Mitochondria are likely not something you think about every day, but just the task of thinking requires them. These organelles in our cells create energy by breaking down food. Our diet has a direct effect on our mitochondrial function, impacting not only our immunity but our long-term health.
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Are you ready for a pop quiz? Which bodily component is responsible for producing over 90% of the energy in your body cells, makes up 40% of each heart muscle cell, can change shape to move around when needed, can grow and divide when more energy is required AND can produce hundreds of variations of proteins? If you guessed mitochondria— ding ding ding — you are correct!
You have over 100,000 trillion mitochondria within your body right now that seamlessly work to create energy to keep your body functioning.
That amounts to a staggering 1,000 to 2,500 mitochondria in each of your cells, chugging away to keep all of your organs working as they should.
Back to Biology Class
Here is Mitochondria 101 for you! You may recall that all human cells (save for red blood cells) contain an organelle called mitochondria, the “energy factory” of the cell. The primary function of this squiggly bean is to turn food and other fuel sources into cellular energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is a biological term for energy that our cells use to function.
We like to think of them as the digestive system of cells. Why? Well, they are designed to break down carbohydrates and fatty acids efficiently.
This process of breaking down nutrients, better known as oxidative phosphorylation, takes place in a complicated matrix within the mitochondria, where a chemical called NADH is produced. NADH is used by specific enzymes embedded in the mitochondria’s inner membrane to generate the required ATP. ATP is unique in that it cannot be stored; instead, it is immediately used as energy for our cells.
Foods that Fuel
Food is just one component of how to improve mitochondrial performance. Exposure to toxins can impact its function, so avoid heavy metals where possible. Muscle mass is also a contributor; research has shown that even those with mitochondrial damage, as is the case in people with Parkinson’s, it can increase ATP production through strength training, as muscle cells contain more mitochondria than other cells.
Genetics is also a major factor affecting mitochondria. In fact, a subset of diseases categorized as “mitochondrial disease,” including Alzheimer’s, Muscular dystrophy, Diabetes, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and certain types of cancers are genetically transmitted.
But the food you eat is critical for your mitochondria. Research suggests that we should look at optimizing vital, productive macronutrients through specific vitamins, minerals, and amino acids to support mitochondrial function that limits oxidative stress and promote ATP production.
CoQ10 is the primary antioxidant in human cells.
But what do antioxidants have to do with mitochondria and energy production?
Oxygen is a critical component in energy production and the oxidative phosphorylation process.
Antioxidants help protect mitochondria from any damage that can happen during this process – such as any strain on the cell from excess energy use.
This energy coupling leads to ATP formation as a carrier for both electrons and protons. And (bringing you back to biology 101 again), ATP can be converted into ADP—helping to support energy production further.
It is recommended that we get between 90-200 milligrams of CoQ10 per day. Foods rich in CoQ10 include soybeans, broccoli, peanuts, fatty fish, and oranges.
Lipoic Acid and Acetyl L-Carnitine work hand in hand to improve age-related decline in mitochondrial bioenergetics.
In other words, they aid in the recovery of fatty acids, increasing energy production and metabolic rate while reducing oxidative stress.
Lipoic Acid plays a crucial role in recharging other important antioxidants for mitochondrial health, like CoQ10 and vitamin E.
Acetyl L-Carnitine (“L-carnitine”) is an antioxidant that scavenges free radicals and promotes liver detoxification while boosting T-cell activation to help maintain immune function.
We should strive for between 600-1,800 milligrams of Lipoic acid per day, and about 3g of L-carnitine per day.
Resveratrol induces pro-oxidant effects and antioxidant impact on mitochondria.
Resveratrol is in many of our favorite Mediterranean diet foods, including red wine, blueberries, dark chocolate, and peanuts.
While there is no formal recommended daily dose of resveratrol, in order to see a biological effect, academics suggest a rather large spread of 5mg and 100mg per day.
Vitamin E‘s abundant health benefits
With regard to mitochondrial health, vitamin E has three key functions: it prevents thyroid hormone-induced changes, reduces the production of free radicals, and elicits beneficial reactions in our cells.
Essentially, it is the cell’s first line of defense when it comes to protecting the mitochondrial membrane from the damage free radicals cause.
How much of this vital nutrient do we need? Aim for 15 mg per day just by simply mixing
sunflower seeds, avocado, and kiwi in a smoothie.
Recent studies suggest that a combination of age-related and lifestyle-induced (diet, exercise, sleep, etc.) factors can impact your mitochondrial health and, ultimately, your immune health.
As the immune system is heavily reliant on mitochondrial function, maintaining a healthy mitochondrial system may play a key role in resisting the virus, both directly and indirectly, by ensuring a good [Covid] vaccine response.
– Department of Life Sciences, Research Centre for Optimal Health, University of Westminster, London
While no studies have concluded that mitochondrial fortification can help with the onset of Covid, it has been concluded that peak mitochondrial function can improve immune health and help to battle both acute Covid and “long Covid.”
Harmful Foods = Malfunctioning Mitochondria
To stress the importance of the above food groups for mitochondrial health, it is essential to understand just the number of functions that the mitochondria in your cells impact.
While diet alone cannot change illnesses from genetics or excessive toxic exposure, it can fortify your mitochondrial function and serve as a supplemental treatment for these diseases.
There are also foods we should avoid in excess, as they can adversely impact mitochondrial function:
Excess sugar is well known to have unfavorable effects on critical functions of our body, most notably our gut and brain health. This is no exception to your mitochondrial health. Sugar inhibits the mitochondria from quickly burning energy, especially in fructose form. Sugar then winds up being stored as fat and producing damaging free radicals.
Be sure to balance your vegetable intake with the fruit servings in your daily diet and opt for whole fruits rather than processed fruit products.
Simple carbohydrates have also been found to be problematic with mitochondrial health. White flour, when eaten, quickly turns to glucose once digested—it might as well be table sugar. Mitochondria tend to function better on a lower carbohydrate diet, as they are able to efficiently create energy rather than frivolously burning junk. Try to keep carbohydrates between 225 and 325g daily.
The Bottom Line
Opt for a Mediterranean-type diet that includes fatty fish and omega-3-rich oils like avocado to boost mitochondrial function. Seek antioxidants like blueberries and dark chocolate. Keep a healthy balance of nuts as your go-to snack, and avoid excess sugar and “white” carbs for optimal long-term cellular health.