How our Bodies Generate Energy

Feeling energetic? Thank your mitochondria.

By Devin Zatorski

“That’s where energy happens,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., a leading researcher on energy and fatigue.

The mitochondria — kidney-shaped balloons inside your cells — are furnaces that churn out energy in a complex biochemical process, part of a feedback loop that researchers are just beginning to manipulate. “For the first time, medicine is learning how to stoke the energy furnaces by giving them what they need biochemically,” says Teitelbaum, who directs the Annapolis Research Center for Effective Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Therapies.

Here’s how it works:

“There’s a slow fire in the mitochondria that takes calories and burns them in a slow, stepwise progression to create energy,” Teitelbaum says. The mitochondria’s inner walls are coated with energy-making chemical reactors that take fuel and pull it apart, electron by electron. Result: compound ATP, also called “energy dollars.”

Energy production requires a steady stream of nutrients. “If you have a furnace, you’ve got to stoke it,” Teitelbaum says. Without enough magnesium or B vitamins, for example, the mitochondria cannot generate energy needed for healthy cell function.

But the mitochondria’s furnaces need to be turned on. The switch is flipped by hormones produced by the thyroid gland in the throat. The thyroid is told to act by hormones secreted by the pituitary — a pea-sized gland deep in the brain. And regulating it all is the hypothalamus, a walnut-sized gland just in front of the pituitary.

So, if the mitochondria are energy furnaces, you can think of the thyroid as a thermostat and the hypothalamus as the “main fuse” for the system.

Here’s where the mighty microscopic mitochondria reassert themselves in the power loop. If stress overloads your body’s energy needs and the mitochondria can’t churn out enough supply, the hypothalamus “blows its fuse” and shuts down, the energy-making loop comes undone and chronic fatigue symptoms intensify.

Source: USA Weekend, Sept. 28, 2003.

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