Mitochondria: what are they and why are they important to my health?
Mitochondria are tiny double membrane-bound organelles found in almost every cell of all organisms except bacteria. Known as the “powerhouse of the cell” they are primarily responsible for converting the air we breathe and the food we eat into energy that our cells can use to grow, divide and function.
Given this, it is no surprise that cells that require the most energy, such as those in the brain, heart, liver and muscle, have the highest number of mitochondria in them (liver cells can have over 2,000). The only cells in humans which do not contain mitochondria are our red blood cells.
In addition to producing energy, mitochondria are responsible for many other tasks including producing cell signalling molecules, regulating vital calcium levels, producing body heat and killing off cells that have become unviable.
The most popular theory about the origin of mitochondria is that they were once bacteria that were engulfed by more advanced single-cell organisms. These bacteria survived that process and formed a symbiotic relationship with the organisms. This provided an energy production advantage that has persisted through the evolution of more complex organisms, right to this very day.
Some of the strongest evidence for this theory is that mitochondria contain their very own tiny DNA sequence which is completely separate from that of the cell they are located in.
Mitochondria produce energy by turning glucose and oxygen into a chemical called ATP. ATP carries energy in its chemical bonds that the cellular machinery can use to function and grow. Once these bonds are broken and the energy is released, ATP is recycled by the mitochondria back to its active form to be used again. It is estimated that there is only around 250 grams of ATP in the average adult body, but due to this constant recycling, that same adult will go through their bodyweight in ATP every day.
Researchers have even calculated that elite marathon runners can burn through their own bodyweight in ATP in a single 2-hour race!
When mitochondria produce ATP, they produce by-products known as free radicals. These free radicals are mostly highly-reactive oxygen compounds which, if not kept in check, can react with (oxidise) and damage other parts of the cell such as the mitochondrial membranes and the cell’s DNA. When this happens, mitochondria can become inefficient at producing energy, DNA can become corrupted, and the cell cannot perform its various tasks as it should. This “cell stress” can cause a person to suffer from low energy levels and can lead to potentially serious health conditions. It is also thought to be a major contributor to the aging process itself.
When mitochondria produce ATP, they produce by-products known as free radicals. These free radicals are mostly highly-reactive oxygen compounds which, if not kept in check, can react with (oxidise) and damage other parts of the cell such as the mitochondrial membranes and the cell's DNA.
Thankfully there are several different types of natural antioxidant molecules inside mitochondria (and the rest of the cell) which neutralize these harmful free radicals and protect the cellular machinery from damage. When we are young and healthy, our mitochondria produce lots of energy and we have plenty of natural antioxidants to fight free radical damage. However, as we age our mitochondria begin to decline in function and they produce less antioxidants to fight oxidative stress. We don’t have the energy we once had, it takes longer to recover from illness or injury and the visible signs of aging start to appear. The same happens in many health conditions too, which can lead to low energy levels and can even cause cells to start to die off as they become too damaged. This is especially important in the cells of our vital organs such as our brains, hearts and livers; and can lead to serious health conditions which significantly impact our quality of life.
CoQ10 is the most important of the natural antioxidants in our cells, and it also plays a vital role in the energy production process itself. As we age, our natural coQ10 reserves diminish leading to lower energy production and increased free radical damage.
Although we can take coQ10 supplements, next to none of it gets inside our mitochondria where it is needed most. This is because mitochondria produce their own coQ10 so they do not absorb it from the outside. Thankfully, scientists found a way around this problem when they discovered MitoQ.
MitoQ is CoQ10 with a special positively charged molecule attached. This positive charge allows MitoQ to be attracted to, and transported inside, negatively charged mitochondria. This unique property provides our mitochondria with a huge energy and antioxidant boost and significantly reduces oxidative damage like no other antioxidant can. Our mitochondria can get on with their job of producing energy and neutralizing free radicals meaning our cells are able to repair themselves and get on with their numerous tasks and functions.
MitoQ is able to penetrate your mitochondria hundreds of times more effectively than regular CoQ10... Discover how
The Care And Feeding Of Your Mitochondria
They’re essential to energy, focus, vitality, and metabolism. And yet most of us have no idea how our mitochondria work. Here’s how to tune up your body’s quadrillions of “energy factories” so you can perform at your peak.
We spend billions of dollars every year buying pills, potions, and creams that promise to slow the aging process. But what if we could enlist our own bodies to help us live longer, healthier lives?
Meet your mitochondria — the tiny factories in each of our cells that turn the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe into energy.
When the communication breaks down between our cells’ nuclei and their mitochondria, aging accelerates. But here’s the exciting news — the opposite is also true: when intracellular communication is improved, the aging process slows down, and overall health and vitality improve.
Fortunately, Sinclair notes, “restoring communication solves the problem.”
