Mitochondria–One Ring to Rule Them All
Updated: Aug 23
The most recognizable quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is one you can probably recite from memory.
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.
This familiar line is mentioned several times throughout the book and is a central theme in the story. Tolkien’s “One Ring” (aka The Ring of Power) is a symbol of immense power and potential consequences, having the ability to control and manipulate the energies of Middle-earth to such an extent that it can bring everything and everyone under its dominion.
Such is the world of Hobbits, Elves, Wizards and magic rings.
FROM FANTASY TO THE WORLD OF BIOLOGY
Now imagine possessing your own Ring of Power with the capacity to control and influence your future—from being able to create and generate incredible amounts of energy, to preventing and healing diseases, to strengthening and signaling your body to live a very long, healthy lifespan.
Let me introduce you to your very own magic ring—the powerful and somewhat mysterious mitochondria. ˌmī-tə-ˈkän-drē-ə
Mitochondria are incredibly small (as in tiny, tiny) organelles that can only be observed by using an advanced electron microscope.
These little guys are typically found roaming around within the cytoplasm of every cell, which is the region just outside of the cell nucleus.
IN EVERY CELL? HOW MANY OF THESE ARE THERE IN MY BODY?
Are you sitting down? The number of mitochondria in an average human body varies depending on factors such as age, sex, and physical activity level. However, it is estimated that the total number of mitochondria in a human body can range from several hundred trillion to over a quadrillion (that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000 in case you were wondering).
The actual number of mitochondria within each individual human cell can vary depending on the type of cell and its energy demands. Some cells, such as the muscle cells of the heart, have a higher concentration of mitochondria due to their high energy requirements.
WHAT PURPOSE DO THEY SERVE?
In a word, ENERGY. Mitochondria are responsible for producing virtually all of the cells’ energy necessary to sustain human life.
This energy (in the form of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP) is generated within the mitochondria itself by absorbing the energy of food molecules (what goes in your mouth) and then converting that to ATP.
ATP is required for many fundamental cellular processes, such as muscle contraction, cell division, and protein synthesis.
STAY WITH ME HERE…IT’LL BE WORTH IT
Without ATP, cells would not be able to carry out their fundamental processes and would eventually die.
Without functional mitochondria, cells would not be able to have the energy necessary to carry out their various functions and activities— and human life would not be possible!
You might want to read that last sentence again slowly.
Because mitochondria are responsible for producing most of this
energy, they are often referred to as “the powerhouses of the cell.”
All that we are—our organs, our bones, our muscles, our blood, everything that allows us to live and breathe is completely reliant upon and ultimately subordinate to these tiny and amazing organelles (hence my “one ring to rule them all” analogy).
BUT MITOCHONDRIA CARRY A WARNING LABEL.
Just as with Tolkien’s Ring of Power, there is a very dark and dangerous side to your mitochondria as well, particularly if they are mistreated and become damaged or dysfunctional.
Changes in mitochondrial function can have far-reaching effects on the body, and can contribute to the development of various diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's disease.
In fact one of the primary hallmarks of aging itself has been designated as “mitochondrial dysfunction.” As such, understanding the mechanisms of mitochondrial function and dysfunction has become an important area of research in modern medicine and biology.
WHAT CAUSES MITOCHONDRIAL DYSFUNCTION?
One of the many “mind-blowing” features of mitochondria is that they actually contain their own DNA, which is separate from the nuclear DNA of the host cell. The origins of this odd, symbiotic living arrangement are still a subject of active research and debate.
Here’s the problem. As we age, our mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) can accumulate mutations, and the mitochondria itself can become damaged by oxidative stress caused by free radicals, which in turn can damage proteins, lipids, and our cellular DNA.
These accumulated damages can lead to decreased mitochondrial function and energy production, which can contribute to a whole host of aging-related diseases and impairments.
TIME TO CALL IN A TRILLION REINFORCEMENTS!
Were you aware that YOU have the ability to “create” trillions of new mitochondria in order to power up your cells?
The biological process employed to rally the troops is called mitochondrial biogenesis. This is a highly complex process that involves the coordination of several cellular pathways and the expression of specific genes allowing YOU to create NEW mitochondria.
GETTING IN CREATION MODE
Mitochondrial biogenesis is regulated by various environmental and physiological stimuli. What this means is that there are things you can do right now to stimulate the creation of trillions of brand new mitochondria!
Exercise: Regular exercise has been shown to stimulate the production of new mitochondria in the muscles. This is because the increased demand for energy during exercise triggers the production of new mitochondria to meet that demand. Something as simple as going for a daily walk can flip the switch.
Caloric Restriction: Consuming fewer calories has been proven to stimulate the production of new mitochondria in certain tissues. This is thought to be because the body is trying to become more energy-efficient in response to the reduced calorie intake. Intermittent fasting is a simple and very easy way to do this.
Nutritional Interventions: Certain nutrients, such as CoQ10, magnesium, and alpha-lipoic acid, are important for mitochondrial function and can help support the creation of new mitochondria. Additionally, compounds such as resveratrol and curcumin have also been shown to stimulate the production of new mitochondria.
Cold Exposure: Cold exposure, such as taking cold showers or immersing yourself in cold water, will stimulate the production of new mitochondria. This is thought to be because the cold stress activates cellular pathways that increase mitochondrial biogenesis. If you happen to live in a colder environment like I do, a brisk walk with lighter clothing will do the trick just as well.
Again, these are only a few of MANY known strategies that can easily be incorporated into your lifestyle to support the creation of brand new mitochondria and immediately boost your overall energy levels.
NOW PROTECT THOSE LITTLE POWERHOUSES!
Besides creating new mitochondria, you can also protect the ones you have and keep them strong. Here are my top 5 ways:
Eat a healthy diet: Remember that ATP is produced from food molecules. For most people, I recommend a low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) way of eating, as it has been extensively proven to boost mitochondrial function and reduce oxidative stress. (I will get into this very important topic in much more detail in other posts).
Get out in the sun: Sunlight exposure has been shown to increase the production of mitochondrial proteins and improve mitochondrial function in the brain, as well as in muscle tissue. It also stimulates the production of nitric oxide, a molecule that can improve blood flow and promote mitochondrial function. Best of all, it’s FREE.
Manage stress: Chronic stress can have a negative impact on mitochondrial function. Regular stress-management techniques like daily walks, prayer, mindful meditation or deep breathing exercises are simple and effective ways to help reduce stress levels.
Avoid environmental toxins: Environmental toxins like pesticides, air pollution, and heavy metals can damage and destroy your mitochondria. Try to minimize exposure to these toxins by eating organic foods, using natural cleaning products, and avoiding smoking and secondhand smoke.
Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep can affect mitochondrial function, so it's important to prioritize getting enough sleep each night. If you’re not getting 7-9 hours of sleep every night your powerhouses aren’t getting the time they need to recharge and repair. Make it a priority.
There is a common saying that has been passed down through so many generations that the actual origin remains unknown:
If you take care of the small things,
the big things take care of themselves.
In our hurried obsession to biohack a faster, stronger and more “selfie-approved” physique, we must never forget the little things, such as our tiny mitochondria, and what a BIG impact they are intended to have on our overall health, endurance and longevity.
If we take care of them, they will take care of us.
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