Mitochondria – the batteries of life – and why we need to look after them.
All of us will agree that our energy levels dictate our overall experience of life. We cannot be happy, fulfilled and engaged when we are hounded by constant fatigue. So how do we ensure that a lack of energy does not limit our potential?
Mitochondria, our cells’ batteries
Most of our energy (around 90%) is delivered by minute structures or organelles called mitochondria, which are present in every single animal and plant cell. Mitochondria use digested food products (such as carbohydrates and fats) to produce energy for all cellular processes. The cells that need the most energy, such as brain, heart and muscle cells, are more densely packed with mitochondria.
It is believed that mitochondria originated from bacteria that were engulfed by cells. This is because they make copies of themselves like bacteria and have some residual genetic material similar to bacteria. These ‘living’ structures ended up staying in the cells in a mutually beneficial relationship. The cell protects and delivers nutrients to the mitochondria which, in turn, deliver the energy needed for life.
So, how happy, healthy and energised we feel ultimately depends on how well our mitochondria are functioning.
Main risk to mitochondria
To produce energy, mitochondria literally burn digested food using the oxygen we inhale from our lungs. In the process, carbon dioxide and water are produced as waste products as well as highly destructive, oxidising free radicals. These need to be neutralised with antioxidants (either made within the cell or supplied by our diets) or they can irreparably damage the mitochondria and ultimately the cell itself. If this happens the damaged mitochondria are programmed to either self-destruct or kill off the whole cell, if necessary.
This is a normal process and makes way for new and healthy mitochondria and cells (this ‘assassin’ function of mitochondria also helps to destroy cancerous cells). However, if too many mitochondria or cells are destroyed with insufficient replacement, this can lead to multiple problems with loss of physical and mental energy in the early stages through to the full range of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and then ultimately death, in the late stages.
Interestingly while we inherit half our genetic material or DNA from each of our parents we only inherit mitochondria (and their DNA) from our mothers. It is believed that the mitochondria in the sperm cells are so damaged by free radicals as a result of their heroic swim to reach the egg that they are ‘not fit’ to join with the mitochondria in the egg and are thus destroyed soon after fertilization.
How to look after our mitochondria
While we have no way of stopping the eventual degeneration of our body and brain we can improve our mental and physical energy levels and slow this inevitable decline by adopting a lifestyle that protects our mitochondria.
1) Getting sufficient sleep – at least 7-8 hours per night. As soon as fall sleep our brain cells shrink expanding the space between the cells by more than 60%. This allows the flow of cerebrospinal fluid which washes out waste products that have built up during the day, including beta-amyloid, from the brain. The build up of beta-amyloid in the cells damages mitochondria and cells causing their death. Beta-amyloid plaque buildup in the brain is a defining symptom of Alzheimer’s disease.
2) Exercising regularly. Exercising for at least 30 minutes each day appears to protect mitochondria from genetic damage as well as increasing the overall numbers of mitochondria in each cell.
3) Practising relaxation techniques (mindfulness, breathing exercises, yoga etc.) to combat stress overload. High levels of stress hormones increase free radical damage and negatively impact energy production in mitochondria.
4) Eating a diet rich in unprocessed plant foods. This will supply a diverse range of highly protective polyphenol antioxidants to combat free radical damage to the mitochondria.
5) Taking a balanced vitamin and mineral formulation. This will make sure that none of the vitamins and minerals required for mitochondrial energy production and antioxidant protection is in short supply, especially during times of stress and illness.
So, it’s not only our cars that need a good battery and effective re-charging system to keep going. Mitochondrial maintenance should be foremost in eveyone’s lifestyle planning to make sure fatigue and illness don’t get in the way of living a big life.