria? Take a walk around the block or bicycle around a nearby park. Researchers at University of Pittsburgh found that people who walked or cycled for 30 minutes 4 times weekly had 44% more mitochondria after 8 weeks. Plus, their mitochondria’s energizing activity increased by 50%. (Click through to see how walking each day boosts weight loss.)
Consider Korean red ginseng
When it comes to supplements for mitochondrial dysfunction, Korean red ginseng is another standout. Known as the "root of vitality" or "Asian red ginseng", Korean red ginseng has been used as a natural energizer for thousands of years. And in a study published in the journal Pharmaceuticals, women who supplemented with a form of the herb known as HRG80 reported feeling 67% more energetic within four weeks. According to researcher Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, HRG80 contains specialized ginsenoside compounds that boost mitochondria. Bonus: In a Korean study, women who took the herb took experienced significant increases in sex drive. One to try: Terry Naturally HRG80 Red Ginseng Energy Chews (Buy from iHerb.com, $24.76).
Sip supercharged coffee
Love lingering over a second cup of coffee in the morning and grabbing an iced brew in the afternoon? Turns out you’re optimizing your mitochondria when you do. In fact, a study in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology found drinking 3 to 4 cups of caffeinated coffee daily boosts mitochondrial function by up to 75%. Study authors explain that the caffeine in coffee activates an enzyme known as AMPK that increases formation of new mitochondria while upping their activity. Tip: For an added boost, stir 1 tsp. of coconut oil into coffee. Findings in PLoS One reveal the beneficial medium chain triglycerides it contains enhance the action of PGC-1α, a cellular protein that revs mitochondria by 30%.
Read on for more natural ways to tame anxiety:
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.
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