Mitochondria, a word you may remember from science class, is receiving the spotlight in health and wellness.
But what is Mitochondria, and what does it do in the body?
Mitochondria are membrane-bound organelles found in our cells. They have multiple functions in the body. Their primary function is to generate large quantities of energy. They also store calcium for cell signaling activities, generate heat, and mediate cell growth and death.
With these responsibilities in the body it’s no wonder we would want to positively impact our mitochondria. But how?
In a recent article by the Institute for Functional Medicine titled “Intermittent Fasting & Mitochondria” they discuss the research that’s shown how different fasting states can have a positive impact on mitochondrial health by promoting mitochondrial biogenesis.
Mitochondrial biogenesis is the process by which new mitochondria are created within a cell. Think of it like building new rooms in a house to increase its capacity. This process helps to increase the number and efficiency of mitochondria in cells, allowing them to produce more energy and better support cellular functions.
How does fasting help?
Fasting has been used for thousands of years for various therapeutic practices, so it is not surprising that the research is correlating these effects. A recent study suggested that fasting may increase overall lifespan of mitochondria by promoting a balance between fusion and fission states in mitochondrial networks. Mitochondrial fusion is the process by which two or more mitochondria join together to form a single larger mitochondrion. Think of it like combining two small rooms into one larger room by removing the wall between them. This process helps to maintain healthy mitochondria by allowing them to share their contents and support each other, especially when cells experience stress.
Fission is the opposite of fusion where a mitochondrion will separate into two smaller mitochondria. This is needed to create new mitochondria, but it also contributes to quality control by enabling the removal of damaged mitochondria. Excessive fission has been associated with mitochondrial functional defects that have been shown to lead to multiple diseases. Mitochondrial quality can impact almost any part of the body including cells of the brain, nerves, muscles, kidneys, heart, liver, eyes, ears, or pancreas. With the effects of mitochondrial dysfunction being most pronounced in organs and tissues that require a lot of energy such as the heart, brain, and muscles. Mitochondrial dysfunction is one of the nine hallmarks of aging.
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Are there other ways to promote our mitochondrial health?
Yes, there are several ways to promote mitochondrial biogenesis and health.
- Exercise, particularly endurance or aerobic exercise have positive effects on mitochondrial biogenesis. When you exercise, your muscles require more energy to power their contractions. This increased demand for energy puts a burden on muscle mitochondria and signals to the rest of the cell that more mitochondria are needed. In response, muscle cells produce more mitochondria and more mitochondrial enzymes to increase their capacity to produce energy. This helps to improve the respiratory capacity of muscles and delay age-related decline in mitochondrial activity and muscle health .
- Eating antioxidant rich diets have positive effects on mitochondrial biogenesis. Antioxidants are molecules that help to neutralize harmful substances called reactive oxygen species (ROS) that can damage cells and their components, including mitochondria. When mitochondria produce energy, they also generate ROS as a byproduct. Eating foods rich in antioxidants can help to neutralize these ROS and protect mitochondria from damage. This can help to maintain healthy mitochondria and promote the creation of new ones.
- Exposure to cold or heat can positively impact mitochondrial biogenesis by triggering beneficial biological responses that boost mitochondria. When you are exposed to cold temperatures, your body needs to generate more heat to maintain its core temperature. This increased demand for heat puts a burden on brown fat cells, which contain a high number of mitochondria and are specialized for generating heat. In response to cold exposure, these cells produce more mitochondria and increase their activity to generate more heat. Similarly, exposure to heat can also trigger beneficial biological responses that boost mitochondria.
While fasting may not be optimal for all patients, we always recommend checking with your healthcare practitioner before starting any programs to ensure these new programs fit in with your personalized treatment strategy.
Want to read more? Check out our article on intermittent fasting here.