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  • Siri DeMarche

Mitochondria-More than the Cell's Powerhouse; Aging like a Bo$$ & Why Willpower is BullS**t

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

*As always, scroll to the very bottom for a TLDR synopsis*

While we all remember from elementary school biology that mitochondria are "the powerhouse of the cell," what most of us do not realize is the extent to which these little buggers influence our very being. To better understand this, one must integrate knowledge from mitochondrial biology, stress neuroendocrinology, aging biology, computational social neuroscience, mitochondrial medicine, and study the mechanisms of mitochondrial psychobiology; transferring levels of complexity from organelle to organism and beyond to the environment in which the organism lives. This integrative bottom-up way of thinking is in direct juxtaposition with our current top down reductionist theory of scientific and medical exploration.The complete role that mitochondria play in human health, aging, and the development of disease is still largely unknown. Only recently has research, focused on discovering the principles of mitochondria signal transduction, shed light on the novel principles that underlie mitochondrial responses to environmental stressors, the maintenance of human health, and the influence of mitochondrial defects on complex cellular and physiological processes (like aging).

Transmission electron microscopy (left) shows the complex internal membrane structure of mitochondria, and electron tomography (right) gives a three-dimensional view.Tomographic images by T. Frey (SDSU) and G. Perkins (UCSD); with the permission of Professor Frey

A bit o' mitochondria background:

Aside from the cell's nucleus, the mitochondria is the only sub-cellular component with its own DNA. To understand how important these little buggers are to our fundamental existence and projected biological longevity, it is necessary to understand them developmentally. 1.45 billion years ago, mitochondria originated through the resulting endosymbiosis (symbiosis in which one of the symbiotic organisms lives inside the other) event of an aerobic prokaryote (oxygen using single cell organism) as it was engulfed by a host anaerobic eukaryote (multicellular organism that cannot use oxygen). Fast forward a bit and complex multicellular life evolves from a symbiotic relationship with mitochondria. Consequently, many regulatory processes within the cell and the organism (ex. differentiation and death) are motivated by mitochondrial signals. Like their bacterial ancestors, mitochondria exchange molecular information with one another through organelle fusion, mitochondrial nanotunnels, inter-mitochondrial junctions (IMJs), and soluble molecules. As it stands today, mitochondria are thought to form a functional network within the cell cytoplasm. It is necessary to understand the behavior, language, and function of independent mitochondria, and also their interactions with each other, to understand the fundamental principles that influence the function of mitochondrial networks and their role in the regulation of independent cells, and also within the whole organism. These principles are crucial for deriving basic biological processes like gene expression regulation, clonal expansion of mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) defects, and cellular aging trajectories.

Mitochondrial allostatic load (MAL): Mitochondria are sensitive to various stressors that cause maladaptive structural and functional changes in response to chronic stress.

We now know that mitochondria are sensitive to various stressors that cause maladaptive structural and functional changes in response to chronic stress (mitochondrial allostatic load or MAL). It is necessary to study the effects of acute and chronic stressors on mitochondria as part of the stress and disease cascade. Mitochondrial Psychobiology is the study of the interactions between psychological states and the biological processes that occur within the mitochondria. This field of study also focuses on how mitochondrial behavior influence neural, endocrine, and immune systems known to transduce (convert into electrical signal) psychological experiences into health outcomes. It examines the interplay between psychological states and mitochondrial health, the regulation of mitochondria stress responses in human resilience, and the further understanding mitochondrial function in human cells and tissues. When mitochondria are healthy and happy, the human organism is healthy and happy as one integrated system.

When an organism fails to function as an integrated system, disease occurs. Chronic stress damages cells and organs, while also increasing dysregulation across organ systems. Mitochondrial disease occurs through mutations in mtDNA or in nuclear genes that code for mitochondrial components. These mutations may be resultant via acquired mitochondrial dysfunction through environmental and inherited factors. Mitochondrial dysfunction alters various cell types, organ systems, and the communication between them. By studying how genetic, cellular, and psychosocial factors affect disease onset and progression we can take precautionary steps and preventative measures to avoid acquiring mutations that can lead to mitochondrial dysfunction.

Why are they SO FREAKIN important (and cool)?

