• HEALTH & NUTRITION
  • PERFORMANCE

Understanding Metabolic Energy: The Role of Mitochondria in Your Health

Mitochondria are bean-shaped organelles that float freely inside almost every cell in our body. They are the site of many life-sustaining biochemical reactions, and although they were discovered over 100 years ago – scientists have only recently begun to decipher the many essential tasks performed by these impressive and invaluable organelles.

As the producers of the body’s energy currency – ATP – mitochondria play a key role in metabolic health and energy metabolism. This article will explore the link between mitochondria and metabolic health, the factors that influence these tiny organelles, signs of changes to normal function, and how to support mitochondria for optimal health.

What is Metabolic Energy?

Our body’s are living, breathing machines that convert the food we eat into energy that can be used to help us function. We require a sufficient amount of energy in the form of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) that the body breaks down to drive chemical reactions and support electrical systems that keep us alive.

Energy metabolism is this energy generation process. Our cells are responsible for converting the food we eat into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an energy-carrying molecule. The majority of the ATP production in the cell is made in a process known as cellular respiration. But the key takeaway here is that every living organism consists of cells that require ATP, and without it, our cells wouldn’t have the energy to keep us alive.

The rate that energy is released from macronutrients by chemical processes is known as metabolic rate, and this can be broken down into several areas.

Resting metabolic rate (RMR)

The amount of energy we need to simply keep our heart pumping, our lungs working and our temperature stable is called our resting metabolic rate.

Basal metabolic rate (BMR)

The number of calories or energy you need at a minimum is referred to as your BMR. This number determines how much energy your body needs to function at baseline, and it makes up around 60-70% of the calories you expend. Your BMR is the energy your body requires to sustain all basic functions from cell production and circulation, to keeping your heart beating.

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)

All of those ‘lighter’ activities you do on autopilot like household chores, typing and even fidgeting all come under the umbrella of NEAT – which accounts for up to 30% of your daily energy expenditure.

Thermic effect of food (TEF)

Some foods like protein are harder to digest and require more energy to do so. TEF is the amount of energy required to digest foods, and it accounts for up to 10% of your daily energy intake.

Thermic effect of exercise (TEE)

The amount of energy or calories burned from exercise alone – which you may be surprised to learn only accounts for around 10% of your daily energy expenditure.

How Mitochondria Produce Energy: The Process of Cellular Respiration

At the core of our metabolism the mitochondria are what convert the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe into fuel for the body. If mitochondria aren’t functioning optimally – it may impact the way your body utilizes and produces energy. This process of producing ATP in the cell is also known as cellular respiration, and it consists of the conversion of glucose and oxygen to ATP, water, and carbon dioxide. This complex multi-step process can be broken down into three main stages: glycolysis, the Krebs cycle, and the electron transport chain.

Glycolysis: The breakdown of glucose in the cytoplasm.

The first step in the process of breaking down glucose is glycolysis, which follows a series of 10 chemical reactions. This process takes place in most cells that break down glucose and works to extract energy from glucose by splitting it into two three-carbon molecules called pyruvates. Glycolysis occurs outside of the mitochondria and represents the basis of anaerobic respiration – meaning it does not require oxygen. In addition to producing ATP, glycolysis also yields NADH, which is a molecule that can be utilized in the electron transport chain to yield more ATP.

Electron Transport Chain: Final stage of energy production in the inner mitochondrial membrane.

The electron transport chain is the last step in the process of cellular respiration where mitochondria are able to cash in on carbohydrate metabolism for ATP, and it involves interaction with the integral membrane proteins within the mitochondria.

The NADH and FADH2 synthesized in the other stages of cellular respiration are what drive this part of cellular respiration. Rather than reactions simply occurring, this stage involves the interaction with the integral membrane proteins within the mitochondria.

There are four separate complexes and one protein called ATP synthase which turns ADP into ATP. ATP synthase is fueled by a high proton concentration in the intermembrane space which comes from the four complexes.

The electron transport chain starts off with the oxidation of NADH to NAD+ with complex 1. This oxidation transfers an electron to the complex which in turn allows the surface protein to pump a proton into the intermembrane space.

