A broader perspective on health and wellbeing

You may vaguely remember your biology teacher talking about mitochondria when you learned about the different parts of animal cells. What most teachers don’t teach is why you should care about your mitochondrial function for overall health, longevity and athletic performance.

Mitochondria are organelles located in animal cells that are responsible for making energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Each mammalian cell contains hundreds to thousands of mitochondria in a single cell that act like little batteries!

The importance of mitochondrial function has gained importance recently because it plays a major role in our energy production, numerous diseases and aging.

Mitochondria and health

Mitochondria provide about 90% of a cell’s ATP, which is our body’s main energy source. They’re are also responsible for various vital cellular processes such as growth, survival and death, and communication. Mitochondria also regulate protein and fat metabolism, immune system function, neurotransmitter function and more. In other words, if your mitochondrial function is sub-optimal, your energy levels and health will suffer.

Fun fact– mitochondria have their own DNA that we inherit from our mothers. Unfortunately mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is more susceptible to mutations than nuclear DNA and is very sensitive to oxidative stress which can lead to mitochondrial dysfunction.

Lifestyle factors that affect mitochondrial function

  • Exercise: Numerous studies show regular exercise can lead to mitochondria proliferation, also called mitochondrial biogenesis, in our cells, especially our muscle cells. The more mitochondria you have in your cells, the more energy you can make.
  • Gut health: Intestinal microbes and mitochondria affect one another. On the one hand, mitochondria regulate proper gut function and gut microbiota composition. On the other hand, pathogens can produce conditions in the gut that favor their survival and proliferation by producing pro-inflammatory substances and can target mitochondria directly for their survival. Luckily beneficial bacteria that produce short chain fatty acids can reduce oxidative stress in the intestines to mitigate the inflammatory effects of pathogens and other mediators.
  • Toxin exposure: The mitochondrial DNA is extremely sensitive to toxins such as those found in plastics, heavy metals, cleaning supplies, car exhaust, cigarette smoke, etc.
  • Inflammation: This can be done by reducing toxin exposure, maintaining a healthy immune system, regulating blood sugar and eating a plant-based whole foods diet.
  • Stress: Physical stress, such as endurance exercise or over training negatively affect mitochondria function and proliferation.
  • Hormesis: Hormesis is defined as low level exposure of a stressor that provides health benefits. Although high stress levels are bad for our health long-term, interestingly, short-term metabolic stress that occurs at the right amount and for the right amount of time can make your body more resistant to other types of stressors which can improves mitochondrial health. Examples of hormesis are moderate exercise, intermittent fasting for at least 12 hours a day, (although this should be discussed with your medical provider), cold exposure like cold showers or being outside in frigid weather, and eating a plant-based diet full of antioxidant-rich foods. The important thing to know is you want to find the “Goldilocks” amount of stress in order to optimize — not too much and not too little. 
  • Balance blood sugar: obesity, diabetes and insulin resistance cause increased inflammation and oxidative stress which damages mitochondria.
  • Fasting: Chronic overeating damages mitochondria through oxidative stress. Constricting your eating window to about an 8 hour window each day has been shown to benefit mitochondrial health.
  • Medication: Several prescription drugs like statins, which reduce CoQ10 levels, and others like antibiotics and common over the counter pain killers like aspirin and acetaminophen negatively affect mitochondrial function.
  • Sleep: Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or circadian rhythm disruption lowers melatonin production which protects mitochondria against oxidative stress.

Food that supports mitochondria function

In order for mitochondria function to be optimal, there needs to be a balance between mitochondrial biogenesis and cleanup of damaged mitochondria. This is achieved primarily by enhancing antioxidant activity which reduces oxidative stress and inflammation.

Luckily, several nutrients, antioxidants and polyphenols play a role in maintaining proper mitochondrial function.

  • B vitamins play a major role in mitochondrial function. For example, vitamins B1, B2 and B3 are involved in the citric acid cycle.
  • Vitamin C activates the ATP-sensitive potassium channels and also reduces reactive oxygen species creation (aka oxidative stress).
  • Magnesium is involved in ATP production.
  • Quercetin is found in apples, onions, capers, and leafy greens has been shown to affect mitochondrial function through various mechanisms such as activating mtDNA.
  • Curcumin is the active component of turmeric found in many curries and has potent antioxidant properties.
  • Reserveratrol is found in red grapes and wine as well as berries and has been shown to improve mitochondrial function and reduce oxidative stress.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids are found in fatty fish like sardines and salmon and supplements and have anti-inflammatory properties that can protect mitochondria from oxidative damage.
  • Green tea: contains EGCG which can promote ATP production and mitochondrial biogenesis.
  • CoQ10 transfers high energy electrons within the mitochondria to produce energy. This can be found in various foods such as oranges, spinach, broccoli, soybeans, nuts, sesame seeds or can be taken as a supplement.

Conclusion

Mitochondrial function is crucial for our overall health and is involved in numerous diseases. Although we have no control over the genes we inherited, there are still many ways in which we can optimize mitochondrial health through diet and lifestyle. 

In the end, optimizing mitochondrial health comes down to getting back to basics when it comes to health– reducing toxin exposure, exercising moderately on a regular basis, getting adequate sleep and eating a whole foods diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables.

By Allison Clark
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The use of information on this website or materials linked from this website is at the user’s own risk. Users should not disregard, or delay in obtaining, medical advice for any medical condition they may have, and should seek the assistance of their health care professionals for any such conditions.

References

Javadov, S., Kozlov, A. V., & Camara, A. (2020). Mitochondria in Health and Diseases. Cells, 9(5), 1177. https://doi.org/10.3390/cells9051177 

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