The human body is composed of trillions of cells — an almost unfathomable number. But no wonder: Cells are the body’s most basic building blocks, providing structure as well as keeping every biochemical action from brain signaling to immune function running efficiently.
Healthy membranes act as a vital interface between the interior of our cells and the extracellular environment. They keep toxins, microbes, and other harmful substances out of the cell while keeping vital nutrients, antioxidants, and genetic material within their structure.
Membranes also encase organelles, including mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum — the tiny structures within cells that carry out functions ranging from protein synthesis to energy production.
Despite their importance, few of us have ever given much thought about how they relate to our overall wellness. Read on to learn about why membrane health is essential for whole-body wellbeing and how you can support the health of your cell and organelle membranes with targeted nutrients.
Cell Membranes: Structure and Functions
Every cell and organelle is encapsulated by membranes which are composed of orderly lipid (or fatty acid) molecules called phospholipids, arranged in two layers called a bilayer. Bilayer lipid membranes are studded with receptors, transporters, sugar molecules, and other constituents that allow cells to interact with substances in the extracellular environment. This dynamic fluid network bathes our cells and facilitates intercellular signaling and communication.
The three most significant lipids in cell membranes are phospholipids, glycolipids, and cholesterol — yes, cholesterol! We need healthy amounts of cholesterol to support our membranes.
Phosphatidylcholine, a very important phospholipid, accounts for 23% of the lipids in cell membranes, making it an integral component of the cellular interface. (1)
Mitochondria are the minuscule energy factories of your cells. Mitochondrial membranes ensure the maintenance of mitochondrial membrane potential, which is crucial for producing your cellular energy giving you the get up and go that you need. (2)
The endoplasmic reticulum (ER) is a network of membranous tubules studded with structures called ribosomes involved in protein and lipid synthesis. The ER is also involved in the synthesis of steroid hormones, including estrogen and testosterone. The ER is encased in a convoluted lipid membrane, meaning its membrane structure is a more complex matrix of lipids than the cell’s membrane and responsible for intercommunication between organelles, which is part of the mystery and beauty of life itself!
The Golgi apparatus is a complex set of folded membranes inside the cell involved in the transport, modification, and packaging of proteins and lipids. It synthesizes the peptide-based fibers of the intracellular matrix and utilizes its lipid membrane as a gatekeeper.
Membrane Damage Via Environment & Diet
Exposure to these toxins create free radicals inside our bodies, which can, in turn, oxidize the lipids in our cell and organelle membranes and damage membrane health. Certain toxins can also trigger “permeation” — a phenomenon by which holes are essentially “punched” through the membranes’ walls.
An unhealthy diet also disrupts the lipid membranes of our cells and organelles. Rancid fatty acids from industrial seed oils, such as corn, cottonseed, soybean, and safflower oils, insert themselves into our bodies’ lipid membranes, causing membrane dysfunction and inflammation. (6)
Diets high in processed, refined carbohydrates also damage lipid membranes by raising the hormone insulin, which is responsible for regulating blood glucose. High insulin levels trigger membrane permeation, similar to the effects of some environmental toxins. (7) Obviously, this has significant implications for the stability and health of our cells!
How to Improve Your Membrane Health
So what can you do to support the integrity and health of your cell and organelle membranes? Well, the first step is to limit your exposure to membrane-damaging factors such as environmental toxins, industrial seed oils, and refined high-carbohydrate foods.
The second step is to support the restoration of membrane lipid composition by supplementing with specific nutrients that target membrane health like phosphatidylcholine, essential fatty acids, astaxanthin, and vitamin E.
Phosphatidylcholine (PC) is a class of phospholipid with a choline molecule attached at the “head” of the lipid structures. PC provides the building blocks for cell membranes. Supplementing with PC has been shown to repair damaged lipid membranes, restoring healthy cellular and mitochondrial function. The quality of supplemental PC varies greatly, so it’s important to do your research and look for companies that source injectable-grade PC for optimal bioavailability.
Astaxanthin is an-algae-based carotenoid found in various plants as well as pink- and orange-hued seafood, such as wild salmon. Astaxanthin buffers membrane lipids against oxidative stress, preserving membrane health and integrity.
Essential fatty acids linoleic acid (LA), alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), gamma-linoleic acid (GLA), and stearidonic acid (SDA) are crucial for supporting robust and resilient lipid membranes. While fatty acids are required by the human body for optimal health they cannot be synthesized inside the body and must be ingested through foods or supplementation.
Delta-tocotrienol is a form of vitamin E that is highly effective at quenching membrane-damaging free radicals.
Replenishing your body with the phospholipids, fatty acids, and antioxidants required for stable membranes may offer the following health benefits:
- Balance the cellular inflammatory response (8)
- Support cellular energy (ATP) production (9)
- Support detoxification and healthy liver function (10,11)
- Support healthy intestinal barrier function, maintaining overall gut health (12)
- Support brain function (13)
Damaged membrane lipids naturally accumulate in your cells and organelles over time, resulting in declining cellular and organelle function. By supplying your body with essential lipid membrane “ingredients,” including phosphatidylcholine, essential fatty acids, and supportive antioxidants, you can fortify these crucial lipid interfaces — up-leveling your health from the inside out!