Mitochondria, a membrane-enclosed cellular organelles, which produce energy, 3D illustration March 12th, 2018

What are mitochondria?

Mitochondria are tiny structures, known as organelles, that are present in almost all cells of living organisms. Many people know mitochondria as “the powerhouses of the cell”, as they produce most of the energy the cell needs to survive. In order to stay fit, it’s important we know how they work, and what we can do to maintain healthy mitochondria.

Mitochondria are found in almost all cells

Mitochondria are found in the cytoplasm of almost all eukaryotic cells (cells that have a clearly defined nucleus). They are used to produce adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which is known as the “molecular unit of currency”. Mitochondria produce energy, generate heat, and control cell growth and death.

Not all cells need mitochondria, and the number present depends on the cell they’re found in. For example, liver and muscle cells may contain thousands of mitochondria, while erythrocytes (red blood cells) do not contain any.

Mitochondria cells are unlike other organelles in many ways; they have two distinct membranes, a unique genome, and they reproduce by binary fission. These features make them similar to prokaryotes, or single-celled organisms.

The outer membrane of a mitochondrion features small pores, which allow ions, molecules, and small proteins to pass through. However, the inner membrane is much more restrictive and is bent into folds known as cristae. This only allows very few small molecules to pass through set protein components. The membranes protect a gel-like matrix, which contains the cell’s DNA.

Illustrated diagram of a cell, including nucleus and mitochondria

Mitochondria control the cell and generate energy

DNA contains everything a cell needs to function, and produces enzymes and proteins which are used to metabolise nutrients into byproducts. The mitochondria converts these by-products into energy on the inner-membrane, known as the electron transport chain (ETC). This uses oxidation-reduction reactions to move electrons along the protein components, which produces free energy. This process is used to power all cellular activities, including muscle movement, as well as fuelling brain function.

Mitochondria are also used to make cells die, through a process known as apoptosis. This is necessary for growth and development, and can stop tumours from developing. Sometimes, cells do not die when they should, and instead continue to grow and divide uncontrollably, which results in tumours. Having healthy mitochondria prevents this happening by ensuring the cells die when they are no longer needed. This is why mitochondria play an important part in cancer research, and anti-cancer drugs.

How you can help keep your mitochondria healthy

If your mitochondria aren’t working as well as they should be, you could find yourself suffering from a range of illnesses and conditions, including heart failure, fatigue, and even autism. Research has suggested that mitochondrial disorders can explain some symptoms on the autism spectrum, and it is believed that 5-10% of autistic children have mitochondrial dysfunction.

You need to take good care of your mitochondria in order to stay fit and healthy regardless of your age, and this is easily done through your diet. Foods and supplements high in certain vitamins and minerals can keep your mitochondria young and healthy.

  • Vitamin D can help to enhance energy production in the mitochondria of your muscles after exercising. Simply taking supplements or ensuring you get enough sunshine increases your vitamin D levels.
  • Alpa lipoic acid reduces cellular stress and can keep your mitochondria healthy. This is found in organic meats, and green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli.
  • Coenzyme Q10 is crucial to keeping your mitochondria functioning at a high level. Foods with the highest concentrations of CoQ10 include organ meats such as liver and kidneys, or in beef, sardines, and mackerel. For those who have a plant-based diet, CoQ10 can be found in legumes such as peanuts and soybeans, as well as spinach, broccoli, and cauliflower.
  • Acetyl-L carnitine ensures your mitochondria are running smoothly, and allows it to use energy efficiently. It also increases the fat-burning capacity of mitochondrion. Beef, chicken, and dairy products are the best sources for this, however you can find small amounts in asparagus.

Some studies have even linked intermittent fasting to an improved mitochondrial function. Restricting the calories you consume has lead to mitochondria adapting to increase oxygen efficiency while maintaining critical ATP production. Some theories also state that fasting reduces the number of free-radicals produced by mitochondria.

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