Fatigue. It is one of the most common and challenging symptoms that primary health care providers evaluate every day.
Why? Because lack of energy can be caused by so many different things — and it makes such a difference in the way people look, feel and perform. Without sufficient energy, we can't accomplish all the things that we need or want to do. Without sufficient energy, the quality of our lives is diminished.
Sometimes we don't appreciate the importance of energy until we don't have it. If you've ever had a bad case of the flu, and felt like you could barely lift your head off the pillow, you've had a glimpse of what life can be like when you don't have any "get up and go".
These days, there are many quick-fixes for people suffering from low energy. If you walk into any convenience store, you can find an overwhelming array of energy-boosting products. Unfortunately, these "outside-in" approaches aren't long term solutions. They force an already-tired body to go above and beyond, and they are very hard on our health. Imagine a heartless carriage driver flogging an exhausted horse to go the extra mile. This is what too many of us drive our bodies to do on a regular basis!
Supporting our natural energy-production processes is a much more sustainable way to make sure that we have the energy that we want to be at our best over the long-term. Consistent "inside-out" approaches to managing our energy actually build greater well-being and resilience instead of depleting them.
To nurture our energy from the inside out, it is important to remember where energy comes from. The energy that our bodies use is generated within our cells, when they do the miraculous work of converting stored energy (mostly from the food we eat) into ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is the fuel that makes our body run. There are different ways that ATP is produced, depending on the source of the stored energy.
The mitochondria are key players in how energy is produced in cells. You have probably heard them called "the powerhouses of the cells". That is because they are like factories that break down high energy molecules (glucose from carbohydrates, amino acids from proteins, and fatty acids from fats) and convert them to energy that can be stored and used in the body.
Because mitochondria are critical to energy production, anything that damages or destroys them will affect how much energy we have.
Cells with unhealthy mitochondria don't function at their best (mitochondrial dysfunction), and when a cell doesn't have enough healthy mitochondria, it can't sustain itself and it dies. When multiple cells in an organ die or are dysfunctional , the organ doesn't work properly. Unfortunately, our current healthcare system doesn't pick up on these kinds of problems until many cells are already dead or dysfunctional. For example, someone who has just been diagnosed with diabetes typically has only 10 - 50% of their insulin-making cells (beta cells) still functioning.
Fortunately, there are simple things that we can do to keep our mitochondria healthy! Here are three:
- Exercise - Exercise stimulates our cells to make NEW mitochondria and it makes existing mitochondria more efficient.
- Avoid Toxins — Mitochondrial are very susceptible to damage from environmental toxins and a number of drugs.
- Reduce oxidative stress — The process of energy production produces waste, just like burning fuel in a car. Among the waste products are free radicals, which can damage mitochondria as well as other structures in our cells. Our cells have a built-in ability to neutralize these free radicals (antioxidant enzymes), but this ability diminishes over time as our cells get damaged. Fortunately, we have learned that we can combat this through the science of nutrigenomics — using foods (such as cruciferous vegetables) and nutritional supplements (such as Protandim) to turn on the genes that help our bodies make more antioxidant enzymes. (To learn more about why making antioxidants is better than taking antioxidants, check out my blog about "How to Deal with Radicals.")
Here's a short video from the National Science Foundation about the mighty mitochondria:
What about you? What approaches do you use to mind your mitochondria? Please share your wisdom with us here!