Science curricula and course requirements have changed throughout the years, but chances are you remember one core tenet:
“The mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell.”
And it’s a mighty fact! Mitochondria power the cells and provide them with energy. But did you know, on a larger scale, mitochondria also power your health and determine how you and your brain age?
In this blog, we’ll share the role that mitochondria play in your body, health, and various ways you can boost it to keep them mighty.
First: let’s review the purpose of mitochondria. Beyond the classic “powerhouse” trope.
Mitochondria exist in nearly all cells in the body—of humans and every other organism. Mitochondria were one of the original organelles (individual structures with a specific function) that evolved billions of years ago. Through continued evolution, mitochondria established their function as providing the cell with energy. They do this by breaking down the chemical bonds to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is then used to power a variety of bodily functions like movement, temperature regulation, growth—everything!
In humans, the retinal cells, neuronal (brain) cells, and cardiac cells have the highest concentration of mitochondria. And the brain, heart, and eye are energy-hungry organs that require a lot of ATP to function optimally. However, isn’t it interesting to consider that our brains, hearts, and eyes have more pronounced changes with age? Could it have something to do with the mitochondria so highly concentrated in them?
Recent science is suggesting as much. Mitochondrial dysfunction occurs naturally with age—as many parts of our body become less efficient as we get older, so too the mitochondria. However, mitochondrial dysfunction can also occur for other reasons, such as long-term antibiotic use, chemical or toxin exposure, poor nutrition, or ongoing infections.
But what’s really at the heart of mitochondrial dysfunction? What’s happening at the subcellular level when the powerhouses power down?
When ATP production from mitochondria is slowed or disrupted, there is an increase in reactive oxygen species (ROS) as a result. ROS are a byproduct of the mitochondrial processes, but an accumulation of ROS is harmful and damaging to the mitochondria as well as other cell components, creating a negative feedback loop which continually worsens mitochondrial function.
The symptoms of mitochondrial dysfunction include fatigue, cognitive alterations, sensory issues, lacking coordination, depression, anxiety, delusions, and increased irritability. It’s a wide variety of neurological and mental health symptoms.
So, what can you do to boost your powerhouses’ power? Here are four ways to amp up mitochondrial fitness:
Exercise alerts your body that you need energy. And a lot of it. When we keep our bodies active and regularly exercising, it tells your systems that more mitochondria are needed.
Your muscles respond by producing additional mitochondria and the enzymes that support them. This helps your body produce more ATP to meet the needs of muscles, and of other organs across the body. Continued exercise (aerobic AND resistance training) is especially helpful for mitochondrial function in older populations, so aim for a few hours exercising in a way that suits your body each week. Twenty minutes per day is a good baseline to start with—and you can work in 20 minutes of resistance training every other day along with the aerobic exercise.
2. Dietary Changes
One of the main causes of mitochondrial dysfunction is poor diet. Though this can be common, the good news is it’s easily changeable. For starters, you’ll want to increase your intake of foods including various mitochondrial nutrients. These include:
- Alpha-lipoic acid
And many more. To naturally weave these vitamins and minerals into your diet, consider foods like…
- Wild-caught seafood
Essentially, natural, fresh foods that haven’t been processed. Organic and wild caught are better options when you can opt for those as well.
3. Heat & Cold Exposure
Let’s start with heat. The simplest form of heat exposure is getting some sunlight every day. Of course, you want to be mindful to avoid sunburns and excessive exposure. However, the vitamin D from the sun is necessary for mitochondrial health. Increased vitamin D levels improve mitochondrial function and are thought to support mitochondrial biogenesis in muscles!
If you have access to a sauna or steam room, this can also aid mitochondrial function. Heat can be a trigger for stress which requires cells to adapt to the environment. A byproduct of this is a positive adaptive response that boosts the function of mitochondria in cardiac and skeletal muscle. Aim for a few minutes in the sauna or steam room next time you’re at the gym!
Lastly, cold. When we’re cold, our body works to keep us warm by shivering, which in turn, releases heat through small muscle contractions. The mitochondria fueling those contractions are activated, and this signals mitochondrial biogenesis in skeletal muscle and brown fat. Try a cold shower for one minute several times per week to wake you and your mitochondria into action.
4. Stress Management & Sleep
Unsurprisingly, you also need to be mindful of your stress levels. A regular relaxation practice—whether yours includes yoga, tai chi, meditation, or breathwork—has been shown to promote genes linked to healthy mitochondrial function.
Moreover, sleep is important. Think about it: mitochondria are all about energy creation and usage. Sleep is a time to essentially reset the body, to heal, to decrease the energy usage of some systems while promoting others. Specifically, the brain removes various metabolic waste products during sleep that are harmful to mitochondria. So aim to get 7-9 hours per night (the optimal time needed varies by person) to make sure that your trash takeout mechanism is working properly.
Were you aware that a process called mitophagy cleans up defective mitochondria and promotes repair to improve performance? This recycling and cleansing mechanism has also been shown to provide numerous health benefits. One way to facilitate the mitophagy process is through intermittent fasting several days a week. How to do it: Compress your ‘eating window’ from the typical 12-16 hours down to 8 hours. You can have brunch at 11am and finish dinner before 7pm—this will give your body more non-eating hours for the mitophagy process.
If you’re like me and need more active support beyond the tips mentioned above, you can take some mitochondrial support supplements. This is a bit pricey but what I include in my daily regimen.
Health happens at all levels—even the sub-cellular! Try these tips to boost mitochondrial function and check to see how your ene