Hands up if you’re endlessly fighting grogginess, or feel like you’ve lost your day-to-day buzz? Dark mornings and dreary weather can definitely take their toll, but if you’re constantly running out of steam, it might be deeper rooted. There may be an issue with your biochemistry.
The human body is comprised of trillions of cells — the basic building blocks that make up your tissues and organ systems. These cells house various components which each have very specific roles. One of these cell parts is the mitochondria. These are minuscule battery-type structures which power everyday functions by producing chemical energy called ATP. If it sounds complex, it's because it is.
"Mitochondria are the body’s energy generators. Found in almost every cell, these tiny 'power stations' convert the food we eat into fuel to power the biochemical processes that keep us alive and functioning. Whether it’s maintaining muscles or keeping our heart beating efficiently, or activating immune cells we depend on mitochondria to meet our body’s energy needs," explains Caroline Hind, a registered nutritionist at Nutrable, a personalised corporate nutrition service.
People often struggle with brain fog, difficulty concentrating, poor mood and poor memory when mitochondria are not working well
Not to be confused with mitochondrial disease, (an umbrella term given to rare genetic disorders), if you’re more sluggish than usual it could be because these structural cell power plants might not be able to use your food to generate optimal energy flow. Or you might have a slight shortage in mitochondria which leads to low levels of energy production. As Hind explains, "a complex web of causes might include hormonal imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, stress and exposure to toxins."
Struggling mitochondria is a scenario that Hind has seen time and time again in her busy corporate clients. "The brain and its complex messaging system of nerves, hormones and neurotransmitters rely on energy produced by mitochondria too," she explains. "So, in the workplace, people often struggle with brain fog, difficulty concentrating, poor mood and poor memory when mitochondria are not working so well."
Whether you spend most of your time desk bound or on-the-go, there are some simple hacks that can help to revive sub-functioning mitochondria and bring back your spark.
Swap five-a-day for seven-a-day
Harmful free radical molecules are generated by expose to things like cigarette smoke, air pollution and even sunlight, and these are key factors that contribute to mitochondrial dysfunction.
Free radicals worst enemy? Antioxidants. Found in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables antioxidants counteract the damaging effect of free radicals - but your five-a-day won’t really cut it. Reach for a minimum of seven portions of rainbow bright fruit and veg, (choosing low sugar options like berries, apples and spinach) to keep your mitochondria happy. Sneak greens to breakfast smoothies, blend roasted root veg into homemade soup, and grate brassicas like broccoli and cauliflower into pasta sauces.
Follow a fasting window
Strict intermittent fasting might not cut the mustard for everyone, but a doable fasting window might just be the ticket to repairing damaged mitochondria according to science.
A realistic time-controlled eating cycle for the average person is to eat within an eight-hour window, for example between 10am and 6pm. "Giving the body longer periods without eating is a great step towards caring for your mitochondria," says Hind.
And it’s not just about when you eat, but what you eat that will help to fast-track your mitochondrial function. A highly refined carb diet generates free radicals so white bread, and pre-packaged biscuits will only add to mitochondrial exhaustion, whilst small amounts of healthy complex carbohydrates like brown rice and wholemeal bread get the green light.
"Reduce sugary and starchy foods. Instead choose protein-rich foods and unprocessed fats such as those found in fatty fish, olive oil, eggs, coconut oil and avocado to ensure your mitochondria have a chance to burn a 'cleaner fuel,'" continues Hind.
Pop a vitamin pill
Fuelling your body with a variety of nutrients can help to give your battery life a kickstart. A whole food diet is definitely the way forward, but if you’ve been burning the candle at both ends, supplementing with a high strength multivitamin will help to top up some of those all important mitochondria-loving secret nutrients.
"Mitochondria can only work efficiently if they are supported by the vital nutrients that act as catalysts and regulators of the chemical processes within our cells. Magnesium, vitamin D and B vitamins can ensure a good supply of the nutrients needed to maintain cellular function," says Hind.
Add coconut oil to your coffee
Coconut oil is a wonder food that will rev up your mitochondrial energy reserves thanks to its unique healthy fats called medium chain triglycerides (MCTs).
"Research shows these fats support good mitochondrial production and function. Use coconut oil for cooking or choose a teaspoon a day of an MCT supplement," says Hind.
You could even join the TikTok coconut oil fan club and add a teaspoon to your morning coffee, but remember to wait one hour after rising before having your cup of Joe. This way you’ll align with your body’s natural cortisol levels which naturally start decreasing 60 minutes after you wake up. The result? An extra dose of alertness.
Get your sweat on
Unsurprisingly keeping active will ensure your mitochondria fully charged, and whilst any movement is beneficial, it’s thought that the more vigorous the workout the greater the mitochondrial pep up.
Morning exercise when your natural cortisol levels are highest will probably produce the best effects. "If you show your body you need a good energy supply, it will up-regulate your energy-production machinery," says Hind. So whilst it might be tempting to sidestep that Barry’s Bootcamp HIIT session for a leisurely stroll in the park, a high intensity interval training workout could help to fire up mitochondria.
Forgo weekend lie-ins
Mitochondria love running on a regular circadian rhythm (your body’s internal 24-hour sleep awake cycle), so if you find yourself in a constant sleep debt, these cells power machines probably aren’t getting the recharge they need. "Going to bed later than 11pm every night will add stress to your body and disrupt your circadian rhythm, ultimately leading to impaired sleep quality," says Hind.
Beat the sleep energy thief by going to bed and waking up at the same time everyday — this means forgoing weekend lie-ins and concentrating on rejigging your daily rhythm instead.