Mitochondrial health sits right at the foundation of good health overall and in recent years our understanding of just how crucial and incredible these tiny organelles are has expanded significantly. In this article we take a closer look at what mitochondria are, what they do and 5 simple steps you can take to protect them.

What are mitochondria?
The strange intercellular structures that we now recognise as mitochondria were once a completely separate life form – bacterium with their own genome that somehow became absorbed into the human cell during our evolution. Fast forward many years and they are a crucial cellular organelle. First spotted in the 1840s, it wasn’t until 1898 that the term mitochondria was coined by Carl Benda. Mitochondria are the membrane-bound cell organelles found in large numbers in most of our cells whose primary function is to generate energy in the form of adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP). In 1957, Philip Seikevitz described mitochondria as the ‘powerhouse of the cell’ - a label which has remained firmly affixed for many years.

More recently however, a growing number of studies have pointed to the fact that as well as their crucial role in energy production, mitochondria are involved in a wide range of other vital cellular activities too. And in line with these more recent findings, the immense value of supporting mitochondrial health has been increasingly recognised too. World-renowned naturopathic physician, Dr Joseph Pizzorno has said, “the better a species does protecting its mitochondria, the longer a species lives.” A view also echoed by naturopathic physician Dr Kara Fitzgerald who has said, “mitochondria are the heart and soul of the body. Obviously the heart and soul need to be protected.” And naturopath and mitochondrial health expert Gillian Crowther has described mitochondria as “the ultimate orchestrators of our cellular health”.

So what do mitochondria do?
Mitochondria are tiny organelles that sit within our cells, and we now know they are even more than ‘powerhouses’; they are the ‘ultimate orchestrators of our cellular health’. Mitochondria perform multiple vital cellular functions that are crucial to health overall, some of which include:

✔ Energy production
✔ Steroid hormone biosynthesis
✔ Control insulin secretion (in some cells)
✔ Calcium homeostasis
✔ Heme synthesis
✔ Regulation of innate immunity
✔ Stem cell regulation
✔ Programmed cell death

Cells contain anything from hundreds to thousands of mitochondria and a healthy person at rest produces their own body weight in ATP every day! Mitochondrial dysfunction however is surprisingly common and is now considered to be associated with early ageing and many chronic diseases including chronic fatigue syndrome, dementia, neuro-generative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease, cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety, migraine headaches, diabetes, some forms of cancer and many more. The brain uses around 70% of ATP which helps to explain the significant links between neurodegeneration and mitochondrial dysfunction. Mitochondrial dysfunction is also considered to be an important determinant of the physical impairment which often occurs during and after critical illness. Needless to say, protecting mitochondrial health is essential for health overall. And thankfully, there’s lots you can do. Here’s 5 simple suggestions to get you started.

Here’s 5 Ways to Protect your Mitochondrial Health

1. Avoid Toxins
It’s no coincidence that this one tops the list. Sadly, we are frequently surrounded by a sea of toxins such as heavy metals, PCBs, phthalates, air pollution, herbicides, pesticides and more. Mitochondria are especially susceptible to harm from environmental toxins and taking steps to reduce overall toxic load is absolutely key for protecting mitochondrial health. Many commonly prescribed prescription drugs, recreational drugs and alcohol can be damaging to mitochondria too. In addition, electromagnetic field (EMF) exposure is another significant concern for mitochondrial heath. Find out more here on how to reduce your overall toxic load.

2. Support Glutathione
Mitochondria are also highly susceptible to oxidative damage. Glutathione is often termed ‘the master antioxidant’ and supporting robust levels of this vital compound is an important part of mitochondrial protection. In fact, Dr Kara Fitzgerald likens glutathione to the ‘knight in shining armour’ when it comes to looking after the mitochondria. Your body makes glutathione from amino acids cysteine, glycine and glutamic acid. It’s important therefore to include protein-rich foods in the diet. Clean, grass-fed whey protein may be helpful for supplying the ingredients for glutathione production. N-Acetyl-Cysteine can be used as a supplement to supply the body with cysteine which is often rate-limiting for glutathione production. Selenium is a key mineral for glutathione production and alpha lipoic acid regenerates and increases glutathione in the body. You can also take glutathione in supplement form. Read more on glutathione here. Or for a fascinating deeper dive on glutathione, listen to Jo Gamble’s in-depth webinar here

3. Increase BDNF
Brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) plays an important role in neuronal survival and growth and may also help to improve the efficiency of mitochondria, assist in making new mitochondria and help to protect mitochondria against oxidative damage. Regular exercise, caloric restriction (think intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating) and cognitive stimulation may all help to increase BDNF.

4. Supply Optimal Nutrition
In order for mitochondria to function optimally, fulfil their wide-ranging cellular functions and keep up with intense energy demands, they themselves must be optimally supported with the nutrients they need to thrive. Some key mitochondrial support nutrients include magnesium, manganese, B vitamins and iron and it is vital that these are consistently supplied by a nutrient-dense diet. A high quality multivitamin and mineral supplement may help to support optimal daily intake.

5. Consider Citicoline, Vitamin E, CoQ10 and Resveratrol
Citicoline is a naturally occurring nutrient which is the precursor to cardiolipin - an important phospholipid which ‘glues’ the electron transport chain (ETC) (the main source of ATP production in the inner mitochondrial membrane) together. Early research shows that vitamin E (mixed tocopherols) may help to protect mitochondria from oxidative stress. Fast becoming known as a wonder compound, resveratrol shows great promise for mitochondrial protection too by increasing ATP production and protecting from oxidative damage. Resveratrol is found in rich supply in grapes, wine, grape juice, blueberries, cocoa and peanuts. CoQ10 is a fat-soluble, vitamin-like substance that has long been known as an energy support nutrient – and for good reason - CoQ10 carries the high energy electrons through the ETC and is an important intra-mitochondrial antioxidant too. Of particular concern for mitochondrial health is the known depletion of CoQ10 by commonly prescribed statin drugs. Read more on this here.

Protect and nurture the cellular health orchestrators for good
Supporting mitochondrial health is one of the key foundations of good health overall. From the powerhouse to the orchestrators of cellular health these are hard-working organelles that are without doubt worth carefully nurturing and protecting for good. The great news is there’s lots you can do, and these 5 simple suggestions are a great place to start.