If the word ‘mitochondria’ sounds vaguely familiar, congratulations: You remember something from your ninth grade biology class! But if you have no idea what mitochondria actually are, then you’re pretty much on par with the majority of the population.
It just so happens, though, that mitochondria—yes, you have tons of them in your body—is pretty darn important for our health. So important, in fact, that mitochondria are a trending topic in the science world right now.
Interest in researching mitochondria’s role in our health has skyrocketed recently because some experts believe that healthy mitochondria could be the best-kept secret for disease prevention. “[Research has shown that] at the root of most, if not all, age-related degenerative diseases lies mitochondrial dysfunction,” explains Lee Know, N.D., licensed naturopathic doctor and author of Mitochondria and the Future of Medicine. “This means that if we can focus our efforts on improving [their] health and function, we can reduce the risk of degenerative diseases and improve all aspects of our health.”
Suddenly interested in learning some cellular biology? Here’s what you need to know about your mitochondria, how they work, and what you can do to make sure yours are running (and keep on running) at full-speed.
Mitochondria are organelles (like mini internal organs) that live in many of the cells throughout our body. All organelles play a specific role in keeping a cell healthy (just like our organs help us function), and it’s one of our mitochondria’s main jobs to turn fat, sugar, and protein into ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the form of chemical energy our body uses.
“Mitochondria are responsible for producing over 90 percent of the energy that powers our cells, and since everything that happens in a cell requires energy, it’s incredibly important that these little powerhouses are healthy and fully functional,” says Know. Every cell in our metabolically active tissues—like our brain or heart muscle—contains up to a few thousand of these little cellular engines.
For this reason, mitochondria also play a pretty big role in how we feel day-to-day, says Sumit Parikh, M.D., director of the Cleveland Clinic Neurogenetics, Metabolic & Mitochondrial Disease program. For example: “We feel mostly run down and tired when we are sick with a virus or bacteria. This is partly because the mitochondria are being recruited to help fight off the infection—so they’re [then not able] to make as much energy for our cells to maintain other tasks.”
Producing energy isn’t our mitochondria’s only job, though. They also serve an important role in our body’s recovery process. Whenever we exercise, for example, we stress the body, breaking it down so that it can build back up and become stronger. Mitochondria are responsible for making sure that ‘building back up’ part of the equation goes smoothly by activating certain genes that result in cells becoming stronger, says Know. So if your mitochondria don’t function properly, you may take longer than usual to recover from a hardcore workout, experience general fatigue, and even notice that wounds heal more slowly.
When our mitochondria function at 100 percent, they also coordinate apoptosis, or ‘programmed cell death,’ the process in which our body removes defective cells before they can do any damage, says Know. However, when our mitochondria aren’t in tip-top shape, they can’t clean up these defective cells effectively, and if a tissue or organ contains enough defective cells, it can become dysfunctional over time. The potential results: serious health conditions like heart failure, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and infertility.
Unfortunately, there aren’t currently any quick, at-home mitochondrial function tests available just yet. (Researchers are working on them!) But doctors can evaluate your mitochondrial health by testing your levels of related compounds, like ATP. Thing is, they don’t usually test them until after other health consequences pop up, says Know. Why? “We all have varying degrees of mitochondrial dysfunction,” Know explains. As long as your cells are able to meet your overall energy needs, a little dysfunction isn’t a big deal. It’s when the energy you’re able to produce dips below your needs that problems occur.
How To Power Up Your Mitochondria
Even if you’re not sure about your current state of mitochondrial health, one thing is certain: What you eat (and how much) is hugely important. Mitochondria need a wide variety of nutrients to function properly, so eating a diet that contains a wide variety of colors—which indicates a variety of nutrients—will help them thrive, says Know.
Two in particular to focus on: magnesium and B vitamins—especially vitamin B3. (Magnesium is an essential part of the ATP production process while B3 works to increase levels of NAD+, another compound necessary for cellular energy production.)
You’ll also want to watch your calories. Excessive calorie intake causes your mitochondria to generate more free radicals, unstable molecules that can then damage their DNA and leave them unable to function properly. One way to avoid this: Stay away from sugar and ‘empty-calorie’ foods, says Know.
If you’re hardcore about boosting your mitochondria, you might even want to consider trying a ketogenic diet, Know says. That’s because ketones (the energy source you run on in the high-fat diet) are a ‘cleaner’ fuel source than sugar in that they actually eat up free radicals instead of produce them. Plus, “some cells become so damaged over time that they can no longer use glucose as a fuel source, and ketones offer these cells [an alternative] source of energy,” he adds.
Exercise is another key contributor to healthy mitochondrial function because it increases the energy demand put on our cells, and our cells adapt to this demand by producing more (and more efficient) mitochondria. After all, the more mitochondria you have, the less stress you put on each individual mitochondria—and the less stressed your mitochondria are, the fewer free radicals they generate and less likely they are to become damaged or dysfunctional.