Probably one of the most frequently mentioned terms in the health and performance industry, the mitochondria have fast become rockstars in their own rights.
While it's important for those conducting research and clinical trials to have an advanced understanding of the mitochondria, this post is more ideal for you if you want to get a base understanding in order to optimise your health. It's not to try and sound cool in front of your friends.
In this post we will cover the fundamentals so that you can apply practical knowledge for improved health, cognitive performance, sleep, muscle endurance, and much more.
A Simple Introduction
Mitochondria (mitochondrion, singular) are organelles within every single one of your cells, except red blood cells. Their main function is to generate energy molecules, known as adenosine triphosphate (ATP), for the cell to perform its functions.
This is why the mitochondria are often referred to as “the powerhouse of the cell”.
How do the mitochondria create energy?
The most commonly known way the mitochondria create energy is by breaking down the food we eat and converting it into ATP. This process is known as oxidative phosphorylation.
And no, we're not going to show you a clever looking picture of the oxidative phosphorylation process - you don't need to know that just yet.
The mitochondria can, however, also create energy from non-food sources, including certain frequencies of light, which we will cover later in this post.
What are some of the other functions of the mitochondria?
While their energy production capabilities are already impressive, the mitochondria play key roles in many other functions, including:
Old worn out cells in the body undergo a natural breakdown process, known as apoptosis. The mitochondria play a key role in deciding whether a cell should live or not.
Certain diseases, such as cancer, are known to be associated with abnormal apoptosis activity, showing a clear link between the mitochondria and the disease.
Shivering is not the only way our bodies help us during cold exposure. Using a process called proton leak, the mitochondria can generate heat. This is also known as non-shivering thermogenesis.
Melatonin is most commonly known as the sleep hormone. Research has suggested that in our early evolution, melatonin started out as a powerful antioxidant, and only later developed its role in sleep at a later stage.
Although the primary synthesis of melatonin happens within your pineal gland under dark conditions, your mitochondria are also able to create melatonin.
Interestingly, the concentration levels of melatonin produced by the mitochondria are not affected by the circulating levels of melatonin in your blood, indicating the multipurpose function of melatonin.
It seems that the mitochondria produce melatonin as an antioxidant, to be used to counter the free radicals associated with high levels of energy production.
Why Are Mitochondria Important?
Poorly functioning mitochondria will cause any cell to be starved of energy, lowering its capacity to perform its functions.
This fundamental mechanism is the reason why there are so many diseases which are classified as mitochondrial diseases. These include:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
Poorly functioning mitochondria are also associated with common symptoms such as:
- Low energy/mood
- Poor concentration
- Frequent illness
- Slow muscle recovery
How can you boost the mitochondrial function within your cells?
Now that you can see the importance of the mitochondria, let's get into some practical advice you can use in order to supercharger them!
Here are a few important ways you can do this:
1- Intermittent Fasting
When you take a break from eating, you allow your body to break down old mitochondria , and then form new ones through a process known as mitochondrial biogenisis.
The most commonly used intermittent protocols involve keeping your eating window within 8-12 hours per day, and only drinking water in between.
2- Red Light Therapy
Red light therapy, also known as photobiomodulation or low-level laser stimulation (LLLT), involves using the specific frequencies of light which your mitochondria can use to make energy.
These frequencies fall within the red and near-infrared spectrum, with the most activity coming from 630/660/850nm.
Red light therapy has been featured in thousands of clinical studies, and is proven to:
- Improve energy levels
- Increase sleep quality
- Speed up muscle recovery
- Decrease inflammation
- Improve skin complexion
...and much more.
One thing to be aware of though, is that not all red light therapy devices are the same.
In order to get the same benefits that you see in the scientific studies, the device needs to use the right type of light and be strong enough to actually feed your mitochondria.
3- Cold Exposure
By exposing yourself to cold in a controlled manner, you are able to stimulate the non-shivering thermogenesis process.
This leads to an increased production of the number of mitochondria within your cells.
Due to the fundamental mechanism by which the mitochondria affect almost every single one of your cells, focussing on their health is a guaranteed way to see improvements in various aspects of your own health and performance.
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