"What the heck are mitochondria?"
I love this client. I really do. She challenges me because she questions my recommendations, plays devils advocate and wants me to drop all the "scienc-y mumbo jumbo" and break it down for her in a way that is easy, accessible and applicable. Not because she doesn't care. Not at all. In fact, she is very interested in what is happening in her body. But she wants to learn in a way that she will retain the information and she wants to understand in a way that allows her to apply her knowledge and actually affect changes in her body.
So, dear client of mine, here is your no-mumbo-jumbo protocol to master your mitochondria.
To answer her original question, what the heck are mitochondria? I direct you to the image below:
This beautiful creation is found in almost every single cell you have in your body. MItochondria are the place inside of our cells where energy is created. When we digest our food, the process of breaking the food down ultimately leads to the production of the body's energy "currency" known as ATP. ATP is needed for every function you could possibly imagine (and all the ones that we cannot even name) from movement of our muscles to nerve conduction to cell growth and cell death and more.
ATP is essential for energy and therefore, the health of our mitochondria are essential for energy. In order to make energy, our mitochondria need two things: oxygen from the air we breathe and glucose or fat from the food we eat.
If we are getting plenty of oxygen and eating the right nutrients, then our mitochondria should be doing a beautiful job of making energy. However, every time mitochondria make ATP for us, they also produce reactive oxygen species or free radicals.
We have heard how free radicals cause aging, damage and inflammation. So why would the body make something damaging along side of making ATP?
Well, one of the main jobs of free radicals is to initiate cell death of damaged or mutated cells - a process called apoptosis. This is excellent since every day our body has to sort out damaged cells and cancerous cells and kill them off before they become a problem.
So it is not just free radicals that are a problem, it is EXCESSIVE free radicals and/or not eating enough antioxidants (like vitamins C, E, etc) that can stop free radicals from causing problems.
Eating a nutrient-rich diet also ensures we are giving our mitochondria key nutrients they need in order to function properly such as CoQ10, carnitine, magnesium, omega 3 fats, all B vitamins and alpha lipoic acid.
Ok, so, so far we know:
1. Mitochondria are in almost every cell
2. They make energy
3. They also make damaging free radicals
4. It is excessive free radicals that can cause damage
5. We must eat a nutrient rich diet to lower free radical production and to give our mitochondria the nutrients they needs to function best
Below are whole food sources of some key nutrients needed to support mitochondrial health:
CoQ10: pastured chicken, broccoli, cabbage
carnitine: grassfed beef
magnesium: leafy greens
omega 3 fats: salmon, sardines in water or olive oil
B vitamins: nutritional yeast (nonactive yeast), Jerusalem artichokes, hibiscus tea, watermelon, sunflower seeds, macadamia nuts (or butter), tahini, sesame seeds, spinach, mushrooms, beet greens, avocados,
alpha lipoic acid: broccoli, spinach, grassfed beef, organ meat
Get a variety of these foods on a weekly basis to ensure your mitochondria are getting all the nutrients they need.
There are three other things we can do to optimize our mitochondrial health:
1. Intense exercise
2. Intermittent fasting
3. Breathe correctly
Intense exercise, for the purpose of mitochondrial health, can be defined as "push yourself hard enough to get very very breathless" then allow yourself to recover and repeat that push. By challenging our body to get breathless, we are presenting it a stimulus or signal that it needs to change. Our bodies look for the path of least resistance and when we push ourselves until breathless, the body says "that was too tough, I want to adapt and change so that the next time she does that, it is easier." A main way in which the body changes in response to intense exercise is to make new mitochondria so that our energy-generating capacity increases. This will make that same intense exercise, just a bit easier the next time around.
Some great research in high intensity exercise is coming out of McMaster University in Canada. Contrary to what we once thought, it looks as if we can generate more mitochondria with only a 20 second all out push followed by a recovery. Repeat that 3 times in a row and you have completed a high intensity workout to build more mitochondria.
However, as with muscle mass, if you don't use it, you lose it. Mitochondria will "die off" if we don't give them this high intensity push on a regular basis. After 2 weeks without an intense push, your mitochondria levels basically go back to where they were before. So incorporate intense pushes into your weekly workouts.
As for the remaining two ways to build mitochondria, check out The Body Geeks podcast (scroll down to Episode 8) that I have had the pleasure of recording with my
amazing colleague Laura Sprague in which we discuss how to take a proper deep
For the ways in which intermittent fasting can boost mitochondrial health, stay tuned! This will most definitely be a future podcast/blog post.