Mitochondria impact energy levels, depression, heart health, eyes, brain function and a whole lot more.
It’s hard to believe I went through 30 years of life without hearing about mitochondria, or knowing how important they are to my health. I had heard of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the stuff the body uses as energy, which is mostly generated by mitochondria, but had no idea what else the mitochondria do. Mitochondria play a part in energy levels, cell growth, cell signalling and even cell death. They have been implicated in several human diseases, including heart failure and cancer. More research is needed there to know exactly what they do, and how we can manipulate them to cure or prevent disease, but there’s enough evidence of benefits for me to comfortably change a few things in my life to increase my mitochondria health.
Giving credit where it’s due, Dave Asprey has been instrumental in my interest and learning about optimal performance, and I’d strongly recommend you check out more of his work here. Dave explains that mitochondria are like the powerhouse of your cells, and this began to make a whole lot of sense to me. Dodgy batteries or a dodgy power station equals dodgy energy levels.
The history and scientific explanation of mitochondria are, quite frankly, too complicated for me to fully understand, let alone explain accurately, so if you’re a science buff by all means, go explore this further (and feel free to share with me what you find, I’m always interested). What impacts me more are real life experiences and noticeable improvements in energy.
What Are Mitochondria?
My simplified version of how things work is this: mitochondria are like ancient bacteria that took up residence in our cells, They care about keeping their environment (your body) alive. They are sort of part of your body, but sort of an external influence still. They impact this more than I possibly imagined. They live within cells in varying amounts throughout the body. When they are unhealthy, you feel like unhealthy. When they are happy and healthy, they stress less and give you more control over their environment (your body) because they are not freaking out that the entire system is about to collapse.
Mitochondria are most concentrated in your eyes, brain and heart (and ovaries for women). I don’t have scientific proof that my own mitochondria look different now than they did two years ago, but I can tell you that without doubt, I am a different person, and my personal belief is that lifestyle changes that improved mitochondria health play a big part in this.
What Do Ineffective Mitochondria Feel Like?
I hate to think how unwell I’d be today without Dave Asprey’s research helping me make the mitochondria link. Almost three years ago I started having ongoing autoimmune issues with my left eye. I’d started wearing glasses about a year before that for some minor vision problems, but when uveitis started to hit me I knew something more serious was going on. It was basically swelling inside my eyeball, with my body picking up some sort of threat and attacking healthy tissue. It felt like someone was chiselling the back of my eyeball and went from nothing, to intense pain within two days. A bunch of blood tests found nothing else of concern so the ophthalmologist treated me with steroid eye drops and put it down to “unknown causes”. I had recurring problems with this for over a year, with all doctors leaving the cause as just sort of mystery we could do nothing about. We knew how to treat and bring it under control, so they seemed to think that was ok.
Around 18 months ago I had another doctor find some hormone issues. I had low oestrogen, low progesterone, and questionable dopamine levels. (I say “questionable dopamine” because testing is unreliable.) That doctor treated the oestrogen and progesterone with hormone replacement cream and was happy with that outcome. I wasn’t, insisting that surely low hormones were a symptom of another issue that should be treated.
The biggest concern for my doctors and me was my brain function. Having battled varying levels of depression through most of my adult life, around this time things were definitely getting worse. Of equal concern to me, was the fact that I was forgetting things I usually knew, and experiencing worsening brain fog. Yet another doctor tried unsuccessfully medicating me for my depression, it didn’t help and seemed to make my memory worse. Psychological, physical and chemical treatments weren’t making a difference. I did everything traditionally recommend to improve depression: exercised, ate well (traditional “well”, not the high fat, low carb diet I now find works for me), avoided alcohol, spent time with friends and kept a gratitude journal. Nothing helped. Not only was I batting depression that made daily life torture, my memory continued to fade. As a writer, it was a bizarre feeling to not only not be able to think of the word I wanted to use in a sentence, but not be able to think of a similar word to make use of a thesaurus. I didn’t remember faces of people I met. Even after seeing and speaking to someone five times, I couldn’t picture them in my mind after they left. I’d have no idea what hair colour they had or if they had distinctive facial features. I met a lot of people through my work, and would have to keep notes about everyone to try and pretend I recognised them the next time I saw them. I knew something was wrong, and I’m so glad I kept researching until I figured it out.
Something about the mitochondria link resonated with me: I was having problems with three of the four most concentrated areas for mitochondria (brain, eyes and ovaries). Could it be as simple as fixing the cellular batteries?
It was, although at the time I didn’t really know that’s what I was doing. Here’s how it seemed to work. I had a limited amount of energy because my mitochondria were crap. Mitochondria decide how energy is used by order of importance to keep your body alive. Here’s the order mine decided:
- Your heart beats
- You eat and digest food (but only as efficiently as needed to survive)
- You notice and react to danger (and because this is important to surviving, you seriously overreact and unnecessarily categorise things as danger)
- You remember things, you be smart, you be happy and everything else.
When my mitochondria were bad, I ran out of energy at number 3. Seriously, ran out, nothing in the tank. No amount of gratitude lists or positive thinking were going to get me to number 4. Linking my physical and mental symptoms to lead myself to researching mitochondria helped me to understand what was going on. Once I realised I needed to fix the mitochondria and increase cellular energy, things really were easy. Mitochondria can survive if your brain is depressed, that’s not important to them. I’m not saying this will work for everyone with serious depression, and I’m not against conventional medicine. I just think it’s important to share that for me, improving mitochondrial health completely changed my brain. I overreacted, both physically and mentally, to potential danger. I guess because if it was a genuine threat, my little mitochondria wanted to make sure I could handle it and keep them alive. Mitochondria need your cells to be alive for them to survive, they don’t need you to be happy. They decide where the energy goes first, so it’s my job to make sure there’s energy left over for where I want it to go, like being smart and being happy.
The easiest way I found to improve my mitochondria was utilising ketones for energy. Research shows that by putting your body under stress (that is, good, manageable stress and not torture), also strengthens mitochondria. Things like cold showers and high intensity interval training can have an impact here. I also do the Wim Hof Method of breathing which I think helps. I’m still constantly looking for ways to get even more energy into my cells, which in turn gives me more energy for the things I want to do.
These days I don’t need to wear my glasses because my eyesight improved and haven’t had autoimmune issues with my eyes for over a year. I have the energy to write again without the stress of forgetting what I’m doing. I still struggle a little with faces, but have a lot more confidence that I’ll remember people when I see them. I get better on a daily basis, and it’s hard to put into words the difference of living with an energised brain as opposed to a depressed one. It’s like I’m running a different program. I have energy to do more than just survive. Because my cells have energy to spare, the mitochondria are not constantly sending the signals that we’re in danger and the world is a threatening place.
If you’re not feeling great, you owe it to yourself to work out why. It could be something else, but maybe it’s a mitochondria issue and you’re just running out of energy for the good stuff. If that’s the case, improve mitochondria health and improve your life. Find what works for you and do that.