Managing Your Mitochondria

October 03, 2011

Managing Your Mitochondria  

Reference:  Nutrition Action Health Letter, December 2006 

 If you thought keeping a trim waistline was a bummer, then you thought it was all about eating less food and exercising more.   At the bottom of it all, that would be true.  But that may be sort of like saying the only way to fly across the Atlantic is in the Spirit of St. Louis.  Sort of slow! Takes a day and a half.  Not much room for passengers.  Navigation requires watching for cathedrals in France and aiming for the Eiffel Tower.  We can do better than that.  We can zoom across the Atlantic now in just a few hours on a supersonic jet.  

Can we manage our waistlines better too?  The answer would be yes.  But you have to understand the core processes. Mitochondria are the key.  This may take a week or two, but I’m starting a series here.  First, I’ll explain what a mitochondria is.  Then we will explore how they manage your energy supply.  Then we will go into the details of how to keep them healthy.  Finally, it will be about how to supercharge them. 

 Step One.  What are they?  Mitochondria are tiny little oblong “organelles” inside each and every cell.  A couple of hundred million years ago, a bacteria invaded a much bigger cell.  That tiny bacteria was really good at making energy.  It was willing to share with its bigger host.  The bigger cell liked that and sort of letting the little guy hang around.  The two got along famously.  When the bigger cell divided, the little one did too.  It took up housekeeping and made many more copies of itself.  But gradually, the mitochondria gave up most of their DNA so that they didn't have to spend so much energy maintaining their own genome.  The only genes it hung onto were the 37 that code for minute-to-minute changes, for which depending on the nucleus just took too long.

Today, mitochondria are still there.  They are tiny organelles inside all your cells.  They can still divide and multiply.  (That's called getting in shape.). They have taken over the job of converting sugars and fats into energy molecules.  They ship the energy molecules out to the rest of the cell.  Mitochondria have their own DNA and their own genes. You get them only from your mother, so we can trace your maternal lineage very accurately.  They mutate very slowly, but at a steady regular rate.  The more mutations we find, the further apart human populations are.  

It’s following and tracing the genetic differences in mitochondria that allows us to confidently say that we humans all descended from one lovely young lady living somewhere in Sudan or Ethiopia some 75,000 years ago.  We have labeled her "Mitochondrial Eve."    Those of us who ended up in the Yucatan have one set of mutations.  Those of us who found our way to Fiji, another set, India, yet another, and Finland, another still.  Milwaukee has them all.  All mixed up. But we all can trace ourselves back to "Eve". 

 Our hardest-working cells(heart and brains) have some 5,000 mitochondria in each of them occupying as much as 30% of the cell.   That’s because heart cells never stop working.  Then there is muscle, liver, kidney and you get the drift.  Overall, our bodies are roughly 10% mitochondria.   They are our power grid.  Without them, we couldn’t efficiently burn energy.  And burning energy is what each cell does to stay alive and do its designated function.    Burn baby, burn. 

 WWW:  What Will Work for me.  I need to learn about mitochondria.  My first key takeaway lesson is that it’s not just energy in = energy out.  Of course, that’s true.  I want to make sure my energy grid is up and working.  With the high price of oil, I mean fat, it’s time I burn my own energy efficiently.  I want to be jet-powered.

Column Written by Dr John E Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI.  262-784-5300