What is Mitochondria and How it Relates to Your Overall Health?

You’ve probably heard about mitochondria back in the day on your Biology 101 class. Allow us to refresh your memory if you can’t recall a darn thing about it. Mitochondria are cell organelles (tiny structures that have specific actions within a cell), animating every living cell inside your body. 

Mitochondria are found in almost all living cells and produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the main energy molecule used by all cells. Due to this critical, energy-generating role, the mitochondrion (singular of mitochondria) is often referred to as “the powerhouse of the cell7.”

Mitochondria are found in all eukaryotes, a term that classifies each living organism except for bacteria or archaea7 (forms of microorganisms that thrive in acidic or oxygen-free environments such as hot springs and marshes)16. Inside the cell, the mitochondria conduct the process of cellular (aerobic) respiration. Cellular respiration requires oxygen, giving off carbon dioxide, and producing ATP7. A specific part of cellular respiration is the citric acid cycle (e.g., the Krebs cycle) inside the mitochondria. The Krebs cycle breaks down organic (carbon-based) fuel molecules from food in the presence of oxygen in order to harvest energy stored in the food we eat so we can grow our cells and fuel our activities they need to grow and divide21; the byproduct of this cycle is that we exhale our food in the form of CO2. 

In other words, if it weren’t for mitochondria, the cells in your body would be unable to grow, multiply and form new cells and tissues, or–as per a series of studies–maintain a healthy body14,19,4

Inevitably, mitochondria have a pivotal role in almost every single disease you might develop, from the seasonal flu to viral infections to life-threatening conditions such as stroke and cancer19,12,4.

The Different Functions of Mitochondria 

Besides the cellular process of food-to-energy conversion, mitochondria are engaged in a number of other processes at the cellular level. Only recently, we have begun to understand how these processes are key to arming our body’s immune system. 

Mitochondria maintain heart health. This refers to the process of calcium flow through the mitochondria inside the living cells. One recent study has observed what may happen if we distort the calcium exchanging mitochondria function among adult mice brought to the lab. Eliminating the normal mitochondrial calcium exchange resulted in sudden death of the mice, notably from heart dysfunction and inflammation of the heart muscle. Less than 13% of the affected mice survived after two weeks following this lethal mitochondria intervention13. The mitochondria are very important in heart health and calcium signaling.

Mitochondria strengthen the body’s immune system. Our immune system is a shield, which does a remarkable job of defending against disease-causing pathogens9. That is possible thanks to the Mitochondrial antiviral signaling protein (MAVS), which is crucial for helping the body to adapt against any incoming viral infections. MAVS have a major role in response against all viruses3, as well as shielding us from chronic and inflammatory diseases such as colitis (inflammation of the colon)11,6.

During instances of infection, your sensation of tiredness owes to the fact that mitochondria have suddenly shifted attention to boosting your immune system function at the cost of producing less ATP (energy)14

Mitochondria are also important to stem cells. Stem cells are the body’s raw material–cells from which all other cells with specialized functions are generated8. Stem cells can be found in embryos and in almost all adult tissues8 and are known for their regenerative properties. That is why researchers are working on how to best utilize them in clinical practice for treating various diseases.

The mitochondria produce reactive oxygen species (ROS), while too many ROS can cause oxidative damage in many diseases15. Scientific research has revealed that ROS can determine the fate of adult stem cells1. Increased ROS correlates with a decline in the stem cells regeneration capability but can also promote stem cells’ progenitor commitment and differentiation (their ability to devise cells with specialized functions)1. In this context, Light Therapy can have a meaningful role. It can help alleviate any damage caused by excessive ROS, as well as it can promote stem cell production without causing any adverse effects on the human body. 

Mitochondria also correlate to programmed cell death. Different names describe programmed cell death: apoptosis, autophagy, and necrosis4. And the mitochondria have a key role.

Changes/disruptions in mitochondrial processes (like the normal production of ROS or ATP) have been linked with the different kinds of cell death4

For example, in cases of stroke, there is an abrupt blockage in the blood supply to the brain. During a stroke event, cells begin to die. Depending on where the dead tissue forms in the brain, the affected person can experience speech, sight or movement impairments19. The mitochondria are directly affected by the stroke because suddenly, without oxygen, they cannot perform their most vital function of being the cells’ powerhouses. 

Subsequently and gradually, the mitochondria are forced to change properties and release an apoptogenic protein, promoting apoptotic and necrotic cell death19, which is also why an immediate medical response to stroke is critical to prevent heavy brain damage and to restore regular blood supply to the brain and the mitochondria as soon as possible. 

Cell death isn’t always bad, however. In fact, it’s essential in treating cancer10,12. Cancer cells are notorious for they divide relentlessly, form tumors, flood the blood with abnormal cells, and require rigorous therapies to combat and eliminate from the body5Light Therapy can help by alleviating the side-effects of cancer treatments

How to Keep Your Mitochondria Healthy? 

Wherever you look, the evidence is clear: your body relies on mitochondria for every physiological process. Poorly performing mitochondria can increase the risks of a disease developing in your body and manifest in various chronic illness symptoms14.

Below, see how you can support the health of your mitochondria: 

  • Engage in regular physical activity. Exercise (especially aerobic) is generally good for your health (running, swimming, cycling, etc.) and can be especially beneficial for your mitochondrial health as these types of activities promote mitochondrial balance and help the mitochondria’s restoration process14
  • Pay attention to your diet. You want to avoid consuming sugary and processed food, traditionally associated as a risk factor for various diseases. Include fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet, and food that is high in antioxidants such as dark chocolate, nuts, berries, artichokes, beans, cabbage or spinach18, 14. If you are struggling with weight loss, you can also utilize Light Therapy to help decrease the number of fat cells, naturally reduce cellulite or decrease overactive hunger hormones.
  • Reduce stress, take time to relax, get enough sleep. Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to life experience2, and there’s no easy way around it. Stress can manifest itself in a number of ways, including insomnia, diarrhea, frequent urination, rapid breathing, and tachycardia (rapid heart rate)20. Scientific evidence further supports the notion that acute and chronic stressors influence various aspects of mitochondrial biology17Sports can help you combat stress in life as will do cutting down on caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine if these are your vices. Products containing the above-mentioned substances may help you feel better in the moment, but overconsumption, in the long run, will certainly bring a negative impact on your health and well-being. Help your stress with some meditation, getting enough hours of sleep or talking to someone. 

Lastly, you can always enhance mitochondria performance with Light Therapy, as well. When red, near-infrared, and infrared light is correctly applied to a certain area of the body that requires support and healing, it essentially creates a more friendly environment for mitochondria. Light Therapy supports health by reducing excessive oxidative stress at the cellular level, which in turn allows the mitochondria to balance performance and functions.

If you want to experience the benefits of Light Therapy first-hand, book an appointment here. Even if you simply want to talk and make a consultation regarding your health, drop us a message on Facebook and Twitter. Our team would be happy to respond. 

Follow our Light Lounge blog to get the latest health updates and tips to improve your health and lifestyle. 

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