Written by Health writer Gerda Venter
Medically reviewed by Dr. Daniela Steyn
Mitochondria are tiny organelles inside your cells that play a big role in your health. The health of mitochondria is essential for the cell's overall health and in turn, your body. Mitochondrial dysfunction has been implicated in various diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and neurodegenerative disorders.
Mitochondria has many vital functions, but its most important role is processing the food you eat and combining it with the oxygen you breathe to transform it into a form of energy that your cells can use to power their activity. This form of energy created is a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Because mitochondria generate around 90% of all ATP produced in your body, they are known as “the powerhouse of the cell.” The energy produced facilitates all the biological processes needed to sustain human life, including breathing, thinking, talking, and walking.
When mitochondria work optimally, cells are fueled efficiently, and biological pathways run smoothly. In other words, when your mitochondria are healthy, you will be fit and healthy. The more mitochondria you have, the healthier you are, which increases your ability to create energy. However, when mitochondrial function is disrupted, oxidative stress can disrupt many processes and damage cellular components. Mitochondrial dysfunction caused by damage accumulation consequently leads to disease and premature ageing. If there is an issue with generating energy from mitochondria, cell injury and even cell death may follow.
Mitochondrial Health and Disease
Mitochondrial disease is a group of disorders caused by dysfunctional mitochondria. Mitochondrial diseases are chronic, genetic, often inherited disorders that occur when mitochondria fail to produce enough energy for the body to function correctly. Mitochondria that don’t work properly can affect energy-intensive systems within the body, including your liver, kidneys, pancreas, brain, digestive tract, and muscles.
There are currently over 300 illnesses associated with mitochondrial dysfunction. About 1 in 4000 people have the disease. Daily bodily processes such as digestion, cognition, and cardiovascular function are affected without effective mitochondrial functioning. All human biochemical reactions require energy to function, and this energy is created in the mitochondria, making their role irreplaceable.
Mitochondria are also involved in preventing the creation of free radicals and reversing oxidative damage. Oxidative stress is caused by certain medications, smoking, alcohol, environmental toxins, pesticides and a diet high in high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. Oxidative stress leads to damage to mitochondria which in turn is linked to a variety of disorders such as:
Bipolar disease and many more
Symptoms of mitochondrial diseases
Symptoms of mitochondrial diseases depend on which cells of the body are affected. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and involve one or more organs. Symptoms include:
Muscle weakness, muscle pain, low muscle tone and exercise intolerance
Increased risk of infection
Poor growth etc.
Mitochondrial Health and Longevity
Supporting mitochondrial health can help control the ageing process and improve overall health. The main reason for this is that ageing, and the development of age-related degenerative diseases, are primarily the result of oxidative damage to the mitochondrial membranes and DNA over time.
As mitochondria are critical regulators of cell death, reduced mitochondrial health and functioning have a crucial role in neurodegeneration. Ageing is a significant risk factor in neurodegenerative diseases. Mutations in mitochondrial DNA and oxidative stress, therefore, contribute to ageing.
Scientists have studied the relationship between humanin and ageing. Humanin is a small protein that significantly impacts health and longevity. All humans age with time, but that does not mean you have to die of disease. Humanin helps prevent many age-related diseases and can increase lifespan. Lower humanin levels may increase the risk of illness and lower resistance to toxic exposures. Mitochondria appear to play an invaluable role in regulating cellular life span.
Ways to Improve Mitochondrial Health
Because mitochondrial dysfunction includes a wide variety of disorders, there are no specific cure for mitochondrial disease, but treatment can help reduce symptoms or slow the decline in health. Treatment options include several strategies combined with an antioxidant, nutrient-rich diet, and supplementation. Below are some ways you can boost mitochondria:
1. Feed your Mitochondria
The best diet for overall and mitochondrial health is to consume the highest quality of foods possible. Do not consume a diet of unnatural, processed foods and synthetic vitamins. Instead, choose to purchase organic, non-GMO, pasture-raised, grass-fed, traditional foods. Ensure that the food you consume is not overprepared, packaged, processed, or preserved with additives, colors, or chemicals.
Choose foods and supplements wisely. The more natural the nutrients, the more the mitochondria will respond in beneficial ways. Foods and supplements that are beneficial to mitochondrial health are:
Healthy fats: Healthy fats are consumed through organic foods. Healthy fats include nuts, seeds, avocados, coconut oil etc.
