Happy cells, happy selves.
Albert Schweitzer, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning physician and philosopher, supposedly said that “Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.” A bad memory may come in handy for forgetting past disappointments and maintaining a healthy optimism, but nothing affects our moment-by-moment contentment so much as the conditions of our bodies. A common cold is as gloom-inducing as it is achy and uncomfortable. Interestingly, Schweitzer also famously said that “Every patient carries her or his own doctor inside.” He couldn’t have been more right about the way our bodies are designed to heal themselves and how they work to keep us operating in peak condition at even the most minuscule level. Arguably nobody works harder to keep us healthy (and thus happy) like our mitochondria.
Mitochondria are the tiny organelles found inside nearly every one of our cells, and they are the engines that keep our bodies running. Mitochondria perform many functions for the human body, but their primary duty is generating energy from the food we eat. The more scientists study the role of mitochondria in our overall health, the more they discover that happy mitochondria make for happy and healthy people. Because like much of life, it’s the little things that matter, and when it comes to overall health, those little things are our mitochondria.
Bacterial beginningsA little word play
The word “mitochondria” derives from the Greek terms “mitos” and “khondrion.” They mean “thread” and “little granule” and together refer to the shape of the organelle as grain-like.
In one aspect, mitochondria are technically alien organisms inside our bodies. Mitochondria possess their own DNA (called mtDNA), giving them an independent genome. They operate much like bacteria, but the kind of bacteria working in harmony with our cells in a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship.
Talk about a smart merger
Symbiogenesis is the theory of how an “alien” organism like mitochondria came to be a crucial part of what keeps us humans, human. 1.5 million years ago mitochondria were likely once single-celled bacteria working on their own who evolved by merging with other bacteria to create the first eukaryotic cells. Eukaryotic cells (which are cells with a nucleus and membrane-bound organelles) are what make plants and animals the complex organisms we are.
“I Heart Mom” tattooed in your cells
Mitochondrial DNA is only passed down from mother to child and is why tracking maternal heritage is slightly easier to track than paternal, especially for women who don’t carry the Y chromosome needed for paternal lineage. In fact, modern ancestry testing companies use mitochondrial DNA in addition to chromosomes in DNA to help track ancestry.
“Mitochondrial DNA is only passed down from mother to child.”What’s the point?
There are several cellular processes that take place within mitochondria but their most essential job is to convert the chemical energy found in food and liquids consumed by organisms into usable energy for the body. This process is called oxidative phosphorylation and it generates an estimated 90% of the energy our cells and bodies need to be at their best.
Showing off for our cells
Mitochondria’s biggest job for our bodies is via oxidative phosphorylation where a series of chemical reactions use a coenzyme called NAD (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) to extract energy from food. Once loaded up with energy, NAD reacts with proteins in the inner membrane to drive the production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), and ATP is the rockstar energy that powers our bodies.
How your mitochondria affect your day to dayKeeping neurons firing
Our mitochondria keep our neurons firing, our muscles flexing, our hearts beating. In short, they keep us alive. Even if you don’t feel it, these microscopic powerhouses are constantly churning out cellular energy we need to function at the most basic level.
Pumping up energy levels
What you eat can affect how you generate energy. Mitochondria metabolize the foods we eat, breaking down sugars and fats to make energy. Cells have sneaky ways of using sugar to rapidly produce small amounts of energy without the need for mitochondria at all. But for a big energy payoff, mitochondria are the way to go. They can use both sugars and fats to generate more energy, which makes the process a lot more efficient.
Keeping blood sugar levels in check
Your diet can have other surprising effects on mitochondria. For example, scientists discovered that mitochondria in specific brain neurons of mice change size and shape after a high sugar meal. While we don’t fully understand what this change means, we do know it helps neurons regulate blood sugar levels within a healthy range.
Using NAD to boost cellular energy
The molecule NAD fuels mitochondria by allowing them to produce ATP and to perform their various life-sustaining duties. NAD declines in our bodies with age. This is why scientists are hard at work studying ways to increase NAD in order to support healthy mitochondrial function and overall health as we age.
Helping repair all that mitochondrial damageExercise more
When we are less active (i.e., use less energy), our cells figure we need less energy to get through our day to day, so mitochondria numbers drop. This leads to lower energy creation. One way to signal to the body that more ATP is needed is to start demanding more power of your cells through exercise. This can then trigger mitochondrial biogenesis, the process of creating mitochondria.
Eat for two
Our mitochondria certainly didn’t anticipate the considerable shift in eating habits of their hosts (us) when they decided to hang out in our bodies all those years ago. One of the byproducts of the mitochondrial energy production process is free radicals. These highly charged molecules react with our tissues, and in moderation, help us fight infection. In excess, they damage cellular tissue and cause chaos (otherwise known as oxidative stress). All the processed junk food in the average person’s diet contributes to more free radical production than a healthy cell should have. Mitochondria prefer a diet rich in antioxidants (fruits and veggies) and low in high glycemic foods (refined carbohydrates and sugars).
Junk food isn’t the only cause of oxidative stress. The daily stresses we often face at work or at home influence hormone levels circulating in our blood. These hormones, including adrenaline, can put our mitochondria into overdrive and produce free radicals. Some studies even show psychological stress in animals is correlated with mitochondrial dysfunction. Next time you can feel yourself losing it, find a healthy coping mechanism of your choice and remember your mitochondria are counting on you to help them keep calm.
Easy on the antibiotics
Some studies show antibiotics can mess with the mitochondria. That’s because antibiotics are designed to stop specific parts of a bacterial cell from working. In the eyes of an antibiotic, our mitochondria look a lot like bacteria, which can lead to some unintended consequences.
Pamper them with NAD
As mentioned before, NAD is an essential coenzyme helping mitochondria produce energy. A healthy mitochondrion is one that has plenty of NAD helping it out. Unfortunately, NAD is a naturally limited resource in our bodies. We can help our bodies produce more NAD by supplying them with the nutritional elements that help produce NAD, such as the B3 vitamin NR (nicotinamide riboside).
Your mitochondria work hard each day to keep you powered up and healthy. But they depend on us to make wise daily choices to help them do their jobs. Considering and acting on behalf of your mitochondrial health results in far-reaching and long-lasting benefits, some of which scientists are still uncovering.