What Are Mitochondria and Why Are They Important?

Mitochondria could be the key to renewed energy.
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Mitochondria keep your metabolism humming. Here's how to keep them healthy.

Mitochondria keep your metabolism humming. Here's how to keep them healthy.

Q: What are “mitochondria”? I’ve never heard this term before, and now I’m starting to hear it everywhere!

The mitochondria are microscopic structures inside your cells that have an outsize effect on every aspect of your health. Almost every cell in the human body has between one and tens of thousands of them. (The heart muscle – which consumes a ton of energy and works 24/7 – has about 5,000 mitochondria per cell.) The “mighty mitochondria” are
the cellular power plants that keep your metabolism humming. They’re so important that nature has given them their very own DNA, different from that of their host (you).

These little self-contained mini-factories live inside the cells and are responsible for creating adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the Bitcoin of cellular energy for the human body. Your body uses ATP for everything from blinking to playing Guitar Hero. The mitochondria are also responsible for burning fat, detoxification and fighting oxygen-based free radicals. It’s quite a résumé!

So if the mitochondria aren’t functioning at top level, virtually every system in the body is
affected. You may feel it as brain fog, fatigue or a tendency to get sick more often, but mitochondrial dysfunction is a component of all chronic diseases, including neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, diabetes, autoimmune, mood and psychiatric diseases. And the research on this is voluminous.

So what does it take to keep your mitochondria healthy? Terry Wahls, MD, the physician who mostly recovered from crippling MS by using a mitochondria-friendly diet that she is now testing in clinical trials, suggests starting with these steps:

1. Stop exposing your mitochondria to toxins. A good start: Avoid anything on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of most- contaminated fruits and vegetables.

2. Dump the sugar and white flour–based products, which, according to Wahls, “contribute to mitochondrial starvation.”

3. Eat more vegetables, berries and high-quality protein (including grass-fed beef and organ meat) as well as seaweed. Dr. Wahl’s personal regimen, which she talks about in her TEDx lecture, “Minding Your Mitochondria,” includes three cups of green leaves, three cups of sulfur-rich vegetables and three cups of colorful produce, or enough to cover three dinner plates each day.

Interestingly, everything that contributes to good health also contributes to mitochondrial health: exercise, clean eating, increasing nutrients like omega-3s and de-stressing, restful sleep. If you’re already doing those things, you’re probably keeping your mitochondria very happy. If you’re not, start now.