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What are Mitochondria?


This month, we are still focusing on health and all things health related. There is already a lot covered on the blog, but I sometimes feel there are topics that I cover time and time again and perhaps have not explained enough in their “basics”. So, we are starting this week with what are mitochondria? These little organisms play a vital role in our body, so let’s break it down.

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Drew Hays auf Unsplash


Before we get to the mitochondria itself, we have to start with the smallest unit that can live on its own: The Cell. The cell is built up of mainly three things. (1) The cell membrane, (2) the nucleus, and (3) the cytoplasm.

The cell membrane basically encloses the cell and controls what substances flow in and out of the cell itself. The nucleus sits inside the cell and contains most of the cells DNA. It is also the place where most of the RNA is produced. Cytoplasm is the fluid with which the cell is filled. In the cytoplasm most chemical reactions inside the cell take place. It also contains other tiny cell parts that have different functions: The Golgi complex, the endoplasmic reticulum, and the mitochondria.

The Golgi complex prepares proteins and fat molecules for use in- and outside the cell. The endoplasmic reticulum serves many roles. It stores calcium, helps with protein synthesis, and fat metabolism inside the cell.

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Wolfgang Hasselmann auf Unsplash

What are Mitochondria?

Now we know that mitochondria are a tiny cell part, an organelle, inside the cytoplasm. But why is it needed and what makes it so special?

Discovery of Mitochondria

Mitochondria were discovered as early as 1890 by a scientist called Richard Altmann. Albeit Altmann first named mitochondria differently, it received its final name by Carl Benda ca. 8 years later. The word mitochondria is derived from the two Greek word “mitos” (thread) and “chondros” (granule).

Structure of Mitochondria

Think of mitochondria as a capsule shape. They have an outer membrane, which is quite porous and not very selective about what it lets into the mitochondria. Then there is the inner membrane. Think of it like protruding fingers. The central portion of the mitochondria, called the matrix, contains enzymes and DNA. Unlike most other organelles, they are unique in that they contain their own set of DNA, genes, and are able to encode proteins.

Function of Mitochondria

Here is the interesting and fascinating bit about mitochondria. They are able to produce energy in our cells. How do they do that? By breaking down carbohydrates and fatty acids inside the cell. During this process of breaking down food, they generate something called “adenosine triphosphate (ATP)”. ATP is the primary energy source for most biochemical and physiological processes inside the body, including growth, movement, and homeostasis.

Their functioning is so important inside the cell that they inhabit about 25% of the overall cell. Cells contain – on average (and depending how much energy the cell needs) – ca. 1000 to 2500 mitochondria. These mitochondria produce an average of 10bn ATP per day. ATP cannot be stored so mitochondria need to constantly produce ATP. In that process, each ATP gets recylced about 1000 times a day. Can you see how these little organelles have to function optimally and consistently all the time?

Importance of Mitochondria

As you can see, mitochondria are vital to the correct functioning of the human cell. Due to them having their own set of DNA, a mutation can lead to the absence, or dysfunction in mitochondrial proteins. This dysfunction can also lead to secondary diseases such as cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, heart attacks, or stroke.

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How to Protect Your Mitochondria?

All fair and square – but you know me. I always try to provide you with tangible actions that you can take, and not “just” the research 😉. So how can you protect your mitochondria and thereby continue to allow them to function optimally?

First off, mitochondria are especially susceptible to nutrient deficiencies, environmental toxins, oxidative damage. All words that you have heard me say before – often. CoQ10, riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin, iron, magnesium, and manganese are amongst some of the most important ones.

The primary source of oxidative stress in the cells comes from leakage of oxygen and high-energy electrons from the mitochondria. Next to this oxygen leakage, aging, exposing yourself to toxins, pollutants, alcohol, and quite a lot of prescription drugs can also damage our mitochondria.

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alevision.co auf Unsplash

Eat a Diet Rich in Antioxidant Foods

I feel like we are coming back to this point time and time again, for everything in relation to our bodies. Eat a diet rich in antioxidant foods, which means plenty of veggies and fruits. Remember that every fruit and veggie has slightly different antioxidants that support you and eliminate oxidative stress for slightly different purposes. This is the reason why it is so important to “eat the rainbow”. Diversifying your fruits and veggies will allow you to get a wide variety in all of these important phytonutrients.

Eggs being stacked on top of each other
青 晨 auf Unsplash

Eat Good Quality Proteins

We talk about the benefits of protein often and this can include meat, fish, nuts, seeds, legumes, and eggs. Be sure to choose grassfed for meat produce and wild caught for your fish choices in order to get the best quality. Protein will support amino acids such as glutathione which, in turn, protecs mitochondria.

A plate of different kinds of healthy fats and fruits on it
Brooke Lark auf Unsplash

Consume Healthy Fats

Fat is needed in order to create ATP. So good quality fats are important for the mitochondria in order to produce energy in the first place. Oily fish, coconut oil, avocado oil, and flaxseed oil are all great options that, at the same time, provide anti-inflammatory support.

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Kristine Wook auf Unsplash

Eliminate Toxins

Yes, it is absolutely important to look at what you are putting inside your body for optimal mitochondrial support (and overall health in general). But it is equally important to look at removing toxins from your body. Toxins can seriously compromise the mitochondrial function. Medications, sugar, and too much inflammation can all play a critical role. Ensuring your gut is healthy can be a great tool in order to support both your immune system and your overall inflammation levels with regards to this.

And that is it for mitochondria this week! I hope you learned something and understand these small, tiny organelles a bit better now 🥳.

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