Ready to embark on a mitochondrial makeover? Here’s what you need to know about your body’s primary power source.
Why Mitochondria matter
First, to grasp the sheer scale of mitochondria’s impact on our overall health, consider this: Each of us has quadrillions (that’s thousands of trillions) of these energy factories in our bodies.
Each mitochondrion is filled with some 17,000 biochemical assembly lines, all designed to produce a molecule called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP — our bodies’ major, most elemental fuel.
The more energy a tissue or organ demands for proper function, the more mitochondria its cells contain. Mitochondria are especially abundant in the cells that make up our hearts, brains, and muscles.
In fact, the heart is so energy-intensive that up to 40 percent of the space in its cells is taken up with mitochondrial power plants.
The density and health of the mitochondria in your organs and muscles are, to a large extent, a reflection of your current level of health and fitness (lean muscle tissue, for example, contains far more mitochondria than fat does, and a strong heart is likely to be denser with mitochondria than a weak one.)
The more healthy mitochondria your body contains, the better you’ll feel, and the more robust your metabolism will be. A mighty mitochondrial force translates to better energy and focus, and greater ability to sustain high levels of activity without fatiguing.
Mitochondria produce energy by breaking down food, explains Bruce H. Cohen, MD, a neurologist at Northeast Ohio Medical University and an expert in mitochondrial disease. Then they release that energy in the form of ATP, along with some byproducts, like carbon dioxide, water, and free radicals.
The health implications of such mitochondria-related damage can be far-reaching, says paediatric neurologist Jong Rho, MD, of the University of Calgary and Alberta Children’s Hospital.
But even those of us who start life with healthy mitochondria can undermine and deplete them through basic wear and tear, or through outright abuse.
Stress, sedentary lifestyles, free-radical damage, and exposure to infections, allergens, and toxins can all cause our energy-generation network to falter.
But one of the chief reasons our mitochondria deteriorate, says Cohen, is that we eat an excess of poor-quality foods and a deficit of healthy ones.
The empty calories of sugars, flours, and other processed foods force mitochondria to burn through a great deal of junk — generating free radicals and inflammation as they go — before useful nutrients can be siphoned out.
The glycemic impact of such foods (to say nothing of their trans fats, chemical additives, and other pro-inflammatory factors) only exacerbates the damage.
And unless we are eating plenty of phytonutrients, antioxidants, healthy fats, proteins, and fiber, we aren’t giving our bodies the basic tools they need to repair the damage.
It’s important to recognize, Cohen adds, that from a genetic standpoint, our mitochondria were never designed for the food environment and lifestyle to which we now subject them.
Furthermore, he argues, our ancestors rarely lived to 70, 80, or 90 years. So we are now asking our mitochondria to perform longer under far more challenging conditions.
There is perhaps no one who has a better understanding of the relationship between nutrition and mitochondrial health than Terry Wahls, MD, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa.
For both general and mitochondrial health, Wahls recommends avoiding foods containing gluten, as well as dairy products, eggs, processed meats containing nitrates, and anything sweetened with sugar. For those especially concerned with their health, Wahls also recommends avoiding all grains, legumes, peanuts, and soy.
Beyond removing these foods, Wahls suggests eating six to nine cups of vegetables and fruits daily, including three green, three deeply colored, and three rich in sulfur (e.g., arugula, broccoli, bok choy). She also recommends eating 6 to 12 ounces of grassfed meat or wild-caught fish daily, plus, for die-hard types, a 14-fluid-ounce can of full-fat coconut milk.
At full force, Wahls’s diet becomes “ketogenic” — that is, so low in carbs and high in fat that the body stops getting energy from glucose (which comes from carbs) and starts burning fat instead.
During ketogenesis, fatty acids enter the liver, which breaks them down into “ketone bodies,” water-soluble biochemicals that can be used for energy, especially in the heart and the brain (two of the body’s most mitochondria-dense regions).
Although Wahls’s work with the ketogenic diet has been largely clinical, there’s strong laboratory evidence for the approach, and a powerful biochemical rationale behind it.
One of its leading advocates is neurologist Jong Rho, who says that in battling mitochondrial dysfunction, ketogenic diets may rank among the most promising treatment strategies available.
Targeted supplementation can also help reverse mitochondrial decay. At the forefront of this research is preeminent biochemist Bruce Ames, PhD, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and senior scientist at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute.
For years now, Ames has been working on ways to protect and restore mitochondria in the brain. His goal is to halt and even reverse the cognitive and neurologic decline that usually comes with age.
Ames’s first line of attack was to try to reverse the mitochondrial deterioration that produces excess free radicals, a process he compares to “an old car engine producing too much smoke,” and thus, not running efficiently.
Aging mitochondria, with their inefficient machinery, damaged DNA, and decaying membranes, can’t clear the smoke, which leads to impaired memory and mental function over time.
