What is the importance of mitochondria in proper cellular function? The question may sound like a throwback to middle school, but now that you’re older, you may be interested to know more about this so-called powerhouse of the cell and its impact on your life (and not just your Science grade).
At its core, these organelles or cellular compartments play an integral role in producing energy in your cells from the food you eat. A mitochondrion may be microscopic, but without it, a whole range of biological processes wouldn’t be possible. These include oxygenating your blood and producing a whole slew of essential hormones.1
So important is the mitochondria that researchers are mining its potential meaning when it comes to both the cause and prevention of life-altering diseases. Read on to find out more about how mitochondria work, and what might happen when they don’t.
What Is The Importance Of Mitochondria In Cellular Respiration? A Quick Breakdown
Mitochondria are directly responsible for 90 percent of the energy the human body requires to function and survive.2 Within your cell membrane, thousands of mitochondria organelles are hard at work converting sugars from the food you eat (glucose) and oxygen into fuel for the body.3
To fully understand the massive undertaking a mitochondrion hosts within a cell membrane, here’s a simple refresher on how the human body’s cells make energy. While you may not bust out this terminology or even think about it on a daily basis, it’s always good to marvel once in a while at how sophisticated cellular function can be. It can also make it easier to understand how mitochondria is linked to your health.
How Does The Food We Eat Get Converted To Energy?
There are three steps to converting energy from food to the type of energy the cells actually need for various processes.
The first process involved in cellular respiration is glycolysis, which literally means to split down the sugars in the food you eat into molecules ready for transformation into ATP – the type of energy each cell needs. In this process, something called pyruvates are created, which are groupings of molecules. All of this happens in the cytoplasm of the cell.
If oxygen levels are low, the pyruvates go through fermentation – a separate process entirely. However, with the addition of oxygen, these pyruvates are now ready to be shuttled off into the next process, which already begins to take place in the matrix of the mitochondria.4
Citric Acid Cycle Or Krebs Cycle
The pyruvate made available for the citric acid cycle enters the mitochondria organelles, where the magic happens. Pyruvates split and convert into acetyl CoA (with an extra molecule converting and being released as carbon dioxide).
Up until this point, you can consider these processes as stripping away molecules and compounds that are later rereleased by the body. Glycolysis and the citric acid cycle both produce the materials (or set the stage, so to speak) needed to actually convert food into energy. The by-products of these systems become electron transport carriers, or pave the path for the molecules to become ATP – the end goal your cells are after.5
Oxidative Phosphorylation: Making Good Use Of The Electron Transport Chain
The electron transport chain is a pathway that moves these energy molecules along the mitochondrial inner membrane. Imagine electron after electron moving across a chain of fatty acids, bonding with oxygen, to ultimately create the precious ATP compounds the body needs (while also disposing of waste byproducts in the form of water and carbon dioxide). This entire process is called oxidative phosphorylation, which sums up the entire process of energy creation on a cellular level.6
Thanks to these activities in the mitochondrion, with the help of the electron transport chain, there are now readily-available energy stores for the body to use for various biological processes.
Mitochondrial Dysfunction: What Might Happen To Your Health When Something Goes Wrong
With so much going on at the cellular level, it’s clear to see how a “glitch in the machinery” can have potentially devastating effects. Especially in the mitochondria, which not only hosts a major bulk of the cellular respiration processes but also plays a part in “deciding” cell death.7
Mitochondrial disease refers to the often-genetic condition wherein the mitochondria is inherently incapable of functioning optimally. This could simply be due to a problem with the DNA stored in the mitochondria (inherited through the maternal line) or from the creation of reactive oxygen species (more popularly known as free radicals) during the various processes.8
Often genetic and congenital, mitochondrial dysfunction may present as any of the following issues:
- Developmental delays
- Liver and/or kidney ailments
- Neurological problems
- Heart problems
- Stomach and digestive issues
Mitochondrial dysfunction can then develop as a secondary and more serious health issue.9
It must be noted that a person may be predisposed to the problems outlined above even without mitochondrial disease. Your doctor will be able to tell you if your diagnosis is related to any problems with your mitochondria.
Keeping Your Mitochondria Healthy: Dealing With Oxidative Stress
Oxidative stress or oxidative damage can be a natural result of fluctuating levels of free radicals and antioxidants produced by the cells. But that doesn’t mean external forces like environmental factors and physical stress don’t contribute to this imbalance.
Talk to your doctor about how to fortify cell resistance against oxidative damage. They may recommend increasing your intake of antioxidant-rich foods, as well as getting plenty of exercise. Physical activity has been shown to strengthen the mitochondria and allow it to function optimally.10
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