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  • Writer's pictureDana Watts

Careful What You Say! Your Cells Can "Hear" You

Updated: Apr 24, 2023



Though pitchers are rarely used these days, I am sure you have heard the old expression about “little pitchers with big ears.” It refers to children overhearing adult conversations about subjects that the adults may not want them to know.


But this post is not about pitchers with big handles or children and their eavesdropping. It is about something much, much smaller - your cells. It turns out that they too are “listening” when you don't realize. Though they are little (microscopic, in fact), they are "listening” to what you say, and what you say has a dramatic impact on their health.


To understand what all that means, let's start with a short lesson about cell biology.

Drawing of a cell showing a variety of organelles.

The mitochondria are the ovals outlined in purple.


Let's meet the mitochondria


Your body is made up of millions and millions of cells, and inside each cell there are a number of structures, organelles, with specific jobs for maintaining the healthy functioning of the cell. Among these structures are the mitochondria, the power stations of the cell.

The primary job of the mitochondria is to generate energy through chemical reactions for cell maintenance and cell growth and repair.



Even though the video gets a little technical, you have to admit that they are pretty amazing, those mitochondria! They work hard to provide the necessary energy for the cell, and ultimately for the organism, you. Unfortunately, mitochondria are affected by a variety of environmental and internal factors, such as stress.


Stress? What's that?


We all deal with stress every day, from minor to major, all kinds of stressful events that occur in our lives and that challenge and overwhelm us. But not all stress is external. Often, the stress is internal and takes the form of negative thoughts and beliefs. Because we are creatures endowed with the power of imagination, what we think, we feel in our bodies.


Think of a recent time when something upsetting happened. If you stay with that memory and dwell on it, what you did, what you said, what you should have said, what the other person said, and so on, before you know it, you will be as upset as when the event occurred. Simply thinking about it activates the stress response systems of the brain and body.



To make matters worse, when you are upset about something in the here and now, it brings to mind other times when you were similarly upset, compounding your distress. Negative thoughts have the special power of doing the same thing. They are reminders of stressful past events, and as such, they trigger stress in the present. And when negative thoughts run through your mind, they trigger the release of a constant stream of hormones that flood your body and lead to chronic stress.



The research on how chronic stress affects health is extensive. It is well established that it contributes to many illnesses -- heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, sleep problems, gastrointestinal disorders, depression, anxiety, the list goes on and on. But only recently have the effects of chronic stress started to be identified at the cellular level. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone and it is vital in many processes in the body, including metabolism, controlling sugar levels in the bloodstream, regulating how the body responds to stress. But, just like with everything else in the body, optimum levels of cortisol are essential. Too much or too little leads to problems. Unfortunately, chronic stress throws off the balance and causes a continual stream of cortisol to be released. In response, the mitochondria have to work overtime, and overwork causes them to burn out and break apart. Without functioning mitochondria, the cell is damaged and malfunctions, which leads to cell death. As you can imagine, a great number of malfunctioning cells is not conducive to good health.


So now what?


Stress is part of life, though, so what can be done? How can the mitochondria be protected? Fortunately, there are things we can do to repair and even grow the number of mitochondria to achieve a better state of health.


1. Physical activity -- readily available and free. You don't need fancy memberships or expensive equipment. You just need to move, and that is the best way to start. In no time at all you will realize that when you move you feel better. Your mood is better, you have more energy, and you feel stronger. Physical activity lowers the level of stress hormones and provides a protective cushion of increased oxygen to your cells and mitochondria. Your mitochondria will thank you!


2. A balanced diet -- junk food, fast food, convenience foods are just that: fast and convenient, but junk. Your mitochondria need high quality building blocks to do their job and stay healthy. A plant-based diet is an example of a balanced, nutrient-rich diet. Your mitochondria will thank you!


3. Stress management -- start with something you can control: the voice in your head that habitually says mean and hurtful things about you. You have most likely been listening to it for years and you have come to believe that it speaks the truth. You believe that you are the failure it describes, that person who is worthless and unlovable. But that voice lies! It is a distorted relic of long-past bad experiences and harmful relationships. Find the facts in your life now that challenge it! Prove it wrong! Know that you are not that person it wants you to believe you are. And, as you become mindfully aware, you change those old narratives. You are no longer captive in a web of old distorted beliefs that caused you such anxiety and stress.


Your mitochondria will thank you!





Dr. Dana Watts

Clinical Psychologist

Helping Clients in the Greater Cleveland Area


440-895-1100
























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4 Comments


Guest
Apr 11, 2023

Thank you for very informative blog post...a lesson in psychology and biology. I better go for a bike ride to make the mitochondria happy.

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Dr. Watts
Dr. Watts
Apr 12, 2023
Replying to

It was a beautiful day for a bike ride! I am sure it made your mitochondria AND you happy! Thank you for reading and thank you for your comment.

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Guest
Apr 11, 2023

I needed this in my life! With the stress of wedding planning, I have denied going on my daily walks and this has reminded me how much it helps not only our mighty mitochondria, but our overall spirit. Thank you for this wonderful read! (Leslie from Haven)

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Dr. Watts
Dr. Watts
Apr 12, 2023
Replying to

I am happy that the post reminded you to take care of yourself (and your mitochondria :)). It is so easy to forget when you have a lot going on. Thank you for reading and thank you for your comment.

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