The only means Ames knew to slow the process in animals was calorie restriction — flat-out reducing the amount of fuel burned. But it’s hard (and not healthy) to starve humans, so Ames vowed to find another way.
He experimented in the lab, trying out various supplements on a group of aging rats. Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC), which is known for transporting fatty acids into the mitochondria, shored up the membranes and helped repair the DNA, but it didn’t decrease free-radical production. So, he added alpha-lipoic acid (LA), a mitochondrial coenzyme capable of cleaning up the messes free radicals make.
The result? Ames’s older lab rats — who couldn’t run well on a treadmill and couldn’t navigate in a water pool — were rejuvenated. Their running and swimming improved. Their mitochondria became more youthful, too.
Ames discovered that a host of different micronutrients are involved in mitochondrial health. Looking at human cells, for example, Ames found damage to DNA whenever even one of a number of minerals or vitamins was removed.
To explain the phenomenon, Ames came up with a theory rooted in our hunter-gatherer past, when micronutrient shortages must have been recurrent: To make sure the species was perpetuated, natural selection imposed a “strategic rationing response,” shunting the vital nutrients toward functions essential for short-term survival and reproduction, and away from longevity systems affected by dysfunctional mitochondria.
Joyce McCann, PhD, who works in Ames’s lab, suggests that this metabolic trade-off accelerates diseases.
Although a variety of lifestyle factors contribute to mitochondrial health, says Ames (see below), the single most important thing we can do is to eat a well-balanced, whole-foods diet.
Because research suggests that virtually all U.S. adults are deficient in one or more important nutrients, many experts recommend supplementing with a high-quality multivitamin, vitamin D, essential fatty acids — and perhaps more, depending on your individual profile.
But a cautionary note comes from Bruce Cohen, who points out that many nutrition studies have been done only with mice or cell cultures. “When you try the strategies on humans,” he says, “they don’t always work.”
Wahls is trying to set that right. Her pilot study on the Wahls Protocol, which studied 13 MS patients, was published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine earlier this year. Within the study group, six people rigorously adhered to the protocol — including a paleo diet, exercise, meditation, and massage — for a full year. Those patients, who normally would have experienced only further decline, showed clinically significant improvement in fatigue symptoms compared with their baseline assessments.
A great deal more research is necessary, notes Wahls. But eating for your mitochondria, she argues, is almost guaranteed to pay off. “I am the canary in the coal mine, here as a warning to all of you,” Wahls says. “If we don’t care for our mitochondria, we will pay a very high price when it comes to our health.
7 ways to bolster your mitochondria
Caring for your mitochondria is one of the best ways to take care of your health — and enjoy better energy, metabolism, and mental focus in the process.
- Do strength training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Both can increase the number, and improve the function, of your mitochondria. The better your muscle mass and cardiovascular conditioning, the better your mitochondria will fare, and the more powerfully they will perform.
- Avoid or eliminate ingredients that are toxic to your mitochondria, including processed flours, all sugars and refined sweeteners, trans fats, gluten, and dairy products.
- Eat six to nine cups of fresh vegetables and fruits daily. Terry Wahls, MD, recommends a variety of greens (broccoli, bok choy, etc.), brightly colored vegetables (beets, carrots, etc.), and the sulfur-rich veggies (cauliflower, cabbage, etc.) that help your body produce glutathione, a master antioxidant. She recommends blending several of your mitochondrial-building veggies and fruits in a daily smoothie.
- Dine on fiber-rich foods to help detox the poisons that can build up when mitochondria slow down.
- Up your omega-3 fat intake to help build your mitochondrial membranes. Wahls recommends consuming 6 to 12 ounces of grassfed meat or low-mercury wild-caught fish each day. Avocados, nuts, and seeds are also rich in fatty acids. Taking a fish-oil supplement is a good idea for most people.
- Brew up bone broth. When mitochondria are compromised, there is increased risk for autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis, which are caused, in part, by a leaky gut. Wahls says bone broth is rich in glutamine and other amino acids that are especially good for healing a leaky gut as well as other ailments. “It’s the secret to that old-fashioned chicken soup remedy,” she notes, “as long as you cook that soup broth with the chicken bones.”
- Take mitochondria-protective and energy-boosting micronutrients, such as Acetyl-L-carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, N-acetylcysteine, NADH, D-ribose, resveratrol, and magnesium aspartate.
MitoQ is a new type of antioxidant called a mitochondria-targeted antioxidant. It is a third generation CoQ10 that has been designed to reach the mitochondria in quantities between 800 and 1200 times that of CoQ10, ubiquinone or ubiquinol. This supports mitochondrial function and supports optimal energy delivery to the cell.
Nutrition for longevity: How your diet can help you live longer
ATP & energy: understanding the relationship within your cells