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Support your Mitochondria

Updated: May 9

Girl with lots of energy

Deep within the cells of your body there are small structures called mitochondria. They are so small that a billion of these could exist on the head of a pin. The number of these in each cell of your body varies depending in the location of the cell, with each heart cell having up to 5000 of these tiny structures. Their role is critical to your health. It is in each mitochondria that your body makes your energy from fats, glucose and oxygen. There are chemical reactions taking place in there which create a compound called Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is the source of energy for everything in your body.

You need to support your mitochondria. The healthier you can keep these structures and the better that you feed them, the more energy you will have. They rely on tiny membranes through which some of the compounds pass during the chemical reactions. The balance of polyunsaturated fatty acids in your body has an impact on these membranes. If you have a mix of about 4:1 of Omega-6 to Omega-3, then the membranes are apparently soft and flexible, but if your level of Omega-6 gets very high, as can happen if you are consuming lots of seed oils, then these vital membranes can get stiff and hard and not function as well.

Your mitochondria can use either glucose (sugar) or fatty acids for their energy source. They use which ever one is available at the time and sometimes a little of both. In about 1963 a researching doctor called Dr. Philip John Randal discovered that when one these energy sources is high, there are switches that block out the other. This discovery has been labeled, “The Randal Cycle”.

Unfortunately these tiny chemical processes can also create oxygen molecules with unpaired electrons, known as “free radicals” as a by-product. Your body depends on the presence of anti-oxidants to mop up any excess of these, because if left free, they can create havoc, by “oxidizing” other molecules, in effect “rusting” you from the inside out, and this happens at high speed. Excess “free radicals” within the mitochondria break down the critical membranes, causing them to degenerate. When glucose from carbohydrates is the primary fuel, your mitochondria create 30% - 40% more “free radicals” than when operating on fatty acids.

Vegetable (industrial seed) oils can create even more stress for your mitochondria. Their manufacturing process which can involve multiple periods of heating, oxidize the oils making them rancid. We routinely avoid rancid (oxidized) food for our health, but these oils are then deodorized during manufacture, to remove this smell so we can be fooled into consuming this excess oxidation. Anti-oxidants are usually added in an attempt to mop up these excess free radicals. The resulting oxidized fats are taken up by your mitochondria.

Some free radicals are beneficial and our body can use these to fight cancer cells and other intruders, however an excess of these can be dangerous. This is the same with most nutrients, minerals and compounds used in your body. Too little or too much is not healthy, but there is a level which is perfect for you. For obvious reasons, this is sometimes termed the Goldilocks level.

Our human bodies can store lots of fat and it seems this is the principal energy source for us because of this capability. Glucose which comes from sugars that we eat as carbohydrates has very limited storage, which is one reason why we can feel hungry again, about 3 hours after a carbohydrate heavy meal. Isotope testing of human fossils has revealed that we mainly ate meat over the thousands of years before agriculture was discovered. During this time, if we came across available carbohydrates then using the switches identified by Dr. Randal we would be able to prioritize this for immediate energy and preserve our stores of fat. These carbohydrates would likely be some berries, honey, or some ripe fruit, but they would be small, not abundant and had a very short season so needed to be consumed immediately.

What Dr Randal discovered has huge implications for what and how we eat, and despite his finding being corroborated by subsequent research, it has not yet been explored in any depth.

What does this “Randle Cycle” mean for how we eat? It suggests that we should avoid eating lots of fat and carbohydrates in the same meal, because our mitochondria will have to prioritize one over the other. Does it matter if one of these is prioritized? Well it does and here is why.

If you have a mixed diet and glucose is prioritized, then in addition to creation of excess free radicals, the blood will have excess fatty acids to dispose of because these will be excluded from the mitochondria, so are unable to be used for energy. The way it disposes of these is to convert them into triglyceride's. High triglyceride levels are one of the indicators of poor metabolic health. In real terms, this means that people eating a typical “Western” diet with its huge dominance of carbohydrates from flour and sugar, will struggle to ever use any of their stored body fat, or even any of the fats eaten in a meal, their triglycerides will be constantly elevated and their health compromised.

If fatty acids are prioritized then the body will have to dispose of any excess glucose. The way it disposes of this is to convert it to glycogen for storage in muscles or convert to fat and store in the liver or as adipose fat on your body.

Thinking about original foods such as meat, eggs, fish, fruit, vegetables, etc. you may struggle to identify any foods where both fats and carbohydrates exist together. Maybe this is significant. In fact only a few natural foods come this way and the most prominent is milk. Growing babies may have special requirements due to their high nutrient and energy needs.

Compare these natural foods with ultra processed foods. Ultra processed foods are always factory made, and are composed of a mix of fats (usually from seed oils), flour and sugars (carbohydrates). Read the nutrition label to see the ingredients.

Based on this understanding of how your body works, it is clearly healthier to avoid ultra processed foods. These include breads, candy, cake, pasta, cookies, donuts, biscuits, cereal and cereal bars. If it is made in a factory and has a nutrition analysis on the packet, then beware as it will usually have a mix of fats and carbohydrates.

When your mitochondria are damaged, your energy level is reduced, plus excess free radicals will promote inflammation in your body which dramatically increases your risk of cancer, coronary heart disease, type-2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, etc.

Reducing this risk can be be helped by taking care of your mitochondria:

1. Avoid vegetable (industrial seed) oils such as corn, soy, safflower, canola, grape seed etc. Lookout for vegetable oils, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats in ingredient lists.

2. Replace these unhealthy oils with animal based fats, coconut oil or extra virgin olive oil.

3. Limit your consumption of sugar and grains.

4. Reduce the level of carbohydrates in your diet to less than 50 grams per day.

5. Replace the lost carbohydrates with saturated or monounsaturated fats as they are much less likely to be rancid already and will generate less free radicals.

In everyday speak, eat real food, including meat, fish, eggs, dairy and leafy green vegetables while avoiding grains, sugar, starch and vegetable oils.

Seek professional medical advice before making dietary changes, particularly if you have underlying health problems.

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Good health, George Elder, Diet Researcher, Dip. Nutrition.

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