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Every cell in your body contains between several hundred and several thousand mitochondria, which are tiny organelles that produce most of the energy your body and brain uses to function. Mitochondria act like a cellular digestive system that takes in nutrients, breaks them down and creates energy for the cell, in a process known as cellular respiration. Mitochondria use oxygen to turn glucose, fatty acids, and sometimes amino acids into chemical energy. Human beings are, gram for gram, probably the most powerful energy producers in the universe. We produce 10,000 times more energy per gram than the Sun!
Mitochondria supply the adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is a molecule that acts as the cellular currency of energy. Within your body the number of mitochondria per cell vary with the energy needs of that cell. The cells with the highest number of mitochondria are those found in the heart and skeletal muscles, the organs and especially the brain (nerve cells have massive energy needs). By weight your body is about 10-15% mitochondria!
Each mitochondria contains 5-10 copies of part of its DNA, which is stored in your mitochondria separately from the rest of your DNA, which is stored in the nucleus of your cells. In order to generate energy, Mitochondria burn up oxygen, creating free radicals which escape and cause damage to adjacent structures in the cells, including the mitochondrial DNA. Much of this oxidative damage to your cell’s structures is repaired by extensive repair machinery, but sometimes the damage is irreparable. Oxidative damage is cumulative and constant and builds up over your lifetime. Once the damage to a cell becomes too extensive, the cell dies and the body tissue containing that cell degenerates. This steady degeneration is responsible for aging and many diseases. When the cell is too damaged to function correctly, the cell commits suicide (called apoptosis) for the greater good. The mitochondria within a cell determine when apoptosis should occur, based on the number of dysfunctional mitochondria and the overall levels of ATP being produced within the cell. Failure of damaged cells to die off from apoptosis is a root cause of cancer.
The Mitochondrial theory of aging is the best theory we have currently. Mitochondria are your body’s main source of free radicals (oxidants), which damage your mitochondria and their DNA. Unlike the rest of your cells, mitochondria do not have much ability to repair themselves. As oxidative damage accumulates, your mitochondria become increasingly dysfunctional. As mitochondria become dysfunctional, the functioning and viability of the cell as a whole declines, until the cell cannot produce enough energy to sustain itself and your mitochondria trigger apoptosis. Notice able declines in cell functioning are observable by age 35-40. Even subtle declines in mitochondrial function can cause weakness, fatigue and cognitive difficulties. Taking good care of your mitochondria is key to peak performance and healthy aging.
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