Forget cholesterol numbers. How’s your mitochondria?

“You’re so like your mother, you have so much energy!” friends have said to me. I admit energy-wise they’re right. My father preferred to sit in his chair analyzing mathematical problems, while mother was high-octane gas. She never stopped running around. But I didn’t know why I inherited her energy until I read a report in the Nutrition Action Health Letter about mitochondria. So, here’s how you can increase your energy level.

It’s said that precious things come in small packages, and there’s no better example than mitochondria. Each cell in our body contains up to 2,000 mitochondria and, although tiny, they make up to 60% of the volume of muscle cells and 40% of heart cells.

Simon Melov, director of the Genomics Core at the Buck Institute for Age Research in California, reports that “Mitochondria are the power plants of our cells, tiny furnaces within the cells of our body that burn food for energy.”

But why am I so like my mother? Mitochondria have their own genetic material. But unlike the DNA in the cell’s nucleus, which comes from both parents, mitochondria DNA is passed down from mother to child.

This is also why I have the chance of living into my 90s, as did my mother.

Tory Hagen, a researcher at the Linus Pauling Institute Corvallis, Oregon, says, “Mitochondria have been called the Achilles’ heel of the cells in aging.”

Essentially, the healthier the mitochondria the longer the life.

These tiny mitochondria furnaces are continually using oxygen to burn fat, protein and carbohydrates to generate energy. This oxidation process results in the formation of free radicals, the metabolic ash that may also damage mitochondria.

Mark Mattson, chief of the Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience Section at The National Institute of Health, says weakened mitochondria may leave people susceptible to Parkinson’s Disease or accelerate the downward trend of Alzheimer’s Disease.

So how can you increase the number of mitochondria? First, never forget the importance of exercise.

David Hood, a researcher at York University in Toronto, says exercise can increase the number of mitochondria by 40 to 50% in six weeks. It’s necessary to walk, run, bicycle or swim briskly for 20 minutes three to four times a week. You must continue these exercises to maintain healthy mitochondria and younger muscles.

In 2002, Dr. Bruce Ames, a researcher at the University of California, and his colleague Tory Hagan, made international headlines. They reported that old, sedentary rats (roughly equal to humans aged 70 to 100 years) perked up and danced the Macarena after being fed carnitine and lipoic acid. Lipoic acid is an antioxidant, and according to Hagen carnitine pushes fat into mitochondria and gives a boost to their activity.

Ames and Hagen also discovered that rats given these two nutrients had less mitochondria damage in their brains and in beagles, increased short-term memory.

This combination of carnitine and lipoic acid is called Juvenon, and there is considerable information about it on the web site The problem is that this remedy is patented, not cheap, and only available by calling the toll-free number 1-800- 309-0970.

I asked Dr. Andrew Weil, professor of integrative medicine at the University of Arizona, if this study made any sense. Weil is an internationally-recognized expert on alternative medicine. He’s traveled widely to study medicinal plants in South America and Africa and has been a major proponent of omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin D and health benefits of fruits, vegetables and fish. He says that Juvenon is a remarkable health supplement and takes it daily. But he neglects to say whether if makes him dance the Macarena!

So what’s the message? Rats lacking the right nutrients get tired, don’t want to run on a treadmill, nor swim too far and cannot find cheese in a maze. Humans react the same way if they fall into the trap of consuming too many packaged foods laden with unhealthy ingredients. If that happens, mitochondria do not function efficiently. Adding a little carnitine and lipoid acid may prompt you to start dancing the Macarena!

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