Mitochondria are membrane-bound cell organelles that produce most of the body's energy - about 95% of it. We all heard about ATP (adenosine triphosphate), a molecule that gives energy to almost every function in the body. Let's imagine ATP as a phone battery. In that case, mitochondria that produce ATP inside themselves is the charger that charges this phone battery for the phone to work non-stop.
Interestingly, whenever mitochondria make ATP, they produce, as byproducts, free radicals named ROS (reactive oxygen species). Free radicals are compounds that can cause harm if their levels in our body become too high. Then, they can be linked to multiple illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. You might assume here that the more ATP we produce, the more danger we expose ourselves. Not really. Recent studies showed that people with healthier mitochondria produce less ROS, in other words, they make lots of energy with fewer damaging waste products.
What do we have by now? To feel great, perform well, live longer, we need lots of healthy mitochondria in the body. So let's focus on how to increase the level of mitochondria and maintain them healthy.
The more, the better.
The more active we are, especially at activities that get our lungs and heart pumping, the most mitochondria we likely have. Aerobic exercises such as swimming, cycling, running, rowing are crucial for mitochondria generation. They lead to an increase in myoglobin in muscle tissue. This is a protein that stores oxygen and transports it into cells so that mitochondria can use it to make more ATP molecules.
Recent studies show that aerobic exercises not only boost the generation of new mitochondria but also changes the structure and function of existing ones in ways that enhance physical stamina - your ability to sustain a physical effort for an extended period of time. Research shows that mitochondria in leg muscles of endurance-trained athletes have more inner membrane folds (called cristae) than those of people who exercise recreationally, this increases the ratio of surface to mitochondrial volume. More folds means more oxygen uptake in muscle, means more energy for higher performance.
The healthier, the more effective.
Having a lot of mitochondria is good, but we also want them to be effective. If physical activity allows us to increase the number of mitochondria, then what we eat affect how healthy mitochondria are.
"Excess of poor-quality foods and a deficit of healthy ones, the empty calories of sugars, flours, and other processed foods force mitochondria to burn through a great deal of junk — generating free radicals and inflammation as they go — before useful nutrients can be siphoned out" - Says Bruce H. Cohen, MD, a neurologist at Northeast Ohio Medical University and an expert in mitochondrial disease. Unless we eat plenty of phytonutrients, antioxidants, healthy fats, proteins, and fiber, we aren't giving our bodies the basic tools to repair the damage.
The basic tools you can start from to give proper care to your mitochondria:
- Eat 6 to 8 cups of fresh, brightly coloured vegetables and fruits daily - broccoli, bok choy, beets, carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, oranges, apples, berries, etc. They help your body produce antioxidants that neutralize free radicals.
- Dine on fiber-rich foods to help detox the poisons that can build up when mitochondria slow down. Fiber increases stool bulk and promotes movement through your digestive system. Fiber-rich foods are whole grains (such as buckwheat, oats, wild rice etc.), beans, vegetables, fruits, berries, avocados, nuts etc.
- Up your omega-3 fat intake to help build your mitochondrial membranes. Besides fish and seafood, avocados, nuts, and seeds are also rich in fatty acids.
As you can see, the density and health of mitochondria in our organs and muscles are, to a large extent, a reflection of our current level of health and fitness. So your everyday choice towards how you live, what you eat and what you do strongly affect your mitochondrial function and as a result your overall well-being, vitality and level of performance.