Why Metabolism and Mitochondria Are the Link to Mental and Physical Disease

Metabolism is not just about burning calories and creating energy. Metabolism affects the overall function of our brain and other organs. It is the link between physical and mental diseases. Metabolic dysfunction can be caused by many things such as genetic mutations, environmental toxins, or poor lifestyle habits such as inadequate nutrition, poor quality sleep, and physical inactivity. The key to metabolic dysfunction lies in a tiny organelle in the cell, called the mitochondria.

Functional medicine sees the gut-brain connection as essential for overall health. Messaging between the brain and the gut is a continual process to help with communication and control of metabolic functions. Understanding metabolism and metabolic disorders help to explain why chronic physical diseases, mental health disorders, and psychiatric conditions are so closely linked.

Mental health is linked to metabolic and mitochondrial dysfunction.

Dr. Chris Palmer MD, a Harvard Psychiatrist, in his book Brain Energy: A Revolutionary Breakthrough in Understanding Mental Health—and Improving Treatment for Anxiety, Depression, OCD, PTSD, and More, discusses how mental disorders are likely caused by metabolic issues creating imbalances in the brain’s energy metabolism. He identifies that most people think of metabolism as burning calories, but goes on to expand the definition on p.182, “Metabolism is the process of turning food into energy or building blocks for growing and maintaining cells, as well as the appropriate and efficient management of waste products.” In other words, metabolism is how our cells work and how the body and brain develop, function, adapt, thrive, and survive.

After an extensive review of various mental health conditions and chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, Palmer shows that they have bidirectional relationships, and asserts that these are all metabolic conditions that may have one common pathway. This is a new theory of brain energy that states that mental disorders are metabolic disorders of the brain. He names the common pathway as the mitochondria.

Palmer believes that we may soon be able to treat all mental and physical conditions with one integrated plan. His underlying assumption is that all the risk factors for both mental and metabolic diseases are the same. He believes that bio-psycho-social risk factors for disease are all tied to metabolism. Fixing the underlying factors, however, he says, is not one simple intervention or use of willpower like dieting or stopping smoking.

Problems with metabolism lead to problems with cell function. Metabolic issues whether they are in the brain or other organs can be acute or chronic. The way in which an individual experiences metabolic effects, and which cells and tissues are impacted, leads to varying symptoms and illnesses. Palmer compares illness and symptoms to traffic jams and the multiple things that can cause them. The development, function, and maintenance of all cells depend on metabolism.

At the root of this connection lies mitochondria, the energy-producing organelles that fuel all cells. However, the mitochondria do more than function as the powerhouses of the cell. They help to regulate:

  • Metabolism broadly
  • Neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin
  • The immune system
  • The stress response.
  • Hormones such as cortisol, estrogen, testosterone
  • Reactive oxygen species and clean up
  • Changes in their own shape in order to send signals throughout the body
  • Gene Expression through epigenetics where they send signals to the cell nucleus DNA
  • Their own replication
  • Cell growth and differentiation to specific cells such as the brain, heart, etc.
  • Cell maintenance and autophagy
  • Elimination of old and damaged cells.

When mitochondrial dysfunction exists, it can cause an array of serious illnesses including metabolic organ dysfunction. Stress is a major cause of disease and the stress response, itself, affects metabolism through various signs such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar. Poor lifestyle habits such as a lack of sleep, alcohol consumption, excessive sugar intake, and obesity, increase the body’s stress response and can create havoc with our cellular functioning, impair the body’s ability to heal itself and lead to physical disease and/or mental disorders.

Improving mitochondrial function through a number of strategies such as diet, sleep, exercise, stress management, supplementation, medication management, relationships, and life meaning/purpose can help reverse metabolic dysfunction associated with disease conditions. This is well-known in functional medicine.

Sleep, for example, allows the brain to detoxify at night. Stress management techniques such as meditation, yoga, exercise, and fasting, are examples of ways to support the body’s waste management system to rid the cells of damaged parts and make new cells through a process called autophagy.

The key is to help an individual identify what are the underlying causes and triggers for their symptoms. This is where their body may have its weakest links, whether it’s the brain and/or other organ(s). Exploring an individual’s weakest links and dysfunctions in metabolism, through a medical history and functional lab testing can provide key information on triggers to dysfunction such as hormones, immune system, digestion, detoxification, energy system, or neurological imbalances. While mitochondria are involved in normal inflammatory responses, and excessive inflammation can negatively affect them.

By understanding the connection between metabolism, mitochondrial dysfunction, and chronic physical diseases as well as mental health disorders and psychiatric conditions, we can learn how to reverse metabolic dysfunction with natural remedies such as diet, sleep, exercise, stress management, and supplementation. This could help reduce the risk of illness while promoting overall well-being.

For more information on how to identify and address underlying triggers of metabolism, metabolic dysfunction, and mitochondrial dysfunction, sign up for a Free Discovery Call.


Palmer, Christopher M., MD. (November, 2022). Brain Energy: A Revolutionary Breakthrough in Understanding Mental Health–and Improving Treatment for Anxiety, Depression, OCD, PTSD, and More. BenBella Books.

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