Low energy levels and severe exhaustion, fatigue and lethargy are common symptoms of many chronic diseases.
And much of it has to do with the health of your “mitochondria”, the powerhouse of your cells.
Mitochondria is an organelle or the “little organ” that is found in each and every cell (apart from red blood cells) in our body. This is where our cells produce energy. Any dysfunction in this organelle will lead to a dysfunctional cell and eventually a tissue. After enough damage has accumulated, the entire organ system will become dysfunctional and contribute to chronic disease progression.
This is a key contributor to diseases like autoimmune conditions and other diseases of the thyroid disease, nervous system, brain, diabetes, and many more.
Cellular energy production
We often believe that just eating and getting enough calories will give us all the energy we need.
We have to digest the food, absorb it and then transport the nutrients to each and every cell in our body. The important thing to note here is that all these steps require us to spend energy. This energy is in the form of ATP, which is also the very same energy currency our body produces inside our mitochondria.
Plus, mitochondria also generate oxidative waste products called free radicals during the process of cellular respiration.
This creates “oxidative stress” which are metabolic waste products and can cause a lot of damage if left untreated for long. Much like the waste products in our kitchen and bathroom dustbins. To deal with this, our body’s anti oxidants balance out these oxidative waste products.
To put it simply, the health of our mitochondria depends on how well we balance energy production with waste cleanup.
The availability of oxygen also plays a big role in cellular energy production.
If anything affects our pattern of breathing, like allergies, anemia, COPD, or sleep apnea, leading to poor availability of oxygen, energy production in our mitochondria also gets affected.
In fact, mitochondrial dysfunction is the leading contributor to severe exhaustion in the case of autoimmune diseases. I have written about some of the other contributors to chronic fatigue here.
The other important thing to note is that the hormones- insulin, thyroid, and cortisol play very important roles in energy production.
We need to have a good balance of these hormones in order to have optimal energy production. Our body will adapt the cellular respiration levels in response to the levels of these hormones in our body. This means that if we do not have healthy levels of these hormones, our mitochondria will not be able to function properly.
As far as insulin is concerned in particular, high levels of this hormone damage our cell membranes and prevent nutrients from entering our cells.
Insulin resistance and/or uncontrolled diabetes (type 2) can reduce the availability of fuel for optimal energy production within our cells in this manner.
Beyond energy production
While mitochondria have long been considered the “powerhouse of the cell”, we now know that there is much more to the role that mitochondria play in our cells.
Mitochondria are important not only because of energy production but also because they are key regulators of cellular vitality and longevity. They determine the health of each and every cell in your body.
While cellular energy production provides us with vitality and vibrant health, it also produces a lot of oxidative stress. Our body handles this with the help of antioxidants.
As we grow older, our ability to digest worn out or damaged cell parts (autophagy) decreases. So does our ability to repair, recycle and reuse them for regeneration.
Also, mitochondrial dysfunction increases naturally as we grow older simply because of this wear and tear of the mitochondria leading to lower energy production.
As you can see now, the role of the mitochondria goes far beyond that of cellular energy production.
Renewal and Regeneration
One very important function of our mitochondria is essential housekeeping.
As a part of this, recycling is a critical component of cell longevity and a way for it to function optimally. This is our body’s way of dealing with the oxidative stress generated constantly which would otherwise cause damage if not managed properly.
Then there is the essential process of autophagy or “self eating”.
This is the constant digestion of worn out, damaged, or dysfunctional cell organelles so that their parts can be recycled and reused for regeneration of the cell. This is different from “apoptosis” which is a more aggressive form of dealing with it. It means programmed cell death or “cellular suicide”
This takes place when there is so much cellular damage that it is beyond repair.
In both these cases, it is our mitochondria that help in making this decision. It decides whether these organelles need to be recycled and regenerated or whether it’s time for apoptosis to prevent more systemic damage.
Food as fuel
We have to break down the foods that we eat into available nutrient forms that our body can use for (ATP) energy production.
This means that carbohydrates have to be broken down into simple sugars (monosaccharides), fats into glycerol and fatty acids, and proteins into amino acids. We have a complex, multistage process of energy production via cellular respiration.
However, this cellular energy production from mitochondria — goes down with both age and disease.
This occurs mostly due to
-lower antioxidant status
-oxidative damage to the mitochondria over time due to energy production
The good news is that there are key components in our diet and certain lifestyle interventions that can help us to boost our antioxidant status and prevent oxidative damage.
Phytonutrients and their antioxidative effects
As far as diet is concerned, phytonutrients like phenols, flavonoids, alkaloids and polyphenols play an important role.
They help our body deal with the oxidative stress that is produced due to cellular energy production. The best example of this is sulforaphane which is found in cruciferous vegetables. These vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower) help increase boost our antioxidative mechanisms and support mitochondrial health.
Ultimately, having a variety of fruits and vegetables is important. Eating “a rainbow diet” is helpful to support our mitochondrial health by keeping oxidative stress under control.
Resetting your metabolism
However, it’s not suitable for everyone. People with low cortisol levels for example. Fasting has to be thus customised and modified as per individual requirements. Fasting methods can and will vary from person to person (24 hours, 14–16 hours and more).
The important thing to note is that fasting mobilises toxins and can be counterproductive for people with constipation.
Movement and rest
A sedentary lifestyle is a high risk factor for chronic diseases like insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
And since excessive levels of insulin are a problem for cellular energy production, not moving our body affects our energy production. Our large muscles (legs, arms) use up more fuel when we exercise, which improves insulin resistance. Sleeping for 7 or 8 hours a night also helps improves insulin sensitivity and decreases cortisol levels.
And last but not the least, stress plays a major role in our mitochondrial function as well.
Stress increases blood sugar and stress hormones leading to more oxidative damage to our cells and our mitochondria.
As you can see, there is no one way to boost your mitochondrial health.
Everything is interconnected-
what you eat
how you manage stress
whether you exercise or move your body (or not)
toxins that you are exposed
Making sure that you address these key areas is the key to improving mitochondrial health and your energy levels.
As Dr. Terry Wahls had said
“You are alive because your cells are self-correcting chemical factories. Your job is to facilitate that self-correction, not impede it.”
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