The next to occur is that FADH2 can interact with complex 2. Rather than providing more protons to the intermembrane space, the oxidation of FADH2 results in the transfer of electrons, but also the subsequent shuttling of those electrons with CoQ10 to complex 3. From Complex 3, cytochrome C helps to continue the journey of the electron to Complex 4, where the journey of the electron ends with oxygen being the final electron acceptor. The movement across complexes 3 and 4 yields more protons in the intermembrane space.

Factors Supporting Mitochondrial Function

Diet:

Key nutrients and vitamins that are essential for mitochondrial health include:

B vitamins

All 8 B vitamins play an important role in mitochondrial function and energy production. From acting as potent antioxidants to critical coenzymes, B vitamins provide the keys to the lock that is the Krebs cycle.

CoQ10

During the energy generation process, mitochondria produce free radicals as a byproduct. One of the key antioxidants your body produces inside the mitochondria to control free radicals is CoQ10. MitoQ® Mitoquinol is an advanced, modified form of CoQ10 that is bio-designed to be smaller and is positively charged so it can easily pass through the mitochondrial wall.

MitoQ ® is made of three main parts, each with key functions:

1. The active site of MitoQ ® is its antioxidant head. This is the same as in CoQ10 and is the part of the molecule that neutralizes free radicals.

2. Attached to the antioxidant head is the carbon chain made of 10 repeating units. This chain is much shorter in MitoQ® than it is in CoQ10, which improves its absorption.

3. At the base of MitoQ ® is a positive charge that electrochemically pulls MitoQ ® through cells into the negatively charged inner mitochondrial wall, where its antioxidant capabilities are released.

Glutathione

Abundant in the mitochondria, glutathione is an antioxidant that helps mitigate the oxidative stress in the cell.

Magnesium

Magnesium is a key mineral for maintaining mitochondrial health and it plays a crucial role in ATP production.

Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA)

ALA is a natural antioxidant that supports mitochondrial function by fighting free radicals and regenerating other antioxidants.

Exercise:

Studies show that exercise (high intensity exercise in particular) is an effective way to boost mitochondrial function. One study consisted of “young” volunteers (men and women between the ages of 18-30) and “old” volunteers (men and women between the ages of 65-80) who were instructed to perform either strength or cardio based high intensity interval training, or a combination of the two.

The study found that while strength training provided effective results when it came to building muscle mass, it was the high intensity interval training that showed the greatest benefits at a cellular level.

It was revealed that the younger training groups experienced a 49% increase in mitochondrial capacity, and the older subjects saw a 69% increase.

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Exercise For Mitochondrial Function

Aerobic exercise includes any physical activity that increases your heart rate and breathing. With this type of exercise, large muscle groups require oxygen to sustain movement over a long period of time. Aerobic simply means “with oxygen”, and muscles use that oxygen to generate energy the body needs to keep going. Aerobic exercises can range from walking, running or bike riding – but the key thing here is that these forms of exercise are all steady-sate activities.

Aerobic exercise is often referred to as Zone 2 training because the heart reaches around 60-75% of your max heart rate – a low to moderate level of cardiovascular exertion. Exercising at this lower intensity has been shown to increase mitochondrial function by training mitochondria to produce energy efficiently by utilizing fatty acids, rather than glucose. This metabolic flexibility is extremely beneficial for our health, and it’s a sign that mitochondria are functioning optimally. Zone 2 training has also been shown to support longevity by increasing VO2 max and clearing out old, dysfunctional mitochondria via mitophagy.

Anaerobic training has its own unique benefits. Like aerobic exercise, anaerobic helps you reap the cardiovascular benefits from improving your VO2 max to boosting endurance. The way that anaerobic exercise differs is that it encourages your body to demand more energy than the aerobic system can produce. To reach this level of energy demand, exercises that tap into the anaerobic system include high-power efforts intended to last only a short-duration high intensity. Think high intensity interval training, heavy weightlifting, sprinting and jump rope.

Unlike aerobic exercise, anaerobic exercise can only utilize glucose as fuel, which is a fuel source available in the muscles for quick bursts of movement or if the aerobic system has reached its max capacity. The benefits of anaerobic exercise include weight management, increased power and endurance, a healthy metabolism and so much more. But when it comes to increasing mitochondria and building energy capacity, aerobic exercise comes out on top.

