Why we need healthy mitochondria

If you are asking “What is a mitochondria?” you are not alone. This little energy powerhouse of our cells is only recently gaining interest with researchers as they focus on how mitochondria dysfunction may play a role in many illnesses. So, we thought it was time we explain how it works in our body and why we need healthy mitochondria to stay well.

Every living being is made up of cells; small structures surrounded by a membrane. All cells contain contents called organelles, sub-compartments that allow the cell to function normally. Cellular organelles turn the food that we eat into chemical energy that the body can use to live. Mitochondria are ‘extra special’ organelles; they have not evolved with the cell, rather, they were independent, single celled, eukaryotic organisms, which contained a nucleus (aka brain) enclosed within a membrane. Overtime, these intelligent organelles found a way to integrate themselves into a host organism and exist together in a valuable relationship.

Mitochondria do more than produce energy, they:

  • Breakdown cellular waste products;
  • Recycle some waste products to convert back into energy;
  • Aid in cellular growth and development; and
  • Produce other chemical compounds the body needs to survive.

FACT: Mitochondria have their own DNA! One of the reasons many scientists speculate that the mitochondria previously existed outside of the human body is because they still contain a tiny amount of DNA similar to bacterial DNA.

How then, does our mitochondria affect us on a daily basis?

In science class, we are taught to think of the mitochondria as the ‘power house’ or ‘factory’ of the cell. If a factory is not functioning properly, or, it is not receiving enough of the basic materials to produce energy, production will decrease. Poorly functioning mitochondria can lead to feelings of fatigue, tiredness, low energy levels, and irritability; you may even age quicker! It’s thought that the mitochondria may perhaps play a role in chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. As it turns out, these mighty mitochondria have proven to be far more important than just a simple energy-converting organelle.

Mitochondria and disease

When energy is produced, waste products, known as free radicals, are created in the process. Free radicals can damage DNA, including mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is located within close proximity to the energy converters, leaving the genetic material more vulnerable to being heavily attacked. If attacked, the end result is a genetic mutation, which potentially predisposes an individual to disease risk. For example, those with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease have been shown to have a much higher mitochondrial DNA mutation rate in comparison to those without either disease (BSCB, 2018). Mutations of mitochondrial DNA can affect body areas of high energy demand, such as the brain, muscles, central nervous system, and the eye.

The ability to enhance

It is interesting to note that athletes with higher counts of mitochondria in their heart and other relevant muscle cells are able to perform at a higher level in comparison to their less biologically enriched competitors (BSCB, 2018). This is interesting science, but the exact mechanism is unknown; there is still much research to be carried out.

Is there a measurement of mitochondrial function?

To date, there is no real lab or blood test done for the average individual to quantify or determine mitochondrial function. However, in the same manner that we care for our gut health, we can care for our mitochondrial health. Much of the time, we do not single out a specific bacteria in the gut; we are working to diversify and support the entire gut eco-system. Taking on this principle, caring for our mitochondria involves proper nutrition and lifestyle factors that contribute to optimal health.

Eating good food, regular exercise, proper sleep, and reducing stress levels in the body are the fundamental points. A healthy diet supplies the ‘factory’ with the building blocks it needs to produce energy, while lifestyle habits such as exercise, sleep, and stress reduction can help to limit free radical production in the body.

There are some supplements that may help to support mitochondrial function, including: CoQ10, magnesium, and fish oil. However, do not start any supplementation program until you speak with a healthcare professional first.

In summary, our mitochondria matter!

Despite our long-term relationship with this special structure, much of how our cells work together is still under investigation. We know that each of our cells can possess hundreds of mitochondria, yet this mysterious organelles have remained independent by holding onto a few critical genes-regardless of the fact it may be safer for the genetic material to be stored in the nucleus (a.k.a. brain) of the cell. It seems they may have a mind of their own!

This week is Global Mitochondrial Disease Awareness Week. Many people may be unaware of this debilitating and potentially fatal disease that reduces the ability of the mitochondria to produce energy. Mitochondrial disease (‘mito disease’ for short) is due to a fault in one or more of the genes that make up the mitochondria. This means a hiccup will occur in the production of mitochondria from the time of conception. As the foetus grows, some mitochondria can divide and grow as normal whilst others will divide and grow abnormally. Learn more about it  HERE.

British Society for Cell Biology (2018). Mitochondrion – much more than an energy converter. Retrieved from http://bscb.org.
Cell Press (February 18, 2016). Why do we still have mitochondrial DNA? Retrieved from http://phys.org.
Moody, L. You heard it here first: your mitochondria are just as important to your health as your microbiome. Here’s exactly how to optimise them. Written for MindBodyGreen. (October 30, 2017). Retrieved from http://https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/what-are-mitochondria-and-why-are-they-important.
Novella, B. So why do mitochondria still have DNA? Written for SGU Science News. (February 26, 2016). Retrieved from http://https://www.theskepticsguide.org/so-why-do-mitochondria-still-have-dna.
University of Cambridge. Mitochondrial Biology Unit. (2015). What are mitochondria? Retrieved from http://http://www.mrc-mbu.cam.ac.uk/what-are-mitochondria.
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