If you want to understand your biology better, understand your mitochondria. Mitochondria power every cell in the body by turning the fats and sugars that you eat into cellular energy. They are not only our powerhouses, they are our batteries because they make and store energy. There are a quadrillion mitochondria in our bodies, making up approx. 10% of our body weight, with the highest concentration of them found in the eyes, brain, and heart. They are our frontline environmental sensors and control everything from how much energy we have to our hormone regulation to whether a cell lives, dies, or replicates. I.e, sex hormones and stress hormones are produced inside the mitochondria, but respond to the thyroid gland (which regulates general energy in the body). Currently it is unknown what triggers mitochondria to increase testosterone production, but whoever figures this out will put a lot of drug companies out of business :). It stands to reason then that if you make your mitochondria stronger, your body will benefit from an increase in energy output. As we age, our mitochondria degrade through accumulating oxidative damage and consequently we begin to feel sluggish and fatigued. In addition to understanding how our telomeres degrade (read about it here), if we create more efficient mitochondria we will live younger and more energetic lives.

As aforementioned, current academic and medical communities observe the world through a reductionist lens (breaking down complex things to understand individual components as they relate to a whole singular entity). Reductionist theory does not study mitochondria in the context of the human organism as a whole. For instance, compare a human cadaver with a living body. What is the difference? The systems are the same, the organs are the same, the tissues are the same..etc. What is not the the same is the fact that one of these bodies has no life force or energy flowing through it. Molecules are animated by the flow of energy. Duh. Energy flow is also the flow of information. We are alive because of this flow. The flow of information is possible because of electron signaling throughout our body. Where do these electrons come from? They are produced by the mitochondria. When you interrupt oxygen flow to your mitochondria in the brain (just press on your carotid artery for fifteen or so seconds), you lose consciousness. Q.E.D there is a link between mitochondria, energy, consciousness, and ultimately how we perceive and experience the world. Per reductive logic, aging, energy, stress, emotions, and mitochondria have been individually focused on. Although it does not fit into today's biomedical or academic box, what if the link between aging, energy, stress, emotions, and mitochondria were studied as integrative with each other? This approach suggests sub-cellular organelle are integrated with the cellular level which is then integrated with the human organism as it is integrated with the surrounding environment. Looking at things bottom up, rather than top down.

Biophoton Signaling

By themselves, mitochondria aren't all that special. But through communication with each other (via fission, fusion, light generation, electromagnetic field, and biophotons), amazing things happen. Networks are built and life is sustained. As with human society at large, only through communication and support can life progress. There are a quadrillion mitochondria throughout your body communicating, responding, and creating. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes total sense that these little guys are spread throughout the body in the same way that a fault tolerant disruptive system makes sense (ex. the internet). If a part of the internet were to shut down and cause temporary communication problems, limitations and anomalies, the rest of the system would still function as optimally as possible. To do this, mitochondria must repeat algorithms that help you survive: 1) Run or hide from things that can kill you 2) Eat as much as possible to avoid starvation at any time 3) Reproduce the species. Now, there are a quadrillion mitochondria repeating this algorithm over and over and over and over...... They are responding to the most important stressors to ensure the survival of the species. If these basic needs are not met, i.e. you're constantly starving, reacting to stressful situations within your environment, and not having sex, your mitochondria are stuck in a loop of 1) Flight (likely in the form of anxiety) 2) Obsessive thinking about food or overindulging to store in case of a famine 3) Preoccupation with having sex. If your mitochondria (and to extent you as a person) are solely focused on these three things, the beautiful connectivity and communication between the mitochondria and the rest of your body's systems does not happen. Which begets the question, is "willpower" bullsh*t? Or is it a fundamental lack of proper mitochondrial care?

What can we do?

Simply put, mitochondria are the gateway to epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of changes in organisms caused by the modification of the gene expression, rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. This means that even if you are predisposed to getting a particular disease because of inherited factors, you have control over whether that inherited genetic factor gets expressed. You have say in your biology. You have say over your biology with the types of food you consume, the environmental toxins that you are exposed to, your physical activity, and even your thought process.

Working model of mitochondria 1) sensing 2) integration 3) signaling, and its parallel with the way the brain processes information. Trends Neurosci (2015)

Here are some things that you can do to improve your mitochondria function:

-Fasting (read more here)

When we don't eat, our mitochondria produce more energy with less waste and become more resilient to damage. However, calorie restriction is not sustainable long term. When practiced safely (happy to answer any questions about this), fasting is a great tool to stave off aging and get rid of suboptimal functioning cells to make room for new ones. Eating too much saturates the mitochondria and fragments them. This makes them incommunicative with one each other and also does not kill the weaker ones or make stronger newer ones.

