How much do you know about your mitochondria?
As athletes, we’re generally pretty good at looking at the big picture: the PR you want to nail; the chiseled abs you’ve been gunning for; the latest goal you’ve set. But sometimes it’s actually helpful to think small.
Meet the mighty mitochondria, the “power plants” of our cells.
Mitochondria take fat, carbohydrates, protein and other smaller nutrients from our diet, along with the oxygen from the air we breathe, and convert them into energy. This, in essence, is our metabolism. To a large extent, how effectively our bodies convert the food we eat to energy depends on how well our mitochondria function.
Along the way, our cells create waste products. As cells utilize food combined with oxygen, waste products—known as free radicals—are produced. The sum of all waste products combined is known as oxidative stress. Although these waste products are a normal byproduct of a cell’s work, when too much waste is made, or when cells can’t get rid of that waste, problems arise.
The amount of waste in the body depends on how well our mitochondria function. In fact, having high amounts of waste products in the body is one of the main theories of aging. When inundated with waste, mitochondria don’t function well. A mitochondrion can actually die from these waste products—causing the cell it resides in to also die. Overtime, more cells die and less mitochondria are available. As a result, our health declines. When enough cells in our body die, we die.
But oxidative stress is also the primary cause of many chronic diseases, including heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and cancer. The root cause of all of these diseases is mitochondrial dysfunction.
In addition to creating disease states, oxidative stress also affects how we feel. Sometimes it results in obvious fatigue. In younger and more active people, the effects are often more subtle. For instance, you may not have the same stamina during your typical routine, or recovery time between your workouts may slow. You may also note muscle aches or stiffness that lasts longer than usual.
Worse, oxidative stress sets you up for injury when working out. It can lead to an injury as simple as a sprained ankle, or something more severe, such as rhabdomyolysis—the breakdown of massive amounts of muscle. It can have long-term health consequences, and can be life threatening. In short, oxidative stress can make you feel tired, sick, fat and old!
COMBATTING EXCESS OXIDATIVE STRESS
The amount of waste our bodies makes depends on our diet, lifestyle, the toxins in our environment and our genes. Aside from our genes, and to some extent our environment—which are out of our control—we can control oxidative stress through diet and lifestyle.
Excess calories create excess oxidative stress. Diets rich in vegetables and fruits are good because they have antioxidants—substances that remove waste products. On the other hand, eating excess animal protein and not balancing it with vegetables creates a lot of oxidative stress. For the same amount of calories, you can eat much more volume in vegetables than meat, gaining many more antioxidants. That is why vegetables are considered nutrient-dense.
Lifestyle is another area we can control. Although we typically think more exercise is better, this is not entirely true. For instance, exercise creates an enormous amount of oxidative stress. Exercise benefits us because it triggers the body’s healthy genes that combat oxidative stress. However, if you are lacking healthy genes or you bombard yourself by intense exercise, you must eat a diet rich in antioxidants to help offset the oxidative stress.
This generally requires supplementation; otherwise you would need an enormous amount of food, which could result in excess calories. Nutrients that fuel and protect mitochondria include: Co-enzyme Q10, magnesium, D-ribose, L-carnitine and lipoic acid. These supplements allow our mitochondria to work efficiently not only by creating energy, but also by removing the waste products created from that energy production. However, it’s important for the supplements to be varied, since they all have different functions. It’s also important to consult a doctor before beginning a supplement routine.
Good health is largely affected by balancing oxidative stress and the body’s ability to get rid of it. How well we feel and function stems from how well our mitochondria function. Which is a good reminder that peak performance can only be achieved when we pay attention to every single part of our bodies—all the way down to the cellular level.