Health: from mitochondria to agriculture

Mitochondria are the microchips of our bodies. But too many of us are pushing them beyond their limits, leading to poor health — and poor decision making. Petra Seipp and Parneet Pal talk us back from the brink.

In the sixth episode of the sixth season of the NEXT–Show, Parneet Pal, physician-educator and founder of Systematically Well Advisory, and Petra Seipp, Managing Director, Accenture Song, discuss the relationship between the environment and our mitochondria, and the impact their health has on our productivity and performance.

Watch the complete episode

If there’s one thing we love at NEXT, it’s a bit of system thinking. But one area we’ve rarely touched on is the link between environmental systems and our internal biological systems. The conversation between Petra Seipp and Parneet Pal set out to change that, by looking at human health and its effects on our productivity. And why ancient bacteria called mitochondria are so important to that.

“Are the mitochondria the world’s oldest supercomputers?” asked Seipp, based on Pal’s talk at NEXT23.

“Absolutely. That’s one way of thinking about it,” Pal replied. “Animals and plants all have these parts of the cell that take in the food, and break it down to release energy. Everything you do is powered by the energy that comes from mitochondria.”

“They’re amazing because they’re not only producing energy, but you can also think of them as microchips because they act as an interface between what’s happening in our external environment and our internal environment. Their goal is to keep us healthy, to keep our body within a safe operating zone: homeostasis.”

Health & homeostasis

That homeostasis is increasingly difficult to achieve. Why? Well, because we expose ourselves to so many stressors: physical, mental, environmental and emotional. Mitochondria listen for that information and then respond to it by changing our cells, our genome, our hormones, and our neurotransmitters. But what if the stressors keep coming?

From the pandemic onwards, our stress factors have increased, says Seipp. “Is that measurable in our bodies?”

“Stress is a very broad term,” says Pal. “If we want to measure mitochondrial health, it’s very difficult to measure it outside the lab. We can measure different metrics of our metabolism, though; our blood sugar, our hormone levels, or our lipid profile. That gives us an idea of how healthy we are.”

Pal has been tracking this for some years, and she’s noted that as issues like climate change grow more urgent, so too do body issues like inflammation.

Exceeding our biological limits

“That’s not a coincidence because our bodies and biology are part of nature. Our lifestyles are hitting up against the limits of our biology. When we exceed those limits, inflammation in the cells goes up. It’s a natural response, but if the body has no chance to rest and repair, inflammation levels stay high. And research shows that affects our moment-to-moment decision-making.”

But is this just a personal health issue, or are there wider, more family- or society-focused impacts? When we are inflamed, we tend to grab onto whatever is in front of us. The body thinks survival is at stake, so we become impulsive and struggle to delay gratification. We put off exercise, or sleep. We make poor choices about food.

In other words, our performance drops, and that impacts all parts of our lives.

Lifestyle and health

“So, what can we do to make our biology work for us, rather than against us?” asks Seipp.

Pal suggests that we need to get more curious about how our bodies work. And then start thinking about how to make it work at its best. “All of us want to have a meaningful impact on the world. But we need the focus, creativity and stamina to do that.”

And to achieve that, you need to give your mitochondria a helping hand. And you can do that by examining your lifestyle.

“What is the rhythm of your life, how much sleep are you getting, what food is on your plate — and what are your strategies for handling stress?” says Pal.

Seipp has been monitoring her sleep using a smart ring, and getting enough sleep has made a huge difference to her. But how about food? What can we do there?

Health and ecology

“Mitochondria evolved over 1.5 bn years, and they’ve learned to break down and create energy from plant-based foods,” says Pal. “And food from really rich microbiome soils. So, when we eat whole foods from microbiome-rich soils, then the energy conversion in the cell is really efficient, and we get very few inflammatory byproducts. But junk and processed food isn’t what your system is designed for, so they lead to inflammation skyrocketing.”

Seipp asks about movement, and Pal points out it’s essential. We evolved as active hunter/gatherers, and our systems long for movement. It can be anything: walking, running, swimming, going to the gym. “When you do it, it’s a signal to the mitochondria to up-regulate, to produce more energy. So the whole system gets optimised to prepare for that activity.“

Pal suggests starting small, with a single change, like having one plant-based meal a week. But she also emphasises that surrounding yourself with people and possessions that are aligned with this change matters, too. “It’s not about perfection, but about how you can have the best impact on the world with your energy. And what can I do to help my body give me that focus and creativity?”

Aligning with the circadian rhythm

Living in alignment with the natural world can help our health, too. The circadian rhythm is a beautiful part of our biological design. The metabolic reactions in our cells turn on and off in a 24-hour period. They create a pattern of productivity and rest and repair. When we wake up in the morning and the sun is out, that light signals our cells to wake, to build to be productive. And when the sun goes down, a different set of reactions to the setting sun encourage us to rest and repair.

“If we lose sleep, we miss out on a huge part of that repair and restoration process, which is vital for our metabolism,” says Pal. Can you align your routines with what’s happening outside in nature?

“Our bodies are a multi-species ecosystem,” says Pal. “We like to think that we’re these siloed little structures moving around. But mitochondria in our cells are ancient bacteria, and we have trillions of bacteria and fungi that live in our gut and our skin. We have nearly as many micro-bacterial cells as our own cells. It’s a beautiful symbiotic relationship.

The politics of mitochondria

They work for us — and we keep them healthy through our diet. They thrive on plant-based, fibre-rich foods, for example. But modern agricultural practices mean that our soil is depleting, so even if we try to eat well, the quality of the nutrients in our plant-based foods is decreasing.

“So, if there’s less biodiversity in the world, that means less biodiversity on our plates, which means less biodiversity in us, which means we’re not going to be as healthy. That’s why we’re seeing skyrocketing rates of autoimmune disorders, that’s why we’re seeing stress, depression, and anxiety go up.”

Harming the earth is harming the self because we’re all part of the same system. Getting involved politically is one response we can all take: any project that regenerates our soils, improves the quality of our food, or prevents further damage helps. We can support our mitochondria on the micro scale by political action on the macro level.

The external and the internal are not separate. They’re interconnected. Improve the environment, and we improve ourselves. If we improve ourselves, we make better decisions. And those decisions will help protect the environment. And it all starts with protecting our mitochondria.

This post is based on the conversation between Parneet Pal, physician-educator and founder of Systematically Well Advisory, and Petra Seipp, Managing Director, Accenture Song, on the NEXT–Show in December 2023.