Environmental Factors:

Making energy produces waste products called free radicals, which can cause damage to our cells if they are not neutralized by antioxidants. When the amount of antioxidants in the body is not high enough to counteract the damaging effect of free radicals, the body can enter a state of oxidative stress. If oxidative stress is ongoing or prolonged, it can trigger inflammation. While these reactions that occur inside the body are a great source of oxidative stress, factors such as aging, stress and exposure to environmental toxins all serve to increase free radical production.

Environmental toxins make up one source of oxidative stress that can be difficult to escape from. Pervasive in our soils, the food we eat, the air we breathe and the products we apply to our skin, these toxins have been shown to influence the body at a cellular level, impacting the way our mitochondria function and contributing to oxidative stress.

Lifestyle Choices:

Alcohol

The World Health Organizations' guidelines surrounding alcohol consumption can be simply put as: less is better, and not drinking at all is ideal. Chronic alcohol intake reduces mitochondrial glutathione, which makes them more susceptible to oxidative damage.

Smoking

We all know smoking cigarettes is bad for us – particularly for our lungs – but what many people might not realize is that the health effects of smoking extends to our cells. Multiple studies have concluded that smoking is closely associated with oxidative stress, among a wide range of related health concerns.

The chemicals in tobacco smoke can cause inflammation and cell damage. Research has shown high white blood cell counts in smokers due to the body’s consistent attempts to fight off the damage caused by smoking.

Stress

If you’re repeatedly exposed to events or emotions that activate your stress response, your whole body is impacted – including your cells. The fight or flight response increases the demands of your body and places a heavy burden on mitochondria to generate more energy. If you’re constantly in a state of fight or flight, your mitochondria will struggle to meet these increased energy demands – which of course, impacts your ability to feel energized.

Early Signs of Poor Mitochondrial Function and Its Impact on Health

In healthy functioning mitochondria, small amounts of free radicals are produced and easily removed by the body’s scavenging systems. But if mitochondria are not working as they should, the production of free radicals exceeds the body’s capacity to keep them under control, leading to oxidative damage over time.

Poor mitochondrial function results in poor supply of ATP, which means that cells do not have the energy supply to function at a normal speed. ATP is recycled approximately every 20-30 seconds in a normal person, and if this process is slowed, then cell functions at a reduced speed. This presents clinically as poor stamina, fatigue, difficultly focusing, changes in cardiovascular health and more.

While creating ATP, mitochondria generate waste products called free radicals. In a way, free radicals are like the exhaust generated by an engine that is burning fuel. Free radicals are commonly oxygen or nitrogen atoms with an unpaired electron in their outer shell. These unstable molecules move quickly to steal their missing electron from the closest stable molecule in its vicinity and in doing so, damage its molecular structure. Although free radicals have some important functions when present in the right place, with the right numbers – they can cause damage to DNA, cell membranes, and other parts of cells if overproduction occurs.

Supporting mitochondrial function

Energy supply and demand

Since the production of ATP may be slowed by sub-optimal mitochondrial function, it’s important that we don’t use up energy faster than our cells can supply it. Getting enough quality rest and giving mitochondria the time to repair is essential.

Fueling mitochondria

Supply cells with the materials they need to work efficiently is key. Think magnesium, vitamin D, niacinamide, acetyl L-carnitine and mitoquinol mesylate.

Addressing oxidative stress

Eating a well-balanced diet, maintaining good levels of exercise, avoiding environmental toxins, making sure you get enough sleep daily and minimizing life stress (to also minimize the need for cellular stress responses) are all helpful ways to reduce oxidative stress. Mitoquinol mesylate is a world-first antioxidant molecule designed to target cell stress for supported energy production and adaptation to stress.

Learn more

Mitochondria play a central role in energy metabolism, and maintaining healthy mitochondria is essential for overall metabolic health. Maintaining the health of your cells by making healthy choices, supporting your stress response and fueling your mitochondria with the right nutrients is the best place to start when it comes to metabolic health.

skin cells and mitochondria

How to support your skin cells

The skin you’re looking at today is in a constant state of regeneration. Every day, you shed over 30,000 skin cells which are swiftly replaced with new ones through a process called cell regeneration.

Read more

Why Muscle Mass is Important for Heart Health

As you age, your heart ages with you. Learn how building muscle can help navigate these cardiovascular changes to help you age better.

Read more