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Mitochondria: Power Up!

Mitochondria make the energy needed to run every cell in your body. Because that is so important, they make up about a quarter of the volume of your cells. Each cell contains 1000 - 2000 of them, which tells you how tiny they are!


All of your fuel, whether from a meal you just ate, or nutrients pulled out of storage, has to be processed by mitochondria for the final stage of energy production. The energy they create is stored in tiny but readily available amounts, in molecules of adenosine triphosphate, which you may remember as ATP from you high school biology classes! 

Because we can’t store ATP, and we use it up as fast as we make it, mitochondria have to work 24/7. We can live without oxygen for 4 minutes without causing much harm, but without ATP we only last 5-6 seconds. Having healthy mitochondria is a hallmark of healthy aging! 

The amount of ATP our mitochondria make is remarkable: about 10 million molecules per second in working muscle cells. You make your body weight of ATP each and every day.


Mitochondria are more numerous in those cells that need more energy: the heart muscle cells have the most, and other muscle cells and liver cells come in a close second. But the brain uses 25% of the ATP made in the body.

Where do mitochondria come from? 


When cellar life was new to earth, some bacteria got into a symbiotic relationship with other cells. By living in those cells they were fed and protected from outside elements, and by creating the energy the cells needed, they ensured themselves an ongoing home. They became mitochondria. This is still true today in all living things. Mitochondria enabled multi-cellar life to evolve!


There are about 100,000 mitochondria in the egg cell from your mother that created you. These multiplied as the fertilized egg developed. Although sperm need lots of mitochondria to swim towards that egg, no male mitochondria contributed to the baby in any other way: all your mitochondria are directly from your mother! 

This is why mitochondria have their own DNA which is different from the DNA in the nucleus of your cells: because they evolved separately from us, although it was obviously very, very long ago. This mitochondrial DNA that comes only from our mothers has helped genetic historians track lines of women far back to pre-history.


But while nuclear DNA has various protection and repair mechanisms, mitochondrial DNA doesn’t. It is therefore more easily damaged than nuclear DNA, by toxins and oxidative stress from inflammation. This damage is considered to be a contributing factor in the development of many diseases, including some cancers.  

Given their importance in powering our cells, it isn’t surprising that altered mitochondrial function is implicated in many chronic diseases, especially those of low energy and reduced function such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Fibromyalgia (FM). And now of course, in Long Covid.


When mitochondria are working properly their efficiency in creating energy is around 95%. However, when deficient in nutrients or damaged, their efficiency falls. In some circumstances they change the way they metabolise their fuel to a biochemical pathway that has only 5% efficiency. This may happen in cancer cells, a huge loss at a critical time, and one of the ways cancers can hijack our bodies.


The main nutrients mitochondria need to work well are those needed to bring fuel in through their cell membranes, and the nutrients needed to metabolise that fuel.  Of course a deficiency of any one of those nutrients will slow the whole process: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And some people may be low in more than one of those nutrients. 

These are the main nutrients we use to support mitochondrial function: 

  • Co-Enzyme Q10

  • Amino Acids: L- Carnitine and Taurine

  • B complex (Bs 1,2,3,5 & 6 all play important roles)

  • Antioxidants, including: alpha lipoic acid, Vitamin C, Vitamin E

  • Minerals: mainly selenium and zinc

  • Melatonin 

Exercise increases the number and function of our mitochondria: that’s why athletes have more!

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