-Cold Exposure

Similar to fasting, short term stress can lead to long term adaptations by keeping cells healthy longer and staving off disease. These short term stressors get rid of the weak mitochondria to create newer stronger ones that can handle the stress and adjust the body's set point of discomfort. One way to do this is to take a daily cold shower. A way to ease in to this torture is to gradually increase your time under the cold water over a few days, starting with ten seconds and working your way up to a minute over the course of a week or so. The highest concentration of mitochondria are in your brain, heart, and eyes. I wouldn't recommend cold water straight to the open eyes, but exposing your forehead and chest to the cold water directly is a great way to target a large number of mitochondria at once.


Physical activity is a short term stressor and as such mitigates the effect of weak mitochondria by forcing them out to make way for new ones, keeping cells younger and more energetic.

-Eat High Quality Fats

Mitochondrial metabolism has been linked with depression and the mitochondria's ability to break down lipids for fuel. Mitochondria love good fats and stable oils (think avocado, olives, coconut oil...) and burn them very cleanly. Mitochondrial dysfunction arises from inflammation throughout the body and can lead to a cascade of metabolic and non-metabolic abnormalities like defects in mitochondria gene expression, imbalance in fuel and energy homeostasis, impairment in oxidative phosphorylation (metabolic pathway where cells use enzymes to oxidize nutrients, releasing energy used as ATP), increase of insulin resistance, and deformities in fatty acid metabolism. Consequently, mitochondrial dysfunction heavily contributes to the onset of insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes, vascular disease, and chronic heart failure. Harsh sugars, bad fats, and dirty fat oils (think seed oils, fried foods, refined sugar, gluten, A1 dairy, alcohol...) cause inflammation in the body and actively degrade mitochondria, causing dysfunction and premature aging. Interestingly, the anti-aging compound, L-carnitine or L-car, increases the cell's availability to use mitochondria effectively and is low in people with depression. Therefore if mitochondrial metabolism has been linked with depression and the mitochondria's ability to break down lipids for fuel, eating quality fats will help alleviate depression through also increasing L-car and the body's ability to effectively use mitochondria.

-Get Some Sunshine & Eat Your Greens

Per the Krebs Cycle, mitochondria consume oxygen and starch and produce CO2 and water as waste products. Through photosynthesis, plants convert CO2 and water from their roots into carbohydrate using the energy from sunlight to do so. The number of mitochondria present in a cell is dependent on the metabolic requirements of that cell. Because humans have a higher energy demand than plants, we have more mitochondria present throughout our bodies. It is one of the reasons why we do not have roots like plants do. Knowing this, one could argue that if the human body consumes adequate cholorphyll (the green pigment in plants responsible for the absorption of light to provide energy for photosynthesis), the energy demands of the human body could be partially met (<5%) by sunshine.

The Krebs Cycle (or Citric Acid Cycle) is a series of chemical reactions in aerobic organisms to release stored energy through the oxidation of acetyl-CoA derived from carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism into ATP & CO2. The reactions of the cycle are performed by eight enzymes that oxidize acetyl-CoA into CO2 & H2O.

-Get Your Polyphenols

Polyphenols are mitochondrial enhancements and are the largest group of phytochemicals. Because mitochondria are the largest cellular source of reactive oxygen species (ROS: chemically reactive chemical species containing oxygen), redox-active compounds (think antioxidants) can help modulate ROS levels and induced processes, including mitochondria permeability transition and cell death. In addition to their antioxidant activity & eradication of free radicals, polyphenols have been found to modulate mitochondrial biogenesis, ATP synthesis, and thermogenesis- making them an incredibly important nutrient to include in our diets to promote our biological longevity.

Sources of polyphenols include dark chocolate & cocoa powder (no added sugar or emulsifiers), berries (blueberries with the highest concentration), extremely clean coffee beans, high quality olive oil, cloves, plums, black currants, hazelnuts, and pecans.

-Stay Hydrated

Your mitochondria use the hydrogen in water to make energy, the hydrogen in water also binds to free radicals and gets rid of them, keeping your inflammation low. Plain and simple. A good guideline is 88oz/day for women and 128oz/day for men of filtered water a day.

-Be like Peter Pan, Think Happy Thoughts

How you feel might also effect your mitochondria (rather than the other way around, as we look at it today). Ever feel like the more stressed or anxious you are, the higher tendency you have to get sick? Why do some people tend to get more sick than others? An emerging field of research, called Mitchondria Psychobiology connects the psyche and the soma (the mind and body). The current theory is that mitochondria is the interface between the two. A recent study looked at the correlation between how people felt before taking blood to increase functional health and their general well being. The higher the well being of participants in this study pretty convincingly correlated with their mitochondria's ability to produce more energy the day after taking the blood. This study does not correlate mitochondrial function with making people feel better, but rather the other way around. This makes it the first study to propose that mitochondria is influenced by mood and psychological states. As such, it is a great idea to find things that make you feel good and happy. Happiness is a state of achievement and coincidentally is driven by energy that needs to come from somewhere.


