Just as your body has organs, so too do your cells. We call them organelles, or little organs. Like our organs, these organelles perform specific tasks. One of the most important organelles is the mitochondria.
Mitochondria are the power plants of the body. Our bodies run on adenosine triphosphate or ATP for short. ATP is only made in one place - in the mitochondria. Not surprisingly, heart muscle cells have the highest density of mitochondria of all the cells in the body. Those heart cells are hard at work 24/7/365 and need a constant supply of fuel. Unlike the GI tract, for example, they don't get to take time off. Not even a little break. So energy is pretty important to them.
Of course, energy is needed by all cells in the body to different degrees. The more a cell needs energy, the more mitochondria in that cell. In fact, cells make more mitochondria when they need more energy. That's right, cells can grow additional power plants as needed. You may be thinking, "Wow, wish I could do that - grow more power plants and have more energy." Well, you can.
This is why exercise is so important. Exercising causes cells to need more energy and thus they make more mitochondria to produce more energy. Healthy, happy mitochondria, healthy, happy you. So next time you are huffing and puffing, whether it's climbing the stairs or climbing a mountain, remind yourself, "I'm making more mitochondria."
Earlier this year, I discovered I had reactivated Epstein Barr Virus (EBV). This is the virus that causes mononucleosis. Once you are infected, the virus never goes away. It just goes into hiding and can rear it's ugly head during times when your foundations of health are less than optimal. In reviewing old labs, I discovered I tested positive for EBV way back in 2010, but my physician at the time didn't explain the significance of the positive test and didn't treat me for it. Upon retesting, I was still positive. At least eight years, and likely more, of mono-like fatigue, including during medical school. My poor little mitochondria were sick, sick, sick having been damaged by the virus. (1)
I treated the EBV and four weeks later I was feeling immensely better. Had I not become a doctor, I would more than likely still be suffering from the fatigue as I had normalized it and was unlikely to have sought treatment. The times I had sought help in the past, my fatigue was always blamed on low thyroid. No one thought to look for EBV and I didn't know any better at the time.
So what to do with my new found energy? Why, take karate lessons of course. Actually, I more stumbled upon them than made a conscious decision to start karate. My office landlord is a karate instructor. A friend who has been training with him for six years has always had good things to say about him. That and given the practice room is five suites over, I decided to give it a try. After years of illness, exercise and stretching is just what I needed and now I have the energy to do it.
My instructor is a very outgoing and friendly man who makes you smile just being around him. Physically, he is stockily built with the stomach pooch of a man in his 60s. Yet when you look closely, you realize he is more solidly built than perhaps you initially gave him credit. One would never imagine he is a 6th degree black belt in as many disciplines.
Each class starts with warm-ups and stretching. It was all going well that first evening until we got to the adductor stretches - sitting, straight legs in a V in front, bend forward as far as you can. I am struggling to get my head over my knees when I see the instructor, legs 180 degrees apart, lean forward and lay his forehead on the floor. I dang near pulled a muscle just watching it and considered getting up and leaving.
Now for the best part. This is my back. One doesn't have to be a doctor to see there is a problem, a painful problem. We've known for years that the best medicine for a painful low back is movement (provided you have medical clearance). Even those days when you can barely crawl out of bed, if you can get yourself up and out for a walk around the block, it's going to be helpful. For me, karate with all the movement and stretching has been amazing for my back. I am standing straighter, moving easier, and my pain levels are significantly decreased. And the money I am saving from not having to see a chiropractor several times a month more than pays for the lessons.
Making more mitochondria, making more energy, feeling better, feeling stronger, and helping my back. That's what I call a win-win-win-win-win.
(1) Sanjeev K. Anand and Suresh K. Tikoo, “Viruses as Modulators of Mitochondrial Functions,” Advances in Virology, vol. 2013, Article ID 738794, 17 pages, 2013. doi:10.1155/2013/738794