PQQ (pyrroloquinoline quinone): PQQ is the only supplement that increases the number of mitochondria and improves mitochondrial function. It is found naturally in egg yolks, vegetables like parsley and celery, and fruits like kiwi and papaya.
Co-enzyme Q10, also known as ubiquinone: CoQ10 is involved in energy production and is abundant in organs like the heart that require high amounts of energy. CoQ10 is found in organ meats. Organ meats are not generally consumed anymore, and therefore supplements containing CoQ10 are essential.
Kombucha: Kombucha contains glucuronic acid, which works in the liver to convert toxins into harmless substances. Glucuronic acid is a proven cancer preventative that is also effective against combatting liver disease.
Magnesium: Magnesium is necessary for the metabolism of proteins.
Selenium: Selenium is a nonmetal mineral, which, when combined with a protein, has antioxidant properties that protect the mitochondrial membrane. Selenium is found in Brazil nuts, fish, red meat, chicken, egg whites and milk.
Vitamin B: Vitamin B is essential for metabolism. The most important ones are B12, B6, thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2) and niacin (B3). B12 is mainly responsible for the proper formation of every cell in the body, and B6 is necessary for the complete digestion of all proteins.
Vitamin D, also known as the sunshine vitamin. Vitamin B is essential for mitochondrial activity. Vitamin D supplementation improves mitochondrial oxidative capacity in muscles.
D-ribose: Grass-fed beef, poultry and cold-water fish all contain D-ribose. D-ribose is essential to make the energy-carrying ATP molecule and plays a role in energy recovery and fatigue prevention.
L-carnitine: L-carnitine acts as a carrier by moving fatty acids to the mitochondria. L-carnitine is your only carrier for fat metabolism, and without L-carnitine, all energy potentially derived from fat would be lost3. Food sources that contain L-carnitine are beef, pork, fish, chicken, and milk.
Cod liver oil: Cod liver oil enhances the mitochondrial membrane by providing omega-3 fatty acids to the body.
Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA): ALA provides mitochondrial antioxidant effects and delays ageing. Alpha-lipoic acid can primarily be found in meat and vegetables, and fruits.
NAD+ is a molecule derived from vitamin B3 found in every cell in your body. NAD+ is mainly responsible for delivering the electrons extracted from food to the electron transport chain for ATP production. NAD+ levels decrease naturally in many tissues with age. Supply your NAD+ levels by supplying cells with nutrients that can help them optimize NAD+ metabolism.
2. Focus on Fasting
Reducing calorie intake is the most successful approach to enhance longevity. Fasting, more specifically, intermittent fasting (when you only eat during a six- to ten-hour period each day), increases and resets the mitochondria. Changing it from sugar consumers to ketone consumers. During a fast, your body will burn body fat until food is available. Some fat is converted to ketones, a preferred fuel, thereby boosting and activating the mitochondria for fat digestion.
Calorie restriction (fasting) acts as a stress signal that promotes the renewal of the mitochondrial network through the elimination of damaged mitochondria and the production of new mitochondria.
3. Exercise Regularly
Exercise also builds the mitochondria. Exercise requires energy, which enables mitochondria to multiply to supply the extra energy. This is the main reason why exercise performance improves with training. Exercise is one of the best ways to improve mitochondrial biogenesis and function in ageing muscles as more mitochondria are linked to better health and longevity.
4. Sleep More
The human brain requires a lot of energy, and because of its high metabolic rate, your brain accumulates a lot of metabolic waste. During sleep, your brain gets rid of products that can be toxic to mitochondria. Mitochondria power every brain function. For this reason, it is crucial to avoid this accumulation of toxic waste. Poor sleep damages mitochondria, while good quality sleep helps the brain keep mitochondria healthy.
5. Maintain Low Stress Levels
Stress can alter mitochondrial structure and function through stress hormones and other stress signals sensed by mitochondria. Stress-induced mitochondrial dysfunctions can harm the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. Explore different relaxation techniques like meditation to help you maintain low stress levels to have optimal mitochondrial health.
Mitochondria powers almost every cell in your body by generating the energy it needs to survive and thrive. By supporting mitochondrial fitness and health, you support the optimal functioning of pretty much every cell and system in our body. Boosting mitochondria can help you live the long and healthy life you were meant to live.
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