Meditation and focused breath takes you from your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to parasympathetic (rest and digest). Recall from above the importance of not constantly responding to life's stressors for the growth of strong mitochondria. A great way to do this is "Box Breathing."

Box Breathing

1) Breathe in for a count of 5 seconds

2) Hold for a count of 5 seconds

3) Breathe out for a count of 5 seconds

4) Hold empty lungs for 5 seconds

(gradually increase number seconds over your practice)

-Minimize Antibiotic and Pharmaceuticals Use

Mitochondria are ancient bacteria. Antibiotics kill bacteria. Pretty straight forward. Today we are way too good at drugging things and we will pay a price for it. Similarly the overuse of pharmaceutical drugs and their side effects are altering our mitochondria. Our mitochondria have various receptors for different neurotransmitters and for our hormones. By altering our mitochondria we alter these things as well, setting off a cascade of biological disaster through our bodies.

-Electrically Ground Yourself This one might seem a little witchy woo woo. But mitochondria are actually semiconductors (remember that information travels via electron signaling throughout the body). By electrically grounding yourself, you help to stabilize your mitochondria and promote better circuitry and information exchange throughout your internal network systems. The easiest way to do this is walk barefoot on the earth.

If you want to upgrade your biology, upgrade your mitochondria. It is as easy as that. By upgrading these ancient little buggers, you are by extent upgrading the entirety of your biochemical makeup through their expansive communication system. Mitochondria have their hand in every cookie jar of every systematic function inside you. The quickest way to have the largest impact on your current biology is to optimize the functioning of your mitochondria in each of your cells.


Progressive increase in mtDNA 3243A>G heteroplasmy causes abrupt transcriptional reprogramming.

Trans-mitochondrial coordination of cristae at regulated membrane junctions.

Translating the basic knowledge of mitochondrial functions to metabolic therapy: role of L-carnitine

Mitochondrial dynamics in adaptive and maladaptive cellular stress responses.

Acute psychological stress increases serum circulating cell-free mitochondrial DNA.

A Mitochondrial Health Index Sensitive to Mood and Caregiving Stress.

Mitochondrial allostatic load puts the 'gluc' back in glucocorticoids.

Effects of Polyphenols on Thermogenesis and Mitochondrial Biogenesis.

Mitochondrial Nanotunnels.

Mitochondrial synapses: intracellular communication and signal integration.


Mitochondria are the ancient bacteria that power the human organism. By upgrading and strengthening your mitochondria, you upgrade and strengthen the entirety of your biochemical makeup. Staving off disease and premature aging in the process. Some ways to do this are;

-Short term stresses to promote long term adaptations. Examples include fasting, cold exposure (cold showers), and exercise.

-Eat high quality fats because high quality fats are the cleanest fuel source for your mitochondria to burn. Things like avocado, coconut oil, olives, and the like. Avoid inflammatory foods like unstable oils (seed oils, vegetable oils), refined sugar, gluten, and A1 dairy because inflammation causes mitochondrial dysfunction.

-Get plenty of sunshine and eat your greens to increase energy levels

-Get your polyphenols in to eradicate free radical damage and mitigate damage, while increasing biological longevity. Sources include, blueberries, super dark chocolate & cocoa, pecans, plums, cloves, clean coffee beans, high quality olive oil...

-Stay hydrated to keep inflammation levels low. 88oz/day for women and 128oz/day for men is a good guideline.

-Think happy thoughts. There is a new field of research emerging linking mind and body, the current hypothesis being that our mood effects our mitochondria function.

-Breathe to go from sympathetic to parasympathetic. Try box breathing:

1) Breathe in for a count of 5 seconds

2) Hold for a count of 5 seconds

3) Breathe out for a count of 5 seconds

4) Hold empty lungs for 5 seconds

(gradually increase number seconds over your practice)

-Minimize Antibiotic and Pharmaceuticals Use to preserve mitochondrial integrity and their function.

-Electrically Ground Yourself. Mitochondria are semiconductors in your body and by grounding yourself, you are stabilizing them.

Statements made on this website have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or any other medical body. I do not aim to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any illness or disease. Information is shared for educational purposes only. You must consult your doctor before acting on any content on this website, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition.

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