As science continues to delve deeper and deeper into our inner "micro world", studies in the field of cellular genetics and longevity continue to reveal more of how we as humans operate. Because of this, we are now privileged to have a more personal and intimate view and understanding of the human cell and how it works.
Why is this so important? Although scientists do not know an exact number, the average body contains about 30-40 trillion cells of which red blood cells are predominant, making up 84 per cent.
They are the basic structures of all living organisms and when grouped together, form different types of tissues and systems within the body. Both animals and plants contain complex cells called Eukaryotic cells that contain structures called organelles whose mission it is to carry out special functions within the cell.
Mitochondria is the organelle responsible for producing energy into forms that are usable by the cell. They are the cell's powerhouse energy factory, mixing food molecules in the form of carbohydrates with oxygen to produce ATP (short for adenosine triphosphate).
This process is called cellular respiration. Proteins called enzymes are used to produce the correct chemical reaction needed to convert energy from the foods we eat into energy that runs biological processes.
Not all cells contain the same number of mitochondria. A simple cell may need only one or two mitochondria while more complex animal cells such as our own muscle cells house mitochondria in the thousands.
Although producing energy is the primary goal of the cell's mitochondria, it performs other functions as well such as cellular metabolism, producing heat and certain steroid hormones such as estrogen, cortisol, progesterone and testosterone.
Care of this specialised mitochondrion energy system can be likened to the way we care for our cars. Along with quality gas, oil, antifreeze, and water it takes to run our cars properly, we must also drive them with care and service them when needed and our mitochondria demand the same respect.
The more mitochondria we have, the less overworked each cell is and the more we gain from each one.
So, how do we "service" our mitochondria to keep them humming at peak performance?
To function at peak performance, mitochondria require a diet rich in antioxidants.
Not surprisingly, we can find these health defence warriors abundantly in colourful vegetables, fruits (fructose found in fruits impairs the production of cellular energy so best to stick to two portions per day and avoid juices and other products with added fructose syrups), herbs and spices.
Two specialised antioxidants, Coenzyme Q10 and lipoic acid, support energy production, protect mitochondria and mitochondria "biogenesis" – the process that renews and increases mitochondrial cells.
Magnesium and other nutrients such as vitamin C, E, and B along with selenium and iron are also requirements for healthy mitochondria. Vegetables, a variety of seeds and nuts, bean / lentils, dairy products along with fresh fish and meats are great sources.
Be sure to include lots of protein rich foods. Meats, fresh fish (local if possible), beans and lentils as well as eggs all support amino acids such as glutathione that work at protecting our mitochondria.
Let's not forget the fat. Healthy fats found in avocados, coconut oil, flaxseed oil and oily fish not only provide fuel for our mitochondria, but they also protect them and provide anti-inflammatory support.
Grounding is another avenue that benefits mitochondria. Applying bare skin directly to the earth via dirt or grass (ideally) draws electrons from the earth into the body. This has positive physiological responses / effects and works to neutralise damaging free radicals.
Get outside in nature and shed your shoes as often as you can so you can enjoy one-on-one physical contact with Mother Earth. Studies prove that our mitochondria expend less energy getting rid of accumulated waste when we are in a grounded state.
Taking the above measures to help protect our mitochondria by including lots of healthy foods is only half the battle. We must also remove anything that blocks its proper function and that's where eliminating toxins and cleaning up our diet come into play.
The health of our gut is no laughing matter and since mitochondria are sensitive to toxins, if we want to support their health, removing as many of these destructive foreigners as possible from our diet is essential.
A healthy gut supports our immune system and our level of inflammation. Inflammation is the enemy of mitochondria and when out of control, throws our mitochondria into dysfunction.
Malfunctioning mitochondria have been tied to neurodegenerative diseases, heart disease, cancer and diabetes among other health issues.
Without a doubt, mitochondria are critical players when it comes to cell survival, cell survival is critical to the healthy functioning of our biological systems and healthy biological systems are needed to avoid disease.
In the end, healthy mitochondria translate into healthy biological systems that support healthy immunity and the power to gift us with extended lifespans. It's a good thing.
• Carolyn Hansen is co-owner of Anytime Fitness.