Meet the Cell Power Plant

Mitochondria play an important role in our ability to think, move and thrive

What is the one thing that we cannot live without? Coffee in the mornings? Friends and family? Cell phones? While important, they are trivial compared to the tiny things that produce almost all the energy we need to move, think and thrive. They are called mitochondria and are known as the powerhouses of the cell.

WHAT ARE MITOCHONDRIA?

Mitochondria are essential for all aerobic life on Earth. They are thought to have come from bacteria that fused with primitive cells about 1.5 billion years ago.

In a process called metabolism, mitochondria break down fats and sugars into useable energy and heat in all mammals. In humans, they produce about 90 per cent of the energy that we need to survive. It makes sense then that mitochondria are often compared to powerhouses or furnaces. 

Mitochondria control many important cell processes, including energy production, oxidative stress (free radicals), inflammation and cell death. They exist in all cells except red blood cells and have a direct role in the function of all organs.

Because of their importance for all mammalian life, we cannot survive — or at least live normally — without them. Mitochondrial dysfunction underlies both rare and deadly genetic diseases, as well as more common chronic conditions, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and neurodegeneration (for example, Parkinson’s). Importantly, all humans have a form of progressive mitochondrial disease known as biological aging. That’s right, the mitochondria even govern the aging process.

Over time, mitochondria inevitably become damaged from the wear and tear of aging and a variety of everyday factors, such as physical inactivity, poor nutrition, smoking, poor sleep, radiation, pollution and viral infections. This mitochondrial damage affects all organ systems, especially those that rely the most on mitochondria for energy, such as the brain, heart and muscles. 

Aerobic exercise is the gold standard for building more mitochondria and improving your ability to burn food.

MITOCHONDRIA, AGING AND METABOLIC DECLINE

Age-related changes of your metabolism start earlier than you think. For example, muscle loss starts already in your 20s or 30s and can contribute significantly to metabolic decline, weakness and frailty. 

Over time, the progressive wear-and-tear of aging also damages mitochondria and impairs their ability to create energy from fats and sugar, which partly underlies a chronic inflammatory state (“inflamm-aging”), body fat gain and further muscle wasting. 

A simultaneous loss of muscle mass and gain in body fat ultimately means less calories burned and can predispose you to chronic diseases, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. Unfortunately, this is a vicious cycle that becomes progressively worse over time without intervention. 

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

Practicing the four pillars of health — exercise, stress management, sleep and nutrition — protects against age-related mitochondrial dysfunction and improves your health and longevity. Let’s take a look at each pillar:

Exercise
A minimum of 150 min/week of cardio and two days/week of weight training is recommended for overall health. Aerobic exercise is the gold standard for building more mitochondria and improving your ability to burn food. This type of training also makes you live longer mainly because it enhances your cardiovascular and mitochondrial function. For optimal prevention of age-related muscle loss, engage in whole-body strength training at least two days per week. 

Stress management and sleep
Research is clear that mindful meditation reduces stress and anxiety levels. Optimal sleep duration for health is between seven and eight hours per night, while both longer and shorter sleep are associated with lower life expectancy. 

Healthy nutrition 
Eating according to the food guide and filling nutritional gaps with supplements is your best bet for boosting health and longevity. For your muscles, your diet should contain adequate but not excessive calories, high-quality proteins, vitamins (notably vitamin D), and minerals (like calcium). Your choice of dietary proteins should be complete, meaning that they contain all the building blocks necessary to maintain your muscle integrity. Generally, avoid saturated fats and refined sugars and consume foods that are rich in antioxidants and omega-3s to rejuvenate your mitochondria and protect against cell stress and inflammation.

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