I consider the process of energy generation inside cells one of an almost ‘mystic’ dimension. Inside our cells, there are tiny structures known as ‘mitochondria’ and they are responsible for generating energy for living. These little ‘power-houses’ literally fuel life. Although I realise not everyone might be so interested in cellular biology, the story about mitochondria is definitely worth telling. Mitochondria are very special indeed and I bet I can impress you with some of their features. The fact that these tiny clever structures sitting in the cytosol of cells are able to generate energy for living is, in my opinion, the key to life itself.
Mitochondria are unique organelles with many differing features from the rest of the cell. Varied theories postulated about how they came to exist inside our cells. It is now accepted that mitochondria were originally separate organisms that eventually developed an intimate relationship of interdependency with early prokaryotic cells. More specifically, mitochondria decent from bacteria that utilised oxygen for respiration (aerobic bacteria). There are several pieces of evidence that show mitochondria share many features with separate unicellular organisms (1). Amongst the most striking facts are their ability to replicate independently inside cells and the fact that they possess their own DNA (i.e. DNA completely different from nuclear DNA which you inherited from your parents). You can begin to see that there is something more to this organelle from the start. Somehow at some point in evolution, mitochondria came to live inside cells and at that point, they took over the job of respiration, for which they use oxygen.
Mitochondria work like little ‘furnaces’ that ‘burn’ substrates for the production of ‘fuel’. But this ‘burning’ of substrates is much intricate and complex. Mitochondria have the ability to create a flow of electrons inside their membranes and therefore oxidise (‘burn’) substrates (ultimately from ingested food ) for ‘fuel’ (living energy). They also perform other highly specific and, in a way, dangerous tasks. The flow of electrons generated inside the mitochondria is potentially very harmful and, for that reason, mitochondria need to renew itself regularly and be supplied with ample amounts of antioxidants. Mitochondrial work is essential for cell and the organism’s life but it is also susceptible to environmental and intrinsic damage. There is a delicate and complex balance that needs to be maintained for optimal function and much of this balance can be upset by lifestyle and diet.
In clinic, one of the most commonly seen complaints is ‘lack of energy’ – which will in the end affect everything clients want to do in their daily lives as well as their ability to heal and stay healthy. The same energy that you need to climb up a flight of stairs is what powers your internal systems, organs and cells to function well or heal. Health is ultimately a result of how much energy you have to power all of these internal and external activities that can be summarized as ‘living’.
So the process of energy generation inside cells is for me at the core of every therapeutic protocol. You need to be able to supply plenty of energy to your cells in order to maintain optimal health and healing. Everything that is alive and working is moving and for that you need to be fuelling this non-stop movement of life. When you stop moving your body at night and lay down to rest through sleep (which ideally should happen uninterruptedly every night for an adequate amount of hours), another type of work and movement takes over. Our bodies never stop and movement is one of the criteria for ‘life’. Molecules are constantly moving to power even your sleep and dreams at night, the topping up of hormones that will keep you functioning through the next day, the rebuilding and healing of all the structures that need repairing after damage, the fight against infection, bruising or daily environmental assault. The switch from sympathetic to parasympathetic mode is what we call this alternating of priority between active living during the day and restorative healing through the night. It is a harmonious rhythm that we may forget to observe and respect in the busy ‘online world’ we are living today.
Although nutrition and biology are constantly evolving sciences with an ever-increasing level of complexity, it is paradoxically amazing how some of the most effective curative therapies come from simple interventions. Changes that, most of the time, just aim to bring us back to a state of living that better resembles the conditions in which our bodies naturally thrive are often the most powerful strategies to optimise health. Mitochondrial function is no exception.
It may seem counterintuitive to restrict energy when you want to increase its production inside the body. But as soon as you consider how cell renovation is triggered in human physiology, it all starts to make sense. There are certain situations of scarcity that function as triggers for rejuvenating processes inside the body. In the case of mitochondrial function, excess intake of calories can actually be very harmful to their capacity to work whilst a certain level of calorie restriction triggers their renewal and multiplication. That is because old mitochondria start to misbehave if they don’t die by their ‘best by date’. Because the process of energy generation inside mitochondria can generate free radical damage, the longer mitochondria work past their expiry date, the more they spread damage inside the cell. This type of damage is particularly harmful to our cells’ DNA and could contribute to a range of disorders, including cancer. So the bottom line is: mitochondria needs to be kept young. Old mitochondria should step down and make space for new mitochondria. This is what will normally happen in healthy cells but recent research shows that excess intake of calories (especially from simple sugars, i.e. refined carbohydrates) can seriously impair mitochondrial function over time (2-3). It is as if mitochondria being fed too much sugar becomes somewhat ‘lazy’. The molecular scenario is not that different to what happens to us when we eat too much and exercise too little. In a way, our behaviour is no more than an expression of our cellular environment.
However, what is most interesting is that mitochondria respond to environmental stimulation. That means simple changes like time of food intake and combined exercise with fasting could actually increase your ability to produce your own energy by many fold. The play between ‘calories in’ and ‘calories out’ is not as simple as it once seemed. Different sources of calories can yield siginficantly different responses in the cells. Timing of food intake as well as genetics influencing your capacity to burn fat for fuel also add to the equation. The one thing to take home is: living well means plenty of energy capacity. If you feel you haven’t got enough energy to fuel your mental and/or physical capacity you should see that as a clear signal from your cells. Energy crisis is at the core of all chronic health problems and the earliler you find out how to deal with it, the better for your future health. Over feeding is not a smart move in a context where you are unlikely to encounter periods of food scarcity or famine, especially if your level of physical activity is low. Powering our cells is a complex process which is under the influence of a web of hormones. Eating more is not the answer. If nothing else, keep that in mind for when you next visit the ‘all you can eat buffet’ in the high street.
The understanding of our body can make a real difference to how we treat it and how it responds to us. It is always worth to be mindful of how you feel and which signals your body is giving out. Nutritional Therapy teaches you how to interpret these signals and apply strategies that will bring out results. Mitochondria can beautifully respond to simple but effective modifications of lifestyle and diet that could increase your ability to produce energy to satisfy your needs. This combined use of complex physiologica knowledge and simple practical techniques is to me what makes Nutritional Therapy exciting and sensible. It is precisely what we need today: a bridge between complex science and simple reality.
- Scheffler, I. E. (1999) Mitochondria. Wiley-Liss, New York.
- Hill, B G, Benavides, G A, Lancaster, J R, Ballinger, S, Dell’Italia, L, Zhang, J, Darley-Usmar, V M (2013) Integration of cellular bioenergetics with mitochondrial quality control and autophagy. Biol Chem 393 (12): 1485-1512.
- Sivitz, W I, Yorek, M A (2010) Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Diabetes: From Molecular Mechanisms to Functional Signficance and Therapeutic Opportunities. Antioxid Redox Signal 12 (4) 537-577.