and why they are important for good health.
Mitochondria are tiny double membrane-bound organelles found in almost every cell of all organisms except bacteria. Known as the “powerhouse of the cell” they are primarily responsible for converting the air we breathe and the food we eat into energy that our cells can use to grow, divide and function. Mitochondria produce energy by turning glucose and oxygen into a chemical called ATP (Adenosine triphosphate).
When mitochondria produce ATP, they produce by-products known as free radicals, which, if not kept in check, can react with (oxidise) and damage other parts of the cell such as the mitochondrial membranes and the cell’s DNA. When this happens, mitochondria can become inefficient at producing energy, DNA can become corrupted, and the cell cannot perform its various tasks as it should. This “oxidative stress” can cause a person to suffer from low energy levels and can lead to potentially serious health conditions. It is also thought to be a major contributor to the aging process itself.
There are several different types of natural antioxidant molecules inside mitochondria (and the rest of the cell) which neutralize these harmful free radicals and protect the cellular machinery from damage. The mitochondria in younger, healthy people produce lots of energy and there are plenty of natural antioxidants to fight free radical damage. However, as a person ages, mitochondria begin to decline in function and they produce less antioxidants to fight oxidative stress. A person doesn't have the energy they once had, it takes longer to recover from illness or injury and the visible signs of aging start to appear. The same happens in many health conditions too, which can lead to low energy levels and can even cause cells to start to die off as they become too damaged. This is especially important in the cells of our vital organs such as our brains, hearts and livers; and can lead to serious health conditions which significantly impact our quality of life.
Why Mitochondria Matter
Each person has quadrillions (that’s thousands of trillions) of these energy factories in their bodies. Each mitochondrion is filled with some 17,000 biochemical assembly lines, all designed to produce a molecule called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP - the bodies’ major, most elemental fuel. The more energy a tissue or organ needs for optimal function, the more mitochondria its cells contain. Mitochondria are especially abundant in the cells that make up our hearts, brains, and muscles.
The density and health of the mitochondria in the organs and muscles are a reflection of your current level of health and fitness. (Lean muscle tissue contains a lot more mitochondria than fat does, and a healthy heart has more mitochondria than a weak one.) The more healthy mitochondria the body contains, the better a person will feel and the metabolism will be strong.
When the mitochondria produce ATP certain by products are produced such as carbon dioxide, water, and free radicals. Free radicals are charged, highly active molecules that circulate in the body, reacting with tissue. In moderation, free radicals can help us fight infection. In excess, however, they wreak havoc, damaging cell tissue, eroding our bodies, and causing runaway inflammation.
The health implications of such mitochondria-related damage can be far-reaching. Children who are born with genetic defects that negatively affect their mitochondria, can suffer negative effects that can include loss of motor control, muscle weakness and pain, gastrointestinal disorders, difficulty in swallowing, poor growth, cardiac disease, liver disease, type 2 diabetes, respiratory complications, seizures, visual or hearing problems, developmental delays, and susceptibility to infection.
People who start life with healthy mitochondria can damage and deplete them through stress, sedentary lifestyles, free-radical damage, and exposure to infections, allergens, and toxins which have a negative effect on mitochondrial function. But one of the main reasons the mitochondria deteriorate, is that people eat too much poor-quality foods and and not enough healthy ones. The empty calories of sugars, flours, and other processed foods force mitochondria to burn through a great deal of junk - generating free radicals and inflammation before useful nutrients can be extracted. The glycemic impact of such foods that are high in trans fats, chemical additives, and other additives make the damage even worse. Unless the diet is not high enough with phytonutrients, antioxidants, healthy fats, proteins, and fibre, the body does not get the basic tools needed to repair the damage.
The overfeeding and undernourishing of the mitochondria lead to the epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
The overworked pancreas produces so much insulin that it may ‘burn out’ - or, alternatively, overwhelm the receptors on cell membranes until they become resistant to insulin and unable to transport it to the cells’ mitochondria for energy production.
How mitochondrial damage adversely affects human health
Known as a neuro-immune disease, patients with multiple sclerosis frequently have impaired ATP synthesis. The lack of ATP is evidence of malfunctioning mitochondria. Also evident in most patients with multiple sclerosis is chronic oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress leads to severe health complications by producing excessive free radicals with a goal to complete demolition work to the structure of cells and inhibit their function. Mitochondria are primary targets of oxidative damage because they are the main sites of cellular respiration which free radicals may be generated in high amounts.
Chronic Fatigue and Fibromyalgia:
Patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and fibromyalgia have visibly detectable changes in the structure of the mitochondria. Remember, the mitochondria are composed of different proteins and lipids which contribute to the membranes by which it is made up. The structures of these membranes are highly significant because they help maintain the life cycle of the mitochondria when it grows, splits or combines with another mitochondria.
Also apparent along one of the membranes in the mitochondria is the electron transport chain which is responsible for oxidative phosphorylation which is the process that creates ATP. Seen in CFS and fibromyalgia, the abnormal mitochondria structure results in a decrease in ATP synthesis.
Aside from turning the food eaten into energy, the mitochondria also have other radically important functions. For example, they act as the coordinator for apoptosis, or programmed cell death — an important process that ensures the death of malfunctioning cells that might turn into tumors unless they are cleaned out. Over the course of a cell's life, damage will inevitably occur. Once that damage reaches a certain threshold, signals are sent to the cell with instructions to self-destruct.
The mitochondria determine whether that threshold has been reached, and are the initiators of the subsequent cell suicide program. If the mitochondria are not functioning well, they might not be able to make a proper determination of when the damage threshold has been reached, and/or may not give the damaged cell the signal for apoptosis. The result is obvious: You end up with severely damaged cells hanging around, accumulating and contributing to further dysfunction.
Moreover, in order for the apoptosis cascade to happen, energy input is required. So, even if the mitochondria are able to make the determination that the threshold has been reached and are able to signal apoptosis, if there's insufficient energy, defective cells will still survive and multiply. This, in a nutshell, is how dysfunctional mitochondria end up causing cancer.
Heart failure has also been linked to mitochondria dysfunction. As we all know, the heart requires a constant supply of energy in the form of ATP to perform efficiently. Associated with mitochondria related myopathy, the heart is a critical organ that is affected by muscle weakness from defected mitochondria.
In a recent report appearing in the journal Translational Medicine, researchers revealed that some of the most commonly used antibiotics are actually toxic to mitochondria. Exposure to antibiotics of various types has now been demonstrated to damage mitochondria and at the same time increase the formation of toxic free radicals that can further damage tissue, including protein, fat, and DNA.
Blue Light from cellphones and computers
Infrared and near-infrared light from the sun help repair and regenerate the cells which a person cannot get from artificial light sources. Excess blue light creates Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) and this creates inflammation, even during the day. It also diminishes the function of the mitochondria which leaves the body with less energy to function normally.
Exposure to blue light at night turns off the body’s production of melatonin and this reduces the quality of sleep. Melatonin does more than help with sleep. It is also an antioxidant that protects the brain and increases mitochondrial function.
Lowered melatonin on a chronic basis leads to neurodegeneration and less energy output. This is why people sleep for eight hours and wake up still feeling tired.
For more information on Blue Light and its dangers, please click here.
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