Mitochondria – Our Energy Powerhouse

In today’s post, we will look at our cell’s mitochondria. What are they, how do they help us, and what affects their longevity?

Mitochondrial origination dates back to when bacteria were the only life form on Earth3d rendering of a Mitochondrium - microbiology illustration. The Earth’s atmosphere underwent a transformation from an anaerobic environment (without oxygen) to an aerobic environment (with oxygen). Mitochondrial bacteria were able to thrive in this oxygen rich environment because they developed a chemical process (aerobic respiration) that used oxygen to create energy. The energy derived from this process was used to drive other cellular processes. The theory goes that mitochondria were engulfed by a larger bacteria that benefited from the added energy created from aerobic respiration.  The mitochondria benefited by receiving nutrients from metabolized glucose molecules.  This chemical process (glycolysis) took place in the cytosol (fluid portion) of the host cell. Mitochondria were still separate entities within their host. They had and still have their own DNA structure to give the genetic information needed to replicate and form two complete daughter cells.

The picture above shows a cross-section of a mitochondria with its outer and inner membranes.  The folds of the inner membrane are called cristae and are permeable to oxygen, carbon dioxide and water only.  The nutrient molecules from the food we digest are able to pass through the outer membrane and into the intermembrane space for processing.

Our bodies contain mitochondria in every cell, with the exception of the red blood cell, to provide energy to drive cellular processes. Muscle cells contain the greatest number of mitochondria (hundreds to thousands) needed to produce energy for movement. They oxidize fatty acids, amino acids and pyruvate molecules (taken from the metabolism of glucose which occurs outside of the mitochondria) to meet the bodies’ energy requirements. When we routinely do aerobic exercise and resistance training, more mitochondria are produced within our cells to meet the energy demands. For example, the richest source of mitochondria are found in the flight muscles of  hummingbirds. A sedentary lifestyle has the opposite effect leading to mitochondrial decline, increased free radical damage from the oxidation process, and cell death. Type 2 diabetics, cardiac, and dementia patients are known to have defects in their mitochondrial function and numbers. And, as more mitochondria become dysfunctional, they produce more damaging free radicals which in-turn creates more dysfunctional mitochondria. In healthy individuals, our bodies have the innate ability to mitigate free radical damage by using enzymes like glutathione.

In Parkinson’s disease, pesticide exposure maybe responsible for this form of dementia. Dieldrin (an alternative to DDT) was used to control insects in wood preservatives, and used on crops such as Smoking kills conceptcitrus, corn and cotton from 1950 to 1974. This chemical is a known mitochondrial toxin and was banned in the U.S. in 1987.  Chronic exposure to cigarette smoke and fossil fuel combustion are also mitochondrial toxins.  When revisiting the movie “Origins”, we are reminded that 74 billion pounds of chemicals are imported or produced in the U.S. on a daily basis.  This does not even account for the production of  pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and fertilizers.  These chemicals are finding their way into our bodies, and being stored in either the fat, brains or bones of our bodies.  They are damaging our mitochondria. And once the chemicals reach a critical mass, the body gives out, and we experience a host of possibilities such as autism, cancer, or one of the 160 recognized autoimmune diseases.  We can make a difference each day through the purchases we make by asking this question:  Will the dollars I spend go to someone who is hurting me or helping me?

 Another function of the mitochondria is regulating cell death known as apoptosis. Apoptosis evolved to control cell numbers, their positioning within tissue; and the removal of aged or damaged cells. This is a vital function for our health and development. For example, apoptosis was responsible for the removal of webbing between our fingers and toes while we developed in the womb. When functioning properly, apoptosis can eliminate some cancer cells as well.

A ketogenic diet is a high-fat content diet used to treat pediatric epileptics. The diet restricts the consumption of carbohydrates (sugars). “Growing appreciation of the diet’s efficacy has sparked the dramatic growth of clinical KD programs at epilepsy centers throughout the world.” ft_1 This diet has proven to be beneficial for keeping mitochondria plentiful with increased energy stores in patients.

Please review the references associated with this post to gain more insight to the role and chemical processes performed by the mitochondria within our cells.

Click here if you wish to revisit the movie “Origins”.

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Click here to review the references for this post.

For my next post, we will look at the benefits of movement for our health.

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