One treads on shaky ground when trying to make the complex simple because simplification leaves out details. For that reason experts need to give those of us who attempt simplification a little latitude as we try to explain mitochondria to the general public.
Everyone with a keen interest in health has heard about the mitochondria. Yet most folks can’t explain what they are, where they’re located, their function, or how they impact health. So what are mitochondria?
A cell is the smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Its four primary parts are: membrane, cytoplasm, organelle, and nucleus.
The membrane is mostly proteins and fatty acids which include the Omega-6 and Omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs). It protects the cell and is the cell’s gatekeeper for inputs required by the cell.
The greatest volume of a cell is cytoplasm (a jellylike material) that’s inside the cell membrane.
“Floating” within the cytoplasm are “organelle” which perform various functions for maintaining the cell. They are:
● Endoplasmic Reticulum carry materials throughout the cell
● Ribosomes produce protein
● Golgi bodies temporarily store protein
● Lysosomes contain strong digestive enzymes which can breakdown worn out organelles or food
● Mitochondria provide power to the cell
● Vacuoles store materials such as food, water, sugar, minerals, and waste products
● Cilia and flagella move substances over cell surfaces in multi-celled organisms
In advanced life forms, in the center of the cell is the nucleus. The nucleus contains genetic information in the form of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) on special strands called chromosomes making it the control center of the cell for cell metabolism and reproduction.
Mitochondria are typically round to oval in shape. Their primary function is to convert food into large quantities of energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a complex organic chemical. ATP provides energy to power processes in living cells such as muscle contraction, nerve impulse propagation, and chemical synthesis. It’s not stored. It’s continuously being used (broken down) and then other processes regenerate it. The human body recycles its own body weight equivalent in ATP each day.
The number of mitochondria in cells ranges from none in red blood cells to anywhere from 1,000 to 2,500 in others. The number of mitochondria depends on the cell’s function and needs. Hard working cells need more mitochondria than other cells. In addition to producing energy, mitochondria store calcium for cell signaling activities, generate heat, and mediate cell growth and death.
On average there are about 250 grams of ATP in a body’s cells at one time which represents about 4.25 watts. There is slightly more than the 3.75 watts in an AA battery. Healthy people produce 1,200 watts a day and the brain uses 70% of the ATP. That’s why we can say there is a powerful tie between mitochondrial dysfunction and neurodegeneration which includes such diseases as:
● Multiple Sclerosis
● Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
● Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and Other Dementias
● Parkinson’s Disease (PD) and PD-Related Disorders
● Prion Disease
● Motor Neurone Diseases (MND)
● Huntington’s Disease (HD)
● Spinocerebellar Ataxia (SCA)
● Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA)
Over the years scientists have established that many chronic diseases are caused by or aggravated by mitochondrial dysfunction. So it’s important to understand that the mitochondria are very susceptible to nutritional deficiencies, environmental toxins, and oxidative damage.
In a study titled Oxidative Stress, Mitochondrial Damage and Neurodegenerative Diseases Chunyan Guo explained it this way: “Mitochondria are the only organelles in cells, besides the nucleus, that contain their own DNA (called mitochondrial DNA) and their own machinery for synthesizing ribonucleic acid (RNA) and proteins. Mitochondrial DNA makes up approximately 1% of total cellular DNA and is thought to be particularly susceptible to reactive oxygen species (ROS) attack associated with oxidative stress. The persistence of mitochondrial DNA damage ultimately leads to mutations in the mitochondrial genome and gives rise to further mitochondrial dysfunction, which induces and aggravates the diseases.”
Naturally everyone understands that high doses of toxins are dangerous. But few realize that even continuous low levels of toxins can alter the mitochondrial DNA and cause debilitating diseases. Prescription and recreational drugs, smoking, alcohol, radon, some plastics, heavy metals, detergents, some cosmetics, mycotoxins, and pesticides both manmade, organic, and natural are just the tip of the iceberg.
Probably the biggest impact on mitochondrial function is nutrition. High glycemic foods cause internal fungi to produce mycotoxins. Many foods host fungi and mycotoxins. An imbalance of the Omega-6 and Omega-3 EFAs creates an inflammatory condition in the body and also disrupts the function of cell membranes. Nutritional deficiencies deprive the body of the necessary nutrients that protect, build, and fuel it properly.
Joseph Pizzorno ND is a practitioner of science-based natural/integrative medicine. In his editorial letter, Mitochondria—Fundamental to Life and Health, he listed his top mitochondrial supportive nutrients. Starting at the top are “CoQ10, Alpha-Lipoic Acid plus Acetyl-L-Carnitine, Resveratrol, N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC), and Vitamin E.” Some of the best food sources for all five include meats, especially organ meats, and green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach.
In September 2014 Dale E. Bredesen, MD released a paper titled Reversal of Cognitive Decline: a Novel Therapeutic Program. His success in treating Alzheimer's disease was a broad-based nutritional approach consisting of many steps that included these:
● Optimize Mitochondria Function
● Lower the Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio
● Optimize Antioxidants
● Eat Anti-Inflammatory Foods
● Eat Low Glycemic Foods
● Reduce Stress
● Get Adequate Sleep
Terry Wahls, M.D was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2002. She cured herself by focusing on foods that improve mitochondrial function. Her TedxIowa Talk, Minding Your Mitochondria is legendary.
Nutrition remains top dog in protecting your mitochondria. Of course we must also include exercise, sleep, the avoidance of drugs of all kinds, and stress control. But food is big. When one understands the importance of protecting and feeding the mitochondria it’s easy to understand why one must focus on foods that are nutrient dense and diverse, low glycemic, with 1:1 EFA balances. The best foods for this are grass-fed meats, Omega-3 meats, wild-caught seafood, vegetables (especially dark green leafy), and some low glycemic fruit.
To your health.
Ted Slanker has been reporting on the fundamentals of nutritional research in publications, television and radio appearances, and at conferences since 1999. He condenses complex studies into the basics required for health and well-being. His eBook, The Real Diet of Man, is available online.
Don't miss these links for additional reading:
Mitochondria—Fundamental to Life and Health by Joseph Pizzorno
Reversal of Cognitive Decline: A Novel Therapeutic Program by Dr. Dale E. Bredesen
I Cured Myself of Multiple Sclerosis by Terry Wahls, M.D
Cell Structure and Function by Daniel Nelson
Mitochondrion Biology by Kara Rogers from Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
Mycotoxins and Your Brain: How Invisible Fungus Can Cause Brain Fog and More by Jill Carnahan, MD
What is Mitochondrial Disease? from the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation
Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Mitochondrial Functions by Surendra S. Katyare, et.al.
Role of Mitochondria in Oxidative Stress and Ageing by Giorgio Lenaz
Oxidative Stress, Mitochondrial Damage and Neurodegenerative Diseases by Chunyan Guo, et al.
Reactive Oxygen Species from Wikipedia