Mitochondria. Whether you’re aware of them or not, we all have billions of them, but few of us actually know what they are, much less how to treat them right or why absolutely everyone should be paying a lot more attention to them!
Simply put, your mitochondria are your energy powerhouses: the tiny factories in your cells that turn the food you eat and oxygen you breathe into energy – in the form of ATP or adenosine triphosphate, a type of molecule which powers the biochemical reactions in your cells. These ATP molecules are especially abundant in the cells of your heart, brain, and muscles – three of your essential ‘parts’ which demand the most energy. Think of your mitochondria as the Western equivalent of chi, the essential force of life and longevity – the wellspring of wellness that’s so deliberately cared for and protected in traditional Chinese medicine, we’d be wise to do the same!
In my new book, How To Be Well: The Six Keys to a Happy and Healthy Life, I shine a light on these utterly essential, rarely discussed, sub-cellular components that influence so much of our being. So, how to best care for these crucial energy factories? Start with my ‘Good Medicine Mandala’ for your mitochondria, my 6-‘spoke’ system of steps to improve mitochondrial function, resilience and overall health:
1) EAT: What you feed your mitochondria matters. A lot. In order for the mitochondria to produce power via ATP, they need the right fuel, like healthy fats – your mitochondria’s preferred fuel – which will keep you energized and aging well. Another key player: leafy greens that are loaded with nourishing phytonutrients. And when talking about eating for mitochondrial health, not eating so frequently or intermittent fasting can be extremely helpful, as it initiates cellular repair processes and helps remove waste material from cells. The result – tamped-down inflammation, slower aging and optimized mitochondrial function, giving you greater protection against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
2) SLEEP: It’s never to late too up your sleep game, and if it’s energy and vitality you’re after, I’d say start now! A recent University of Southern Denmark study suggested that less than seven hours of sleep a night had a negative impact on mitochondrial production, function and ultimately, longevity. Good sleep, however, and enough of it, is thought to reverse the mitochondrial shortfall.
3) MOVE: Develop a routine of high-intensity interval training. HIIT has been shown to make more mitochondria, and do so more efficiently than hours of slogging away on the treadmill which can lead to over-training, and an actual decrease in mitochondria. When you work on getting strong with HIIT, you build lean muscle, which houses more mitochondria than your fat bits do. Important bonuses: improved glucose tolerance, energy and cognitive function – which couldn’t be more important as we age and mitochondria can naturally decline. Moving can help slow the slide, so time to hit the HIIT!
4) PROTECT: Our mitochondria evolved to respond to natural forms of energy – like sunshine! – not the system-stressing barrage of wireless technologies we’re exposed to every day. It’s not unreasonable to consider that this may be interfering with the electrical systems in our bodies and many experts are increasingly alarmed. I’m not saying we should drop everything and go live off the grid, but I would suggest minimizing exposure by unplugging tech whenever possible. Take simple steps like turning off the wifi at night; placing your cell phone, tablets, wearable fitness trackers, and all the rest in ‘airplane mode,’ at least 30 feet from your bed (preferably in another room). It can all can help shield your mitochondria from the round-the-clock exposure that may be messing with your sleep, energy production and any number of other functions.
5) UNWIND: According to recent articles in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, several studies indicate that mitochondria may actually sense, integrate, and signal information about their environment, which can cause structural and functional changes. Which means, if relentless stress is on your menu, unwinding and chilling out on the regular is absolutely essential to mitochondrial health! So no more excuses: get that meditation practice going today, to keep stress from damaging your mighty mito’s.
6) CONNECT: Instead of fighting it, go with the flow of your circadian rhythm (or the ‘internal clock’ that determines your cycle of wakefulness and sleepiness), to help your mitochondria thrive. A new study has found that circadian rhythm is integral to determining mitochondrial energy output, so skip the late nights of binge watching, and hit the hay when you’re sleepy. Another way to show your mitochondria some love? Massage. Turns out, they can actually promote the growth of new mitochondria in skeletal muscle, according to a recent study. As if massages weren’t wonderful enough!
Bottom line: mitochondria drive the human system, how energetic you feel, how robust your metabolism is, and how clearly you think. If you don’t properly manage your mitochondria ‘factories,’ energy production will slow and none of your systems will work very well. So think of yourself as the foreman and do everything in your power to help keep production humming. Anything that can slow it down – a lack of nutritious ‘fuels’, high levels of stress, toxin exposure, electromagnetic radiation, infections, allergens, or an overly sedentary body – ditch it and put your mitochondrial-boosting plan into play.
At the root of the fatigue we associate with getting older, and with possibly heart disease, lung disease, neurodegenerative diseases lies mitochondrial deterioration. The more you can do to start turning the tide, the better you will feel and the more gracefully you will age.