Mitochondria have received increasing attention in recent years, as they have a big impact on one’s quality of life and rate of aging. Protecting mitochondria can slow aging, prevent chronic diseases, and even fight cancer.
Mitochondria Are the Power Plants of the Cell
Mitochondria are organelles in cells. They are very small, typically between 0.75 and 3 square microns in cross section, and cannot be seen under a microscope unless stained with a dye that can permeate cells.
The number of mitochondria in each cell varies, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand. Cells with higher energy demands, such as liver cells and cardiac muscle cells, tend to have more mitochondria.
Aptly called the cell’s “power plants” and “energy factories,” mitochondria create adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the body’s fuel, acting as the energy currency of every cell. Mitochondria use oxygen to further process glucose and fatty acids from food, generating ATP, which powers metabolic processes. The organelles produce 90 percent of the energy the body needs to function.
It’s imperative that mitochondria function stably, because our bodies cannot store ATP. At any given moment, a person has about 250 grams of ATP in their cells, which equates to 4.25 watts, or the energy stored in a single AA battery, and a healthy person will generate up to 1,200 watts of energy per day.
Mitochondria also control the life cycle of cells. As cells decline in function, they enter a phase of destruction and clearance, also known as apoptosis. This process can also be used to recycle cellular elements and is essential to the ongoing repair and recycle aspect of our cellular cycle. Mitochondria determine which cells need to undergo apoptosis; in those cells, the mitochondria release a substance that activates the enzymes responsible for the process, causing the cell to dissolve into components that can then be recycled or expelled.
This entire process requires sufficient ATP; if these energy needs aren’t met and the apoptosis mechanism fails, cancer cells can multiply and grow indefinitely.
Mitochondria also maintain the stability of calcium in the body and generate heat.
Mitochondria Are Susceptible to Damage
Mitochondria are fragile. Their function can be affected by factors such as viral infection, inflammation, certain nutrient deficiencies, chemical toxins, heavy metals, and radiation.
They are also susceptible to oxidative damage from within—that is, damage caused by free radicals, which are a byproduct of mitochondrial metabolic processes. For example, mitochondria produce more energy when we eat, and more free radicals are generated as a result.
All of these factors will damage mitochondria or interfere with their ability to self-repair. When the mitochondria sense these threats, they will shut down the energy factories and alert the cell nucleus of the danger. At this point, mitochondrial function shifts from energy production to cellular defense.
Dr. Michael Chang, founder and attending physician of the Healed and Whole Clinic in California and author of the book “Mitochondrial Dysfunction: A Functional Medicine Approach to Diagnosis and Treatment,” emphasized in an interview with The Epoch Times that the two functions of mitochondria—producing energy and regulating cell death—are mutually exclusive, and they can perform only one of the two functions. If the energy-generating mechanism in mitochondria changes or malfunctions, it spells trouble.
Cells with malfunctioning mitochondria will become starved of energy. The symptoms that people experience can vary greatly depending on the cell type, and range from mild fatigue, sleep disturbances, decreased stamina, mood swings, and muscle and joint pain, to severe fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, depression, and heart and respiratory problems. Age-related degenerative conditions, such as hearing and vision loss and skin wrinkles, are also linked to mitochondria. Some other common diseases involving mitochondrial dysfunction are diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and infertility.
According to Chang’s estimation, about 50 percent of his patients have mitochondrial dysfunction, and the symptoms are diverse. The first is often fatigue, which might be followed by hormonal imbalance, which occurs because cells lack the energy to function properly. Many people also develop brain fog, because the brain needs a lot of energy to function well. Some people also show symptoms of cardiac dysfunction, such as heart failure.
Ways to Prevent Mitochondrial Dysfunction
1. Avoid Factors That Damage Mitochondria
This is the first thing to keep an eye on if you want to keep your mitochondria healthy. Avoid:
- Toxic metals
- Persistent organic pollutants
- Some medications, such as paracetamol, antibiotics, NSAIDs, and statins
Stress and negative emotions can also affect the health of mitochondria, and they should be dealt with promptly.
2. Take Supplements That Mitochondria Need
Coenzyme Q10 is a key cofactor required for the functioning of mitochondria and an important component of cellular respiration. It is also a powerful antioxidant that affects cell signaling, metabolism, and energy transport. Many clinical trials have proven that coenzyme Q10 promotes energy production and reduces fatigue.
In a Spanish study, patients with fibromyalgia were randomly divided into two groups, one of which took 300 milligrams of coenzyme Q10 per day for 40 days. Compared with the placebo group, the coenzyme Q10 group experienced a reduction in fibromyalgia symptoms, with a 52 percent reduction in pain, 47 percent in fatigue, and 44 percent in morning tiredness.
A meta-analysis published in August 2022 showed that taking coenzyme Q10 alone, rather than in combination with other supplements, could significantly reduce fatigue.
3. Routinely Adopt a Ketogenic Diet
Ketogenic diets consist of getting calories from fat rather than carbohydrates. The diet switches the mitochondria from burning glucose to burning ketone bodies, which produces fewer toxic substances in the form of free radicals.
Ketone bodies are a cleaner fuel for mitochondria. Furthermore, cancer cells cannot metabolize ketone bodies. Therefore, the ketogenic diet may be used to cut off the rations of cancer cells so that cancer can be reversed.
4. Practice Intermittent Fasting
Thomas N. Seyfried, a well-known scholar in cancer research and a professor of biology at Boston College, told The Epoch Times that cancer is not a genetic disease, but a metabolic disease; it’s the result of cellular metabolism disorder.
The mitochondrial metabolism of cancer cells is different from the efficient aerobic respiration used by normal cells. Cancer cells power themselves with fermentation, meaning that they obtain energy through an oxygen-free process such as by decomposing glucose and glutamine. This means they produce much less ATP.
Chang mentioned in his book that diabetes can be reclassified as a metabolic disorder rather than an endocrine disease. This is because the root of the problem is not insulin resistance, but mitochondrial dysfunction. When mitochondria fail to function properly, the rate of fat oxidation and energy production will drop, resulting in fat accumulation in our muscles and liver. These fats are converted to lipid peroxides that are toxic to cells and thus further damage the mitochondria. Decreased mitochondrial function in beta cells also slows insulin secretion, leading to impaired glucose tolerance, hyperglycemia, and eventually Type 2 diabetes.
Intermittent fasting is good for mitochondria because if one is constantly eating, the cell organs have to keep creating and burning fuel. Chang described it as like leaving the car engine running all the time and producing a lot of exhaust even though you are not traveling. Mitochondria build up damaging free radicals when they are constantly working. During fasting, blood doesn’t rush to the digestive tract to aid digestion; the gut can rest, and its cells have a chance to repair themselves. In addition, fasting can stimulate cells and mitochondria to start autophagy—essentially cleaning—and form new mitochondria.
In addition, Chang suggested that when we do eat, we should choose unprocessed, natural, and organic foods, and that we should relax and eat slowly with gratitude at mealtimes. Practicing these habits can reduce internal stress, protect mitochondria, and help digestion.
5. High-Intensity Interval Training Helps Mitochondria
Chang said that high-intensity interval training is more beneficial to mitochondria than low- and medium-intensity exercise.
Exercises like a long jog on a treadmill can have specific benefits for the heart and cardiovascular system but are not necessarily ideal for the mitochondria. Chang explained that this may elevate stress hormones and also exhaust the mitochondria due to prolonged work.
Another helpful practice is getting short bursts of high and low temperatures, such as in saunas and cold baths, which can stimulate mitochondria and boost their function.