Suddenly, it seems that mitochondria are everywhere, with new studies showing that caring for our mitochondria will lead to improved health and one study in Cell Death and Disease even pointing to evidence that healthy mitochondria can reverse the aging process.
But while mitochondria may be enjoying a novel 15 minutes of fame, the importance of these cellular powerhouses is nothing new. In fact, as the organelles that create cellular energy, mitochondria are some of the most essential components of the human body.
What Are Mitochondria?
If you remember your days in freshman biology, you might recall that mitochondria are the "powerhouses" of your cells. The analogy is apt; the role of mitochondria is to transform the food we eat into cellular energy. In fact, mitochondria produce about 90 percent of the energy that our cells need to survive.
But mitochondria don't stop at making energy; they're also essential in triggering cell death, an essential function that, when hindered, can lead to tumor growth and cancer.
And these are not the only health problems brought about by dysfunctional mitochondria. As David Asprey, founder of Bulletproof, explains, mitochondrial dysfunction "appears to be at the heart of most illness and chronic disease."
“You can get mitochondrial dysfunction if you don’t have enough mitochondria, if the ones you have aren’t working well or if you don’t produce them consistently,” he explains. “Disturbingly, research suggests half of people under the age of 40 have early onset mitochondrial dysfunction.”
Why Are We Only Hearing About Mitochondria Now?
Mitochondria haven’t suddenly gained more importance in our bodies; rather, our understanding of their essential role in a great variety of disease processes has recently come to light.
“Mitochondria have always been important, but until recently there has not been much thought in medicine about doing anything to improve their function,” explains Jason Way, N.D.
“The development of chronic health issues and disease has typically been blamed on faulty genetics and bad luck,” says Dr. Robert Zembroski, specialist in functional medicine, clinical nutritionist, and author of REBUILD. “This antiquated thought process is now being proven false.”
Poorly functioning mitochondria have been linked to issues like fatigue, excess fat, and declining cognition, not to mention Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), atherosclerosis, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and mood disorders.
For Way, this is a rapidly sliding scale from simpler problems to more serious ones, noting that as mitochondria degrade in function and ability, we might first experience a sort of brain fog or difficulty thinking.
“Across the body, the muscles will have less energy," he explains. "As mitochondria continue to degrade, there is a progression from these general and more vague symptoms to actual disease states like diabetes, heart disease, and cancers, as the cellular metabolism shifts to compensate for the mitochondrial short-comings.”
5 Steps to Take Care of Your Mitochondria
Taking care of your mitochondria is essential for staving off these health problems, and it's easier than you might think. To ensure your cellular powerhouses remain as powerful as possible, our experts suggest five basic steps.
1. Eat An Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Inflammatory foods stress and overwork your mitochondria, so cutting them out is one key way to make sure that your mitochondria remain healthy and strong.
"The chief reason for mitochondrial burnout is the consumption of processed, empty-calorie foods," explains Zembroski. "These unhealthful foods cause the mitochondria to produce excessive free radicals and the immune system to produce inflammation which, in turn, damages mitochondrial function."
To ensure your mitochondria are living in their ideal environment – both to continue to be healthy and to repair themselves when they're damaged – our experts suggest eating a mostly plant-based diet rich in phytonutrients and antioxidants, supplemented with small quantities of grass-fed or wild-caught animal protein sources and as few processed foods as possible, such as refined sugars, gluten, dairy, and hydrogenated oils and fats.
For many of our experts, this anti-inflammatory diet goes hand-in-hand with a low-carb ketogenic diet.
“Mitochondria love using ketones as fuel, and if you follow a high fat, low carb diet correctly, you will enter a fat-burning, ketone-generating state,” explains Asprey.
Naomi Whittel, author of the New York Times bestseller, Glow15, recommends practicing intermittent metabolic switching.
This, she explains, "represents the transition from utilization of carbohydrates and glucose to fatty acids and ketones as the major fuel source" and can be achieved by pairing regular intermittent fasting with regular exercise.
Moving your body is a great way to ensure your mitochondria are healthy and strong.
“Through exercise and movement we can actually trigger what is called mitochondrial biogenesis - which is a fancy way to say the production of more mitochondria,” explains Way.
“The only major and effective way to do this is to demand more energy from your muscle cells, which then triggers mitochondria to divide. This means more young and healthy mitochondria are being produced, which are more likely to function better and increase our 'bank account' of energy.”
Try to find ways to integrate movement in your daily life, such as walking, playing outside with children or pets, or climbing stairs, in addition to your favorite spinning class, pilates workout, or hiking routine.
3. Get Enough High-Quality Sleep
Sleeping is one of the best ways to stave off mitochondrial dysfunction; in fact, one 2015 twin study showed that getting less than seven hours of sleep a night can lead to a substantial decrease in mitochondria.
Go to bed at the same time every night, and sleep for at least seven hours in a completely dark room in order to get as much good sleep as possible.
4. Avoid Toxins
Toxins like heavy metals, solvents, and pesticides are some of the main culprits that disrupt cellular and mitochondrial function. One 2017 study showed that pesticide exposure could contribute to the pathogenesis of Parkinson's disease due to the ways in which pesticides induce morphological changes in mitochondria.
To avoid allowing your mitochondria to come into contact with toxins, choose only the cleanest foods, cosmetics, and household cleaning supplies, opting for organic whenever possible.
5. Stay Stress-Free
Stress can weigh heavily on your mitochondria. One recent research review found that acute and chronic stressors had adverse effects on mitochondrial function, particularly in the brain.
Consider adding meditation, forest bathing, or another relaxing protocol to your daily routine in order to reduce your overall stress – and its adverse effect on your mitochondria.