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Why you need to care about the mighty mitochondria

Dr. Susan Mathison, Catalyst Medical Center

I hazily remember back to high school biology (Hi, Mr. Larson! So grateful to you!) as we were learning about the structures of cells: the nucleus, the cell membrane and a few floaty things outside the nucleus.

One of these floaty items was usually depicted as maroon in color, had wavy membranes inside and was shaped like an oblong capsule: the mitochondria. I learned it had something to do with ATP and energy production. Its significance seemed minute in terms of other cell functions.

Fast forward to 2018, and mitochondrial research is the new frontier in biomedical possibilities.

Maybe it's because mitochondrial dysfunction seems to play a role in many diseases of aging, and the last time I checked, aging is happening to me, and you, too.

Mitochondria are thought to be cells within cells. The theory is that they were bacterial cells that were engulfed by host cells and stayed forever.

Mitochondria are found in all plant and animal cells. They have their own circular DNA and divide independently of the host cell. There can be thousands of mitochondria within a cell, and the highest concentrations are found in the brain, heart, liver and sperm.

Functions of mitochondria include:

1. Energy conversion. They take chemical energy from food through the Krebs cycle which ultimately becomes ATP and can be redeemed when energy is needed by the host cell.

2. Viability determinators. They decide which cells undergo programmed cell death (apoptosis) versus ordinary cell death (necrosis.) They also help decide which eggs are released during ovulation.

3. Free radical production. This is a downside of energy production. Free radicals impact mitochondrial DNA and are seen much more frequently in those over 65. Patients with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases exhibit very high levels of mitochondrial DNA mutations.

4. Pass on maternal genetic history. Mitochondrial DNA comes from the female egg.

So, what does this mean for us?

Caring about our mitochondrial can help us live longer and more energetically. Biohacker Dave Asprey, author of the Bulletproof Diet and Headstrong suggests these actions:

1. Curb inflammation with moderate exercise, omega-3 fatty acids via krill oil or fish oil, and anti-inflammatory foods including vegetables, good quality fats and protein.

Make your eating window shorter by eating an early supper, or try intermittent fasting.

2. Sleep better by making your room a blackout cave to reduce junk light, and cut out electronic usage about 2 hours before bedtime. Try to get to sleep by 11 p.m.

3. Try to HIIT it. HIIT is high-intensity interval training. Basically you push yourself as hard as you can for a short period of time then take slightly longer rest, then repeat for 8-10 cycles. These workouts usually take only 20 minutes, 2-3 times per week. One study showed marked increase in skeletal muscle mitochondria in just 2 weeks.

4. Co-enzyme Q10 and its cousin PQQ seem to stoke the energetic processes of mitochondria.

5. Some people use exogenous ketones or MCT oil which convert to ketones. This seems to boost metabolism, increase focus and curb hunger.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created Email her at