Have you ever wondered how the human body turns the food we eat into the energy that keeps us going? Believe it or not, almost every cell in your body (with the exception of red blood cells) is involved in this gigantic task. Today I’m going to explain how this process works, what can happen if it goes wrong and what you can do to make sure it doesn’t.
Contained within each of your 37 trillion cells are hundreds and thousands of ‘power plants’ – or mitochondria. These tiny factories use the carbohydrates, fats and proteins that you eat and convert them, step-by-step, into the energy your body needs to do its job.
Part of this process involves the production of free radicals whose job it is to trigger the repair and creation of new mitochondria. This is a good thing and once they have done their job they are squelched by anti-oxidants that are produced naturally within the body.
Problems arise, however, when free radicals increase to more than can be countered with anti-oxidants. This results in oxidative stress. Then mitochondria are damaged and not able to keep up with the demand for energy production. (For more on free radicals and oxidative stress, click here)
If these “power plants” break down—or stop working as well as they should—it can lead to fatigue, weakness, muscle cramps, heart palpitations, headaches, and brain fog. In fact, research indicates that conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease, mood disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer all involve a disruption in the function of mitochondria.
Mitochondria are also damaged by stress, internal inflammation, and large amounts of carbohydrates or sugar.
How are your mitochondria doing?
A regular blood test will not tell you anything about your mitochondria, but there are more specialized tests that will tell you exactly how your mitochondria are keeping up, or not.
For example, a urine panel by Genova called Organix® shows the levels of the various nutrients and substances that mitochondria need to produce the energy your body needs. It can tell us therefore, if you need to take more of a particular nutrient to make the process work more efficiently.
Blood tests can tell us about the levels of certain substances that are needed for healthy mitochondrial functioning, such as RBC magnesium, carnitine and coenzyme Q10 levels. This can give us a sense of whether your mitochondria are struggling. D-lactate and pyruvic acid levels increase in the blood when mitochondria are under-functioning and a blood test can tell us that, too.
Whether you have a test done or not, if you know that you’ve been exposed to stress or that your body is not functioning at its best, it is quite likely that your mitochondria could use some support.
13 ways to support your mitochondria and boost your energy:
Ideally, we need 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep each night, preferably between 10 pm and 7 am. If you are not getting enough sleep, start by reading my sleep suggestions, and if that does not do it, then let’s meet to determine whether we need to address your cortisol, neurotransmitters, and/or melatonin levels.
- Blood sugar balance
Decreasing the amount of sugar and/or carbohydrates you consume each time you eat will automatically bring your blood sugar to healthier levels and give relief to your mitochondria. Make sure to balance carbs with healthy proteins and fats—and feed yourself every 2 to 4 hours. Read more about how to do this in The Stress Remedy.
Best is 15 to 20 minutes, 3 to 5 times per week, which might be less than you think you need to exercise. During that time, be sure to include both aerobic and strength training to get the benefits without the stress.
- Omega 3 fats
These essential fats from fish and seeds such as flax and chia, are anti-inflammatory and provide nutrition needed for healthy cells. Just be sure to choose a product that ensures the highest quality fish oils, such as the one you can find here.
- Magnesium 100-500 mg
An important and often depleted mineral, magnesium is essential for your mitochondria to keep calcium in balance. Magnesium in most multivitamins, but you can take magnesium separately as a capsule or as a powder*. It is calming to the nervous system, relaxes muscles, and helps your mitochondria recover.
- B vitamins
B 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, folate, and 12 all play important roles in mitochondrial function. If you are deficient in any or all of these B vitamins – which is common when following a vegetarian or vegan diet, but also if you are not absorbing these nutrients well and when they are depleted by medications, such as birth control pills – then you’ll want to be sure and choose a multivitamin or B complex that contains the active forms of these B vitamins, and to find out whether you have an MTHFR mutation (read more how to do that here).
- Antioxidants from plants
Natural antioxidants such as curcumin, quercetin, resveratrol, green tea extract, sulforaphane (broccoli extract), and pterostilbene (from blueberries and grapes) are all substances from plants that have been shown (in research) to prevent mitochondrial and cell damage. You can get most of them in one product – check this one out here – and sulforaphane by itself here.
- Carnitine 500 to 3000 mg
Carnitine is a substance made of two amino acids, lysine and methionine, that is a key transporter within your cells, making it possible for mitochondria to convert fats into energy. It is available in capsule form by itself, or in combination with other nutrients, such as in this formula called Mitochondrial NRG.
- CoQ10 50-200 mg
Coenzyme Q10, which is called ubiquinol in its most active form, is involved in the final steps of the production of energy within the mitochondria. Without it, fatigue and heart issues are much more likely. This is because the mitochondria in the heart cells produce the most energy. Even low dosages can make a significant difference. Find example products here.
- Alpha Lipoic Acid 300-900 mg
As an antioxidant, alpha lipoic acid protects the mitochondria from damage and has been shown to prevent cancer, dementia, diabetes, and aging in general. It is available alone or in combination products.
- Amino acids
Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, can be taken in powder form or capsule form as a direct energy source for mitochondria. When you take amino acids, your mitochondria can skip the digestion step of the energy production process, making it easier for your body to get the support it needs.
- Nicotinamide riboside (NR) 250-1000 mg
A derivative of vitamin B3, nicotinamide is the most efficient precursor to NAD, which is the substance that transfers from one step to the next within the mitochondria. Essentially, it is the ball carrier that ultimately leads to energy production. Nicotinamide riboside is now available as a capsule called Niacel so that you can feed your mitochondria directly.
- Melatonin 5 to 20 mg
This hormone is known to be at its highest level in the body at 10 pm, it also acts as an antioxidant and has been shown to protect mitochondria from oxidative stress. It is possible to test your melatonin levels to determine whether you need more, and/or to take some daily to help create a shield for your mitochondria. You may even need to take 20 mg per day, such as in this product.
Paying attention to your mitochondria is imperative to your wellness and the good news is that some of the things you are already doing to support your health—sleep, exercise, and eating healthily—all support mitochondrial function. Meanwhile, stress in general, and stress in the form of toxins, high sugar, large meals, lack of sleep, and certain medications, bog down your mitochondria and increase your susceptibility to fatigue and anxiety, and long term health conditions like heart disease, memory loss, and cancer.
If you’d like to understand more about how these various stresses affect your health and what you can do to break the vicious cycle of not feeling well, then I invite you to check out my book, The Stress Remedy, which will walk you through a number of steps you can take to optimize your health.
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In the meantime, love your mitochondria—they are making everything possible.
16th October 2014
*Please keep in mind that any and all supplements—nutrients, herbs, enzymes, or other—should be used with caution. My recommendation is that you seek the care of a naturopathic doctor (with a doctorate degree from a federally-accredited program) and that you have a primary care physician or practitioner whom you can contact to help you with individual dosing and protocols. If you ever experience negative symptoms after taking a product, stop taking it immediately and contact your doctor right away.