You might be wondering what heck are mitochondria and why do I care? They are critically important little structures inside your cells that are doing very very important work. More and more we understand them to be central to healing chronic illness.
What are they?
Mitochondrion (the plural of mitochondria) are organelles found in your cells that use the nutrients we intake and produce energy from them. This energy is called ATP and is the power currency of the body. In addition to creating ATP or energy, they also function in hormone synthesis, heme synthesis, removal of ammonia and a few other important roles.
They are concentrated in tissues that have a high energy output such as organs, the heart, brain, kidneys, liver and muscle tissue.
Because mitochondria are constantly producing energy, they are also producing (as a natural byproduct of this energy production) free radicals. Free radicals being those nasty byproducts that can cause damage if not neutralized. This highlights the absolute necessity of powerful antioxidant systems within the mitochondria to help keep free radicals at bay and prevent damage.
3 reasons why you should care about your mitochondria!
1. Weight management. They are what help you use nutrients you intake. If your mitochondria are not functionally optimally then weight control can become more difficult. Many weight loss strategies (diet, exercise, some supplements) also benefit the mitochondria.
2. Energy! Mitochondria are the producers of energy in your body. Many cases of fatigue are at least partly associated with poor mitochondria function. My approach to unexplained fatigue is mostly centered around mitochondrial support.
3. Chronic disease prevention and treatment. Healthy mitochondria = healthy cells = healthy body. Chronic illness is characterized by poor mitochondrial health – mitochondrial damage and poor function is found in many of these diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, alzheimer’s, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, autoimmune diseases, etc. Keep them healthy now to prevent illness later. Or work on improving mitochondrial number and function to help treat chronic health conditions.
What harms mitochondria?
- An imbalance of free radical to antioxidant activity. How does this happen? One way is by eating food that has lots of carbohydrates but little other nutrients. Mito’s need Anti-oxidants to neutralize the natural byproduct of free radicals when they are ‘burning carbs’ to make ATP (energy). If you are only burning carbs but not supplying the body with antioxidants naturally found in whole foods, then damage can occur within the mitochondria leading to poor function or destruction. When you eat whole foods with a healthy ratio of carb, protein, fat, and anti-oxidants – the mito’s get the nutrients they need to manage damaging by products.
- Certain medications are known to harm mitochondria – the list is actually rather long, but some highlights include: statins, anti-inflammatories, some antibiotics, some antidepressants, and many more. The idea is not that medications are evil, but to take note if you are on a medication that is hard on your mitochondria and support them in other ways.
- Hormonal imbalance: thyroid hormone plays a central role in mitochondrial function. With our intricate network of hormonal interplay happening all the time, subtle or outright hormonal imbalances can tip the balance of thyroid hormone and thus can affect mitochondrial function.
- Lack of exercise, being overweight, overeating – none of these are good for mitochondrial health and they tend to come together.
How do you increase/ improve mitochondria in your body?
- Exercise Exercise Exercise – Most importantly. A good combination of high intensity and longer endurance activities is well known to improve the number and quality of mitochondria in your cells. This makes you feel better and get fitter. This is my #1 ranked way to improve mitochondria.
- Eat colourful, whole real foods. Lots of veggies (mostly green), healthy fats (important to keep mitochondrial membranes healthy) and protein in particular.
- Avoid highly processed foods, sugars and overeating. Mitochondrial biogenesis (making more and better mito’s) is increased with caloric restriction, in other words don’t overeat. The beauty of eating whole foods and less refined carbohydrates is that more nutritious food tends to be more satiating causing you to only eat what you need.
What else helps the mitochondria?
The lifestyle tips above are the best and most important ways to improve mitochondrial health. Once you have these in place you could consider adding in some of these nutrients. All have been studied for their positive effects on mitochondrial function.
- CoQ10 – studied for its heart health benefits, this nutrient is essential for the energy producing reactions happening in the mitochondria. My favorite mitochondrial support supplement.
- L-Carnitine – helps to transport fats into the mitochondria for breakdown into energy, involved int he production of Acetyl CoA.
- Magnesium – involved in most reactions in the body many of which occur in the mitochondria. Magnesium really deserves its own blog post.
- Alpha lipoic acid – potent antioxidant, studied for its beneficial role in mitochondrial health.
- N-acetyl-Cyseine – Precursor to glutathione, an incredibly important antioxidant in the function and health of mitochrondria.
Whether you are focused on preventing disease or treating a current condition, focusing on mitochondrial health is key. The top two ways to protect your mitochondria are eating well and exercising. So, eat your veggies and get moving!
Dr Meaghan’s mission is to inspire others to higher levels of health and wellness. She does this by sharing the simplicity of natural medicine with the profound results of modern natural therapies. Her goal is to help determine the cause of a person’s symptoms and illness and work with them to achieve an optimal state of health and wellness. She works with individuals who are ready to take an active role in their own healthcare.
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