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What are mitochondria and why on earth would you care?

Our bodies are made up of somewhere between 30 to 50 trillion cells—isn’t that incredible? When you think of health, you may not be thinking about cells, yet we are essentially the health of our cells.

You can picture a cell as a tiny little circle. And that circle is buzzing with activity—things coming and going from the cell, substances being converted through various biochemical pathways, and moving in and out of different structures (like little organs) within the cell.

Some of the most important structures within the cell are the mitochondria—this is where cellular energy (called ATP) is predominantly made via the Krebs cycle. This energy powers the cells and ultimately all of your body systems—it keeps your heart beating, your lungs breathing, your muscles working, and more. This is why mitochondria are commonly referred to as the energy powerhouses of the cell.

You may be starting to appreciate now that mitochondria play an enormous role in how we feel and function each day. Without them, not only would we not have any energy, we would not survive.

There isn’t just one mitochondrion (mitochondria = plural) in all cell types. There can be many. And the amount can vary based on the type of cell and how much energy it needs. For example, muscles require a lot of energy to power our movements, maintain our posture and hold our organs in place. Maintaining or building sufficient muscle mass and regular exercise are powerful ways to increase the number of mitochondria in muscle cells—giving your energy production a boost.

Antioxidants also play an important role in mitochondrial health and function. When energy is made in the mitochondria, reactive oxygen species (free radicals) are produced. While this is a natural process, free radical production needs to be balanced with sufficient antioxidants to prevent oxidative stress—as this can damage the mitochondria and contributes to premature ageing. This can also occur in response to exposure to environmental toxins and pollutants, increasing the need for antioxidants.

CoQ10—a vitamin-like substance—is especially important, as it plays a role in mitochondrial function and also acts as a powerful antioxidant. While the body can make CoQ10 and we consume a small amount through food, there are some situations where supplementing (usually with a form called ubiquinol) can be beneficial. For example, CoQ10 levels can be depleted with certain health conditions and with the use of some prescribed medications, such as statins. CoQ10 also helps to regenerate other antioxidant nutrients, such as vitamins C and E, so it really is something we want to have enough of.

A variety of nutrients, such as B vitamins, are also required for mitochondria to do their energy-producing work effectively. So, what we eat really matters. Including plenty of nutrient-rich whole foods will help to ensure you are consuming a range of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that support efficient energy production and help to protect the mitochondria from oxidative stress. Mitochondria are so closely tied to how much energy we have—or not—so when making your food choices, remember too that you are also feeding your mitochondria.

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