Science 101

Everything You Need To Know About CoQ10

This coenzyme is an important antioxidant in the aging field — but should you be taking it?

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Although it sounds like a chemical concoction made up in a lab, coenzyme Q10, or CoQ10 for short, is far from a sketchy synthetic. CoQ10 is an antioxidant found throughout the human body in important tissues, including your heart, liver, kidneys, and pancreas. It is an important coenzyme found in mitochondria, the tiny power plants in your body’s cells. It also serves as an antioxidant found in almost all cellular membranes (the walls of cells), serving to neutralize free-radicals and protect cells from damage and inflammation. These functions are very important because we know that properly functioning mitochondria are key to keeping the entire body healthy. Overall, it is important for improving energy, regulating your immune system, and acting as an antioxidant to protect your most important tissues.

However, CoQ10 declines with age, and low levels of CoQ10 have been observed in patients with diabetes, cancer, and heart failure. This has led scientists to investigate CoQ10 supplementation as a possible preventative or treatment for various diseases, or even a tool to support healthy aging. 

What Is CoQ10, and What Does It Do In The Body?

Sometimes you’ll see CoQ10 referred to as “ubiquinone,” but ubiquinones are actually a family of similar compounds, so named for their ubiquitous presence in human and animal tissues — it’s even found in certain vegetables. CoQ10, meanwhile, is the specific ubiquinone found in humans. 

Although CoQ10 is marketed like other dietary supplements — it’s often shelved alongside B12 and the like — it is not a vitamin because our bodies can synthesize it. That said, because ubiquinones are everywhere, we also take in some from foods as well. Dietary sources include certain meats (such as pork, beef, and chicken, as well as organ meats), fatty fish (including tuna, salmon, mackerel, and sardines), and vegetables (spinach, cauliflower and broccoli).

One of CoQ10’s most important functions is its role in supporting the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the primary energy carrier molecule in all living organisms. CoQ10 does this by acting as part of the mitochondrial electron transport chain, which is a series of chemical reactions happening inside your cell’s mitochondria that creates the charges necessary to produce ATP and power all cellular functions. Specifically, CoQ10 accepts electrons from different donors in the chain so that the electrical voltage needed to generate new molecules of ATP is possible. Without CoQ10, your cells can’t create the energy needed, and therefore they can’t function. 

Powering the cell is a critical function, but that’s not all CoQ10 does. It’s also important for maintaining optimal pH levels within the cell, and protecting cell membranes, as well as lipoproteins from oxidation that can wreak havoc on your cells and lead to signs of coronary artery disease, such as hardening of the arteries or the plaque buildup that can to heart attacks. For example, in a 2018 study, researchers found that CoQ10 deficiency in cells led to insulin resistance, a major precursor to diabetes and heart disease. We also know that oxidative stress is involved in the chronic inflammation that comes with aging.

What Is CoQ10 Used For?

When CoQ10 was first discovered in 1957, scientists knew they had discovered something key. But the earliest research was focused on determining whether it was another vitamin. It wasn’t until 1978 that a British scientist named Peter Mitchell won the Nobel Prize for mapping out exactly how the compound functions in the cell, that scientists realized just how important it was to cellular function. Ever since then, interest in CoQ10’s use as a treatment hasn’t slowed down.

So far, it’s most supported and important use is as a supplement for heart health. The human heart muscle contains some of the highest concentrations of CoQ10 in the body, likely because the heart requires a lot of energy and a high metabolism to function. In a landmark 2014 study of 420 people with heart failure, treatment with CoQ10 for two years improved their symptoms and reduced their risk of dying from heart problems. Earlier studies found similar promising results: One concluded that patients with congestive heart failure who took CoQ10 supplements had been hospitalized less frequently and had fewer serious complications over the course of a year, compared to patients who had taken a placebo. And another of 424 patients with cardiovascular disease found that after supplementing with CoQ10, 43% of the subjects were able to reduce their prescription medications from three to one.

Beyond that, CoQ10 has also been studied for its potential benefits for skin aging, fertility, diabetes and migraines. However the research in these areas is still preliminary. Much more research must be done before experts can begin to recommend CoQ10 supplementation for these issues.

CoQ10 As An Anti-Aging Supplement

Multiple studies show that CoQ10 levels decline with age in mammals. Some scientists have posited that perhaps declining levels of CoQ10 have something to do with increased mitochondrial dysfunction and inflammation, two known hallmarks of the aging process that ultimately contribute to the rise of age-related diseases. So, naturally that leads to the big question: Could supplementing with CoQ10 be a powerful tool against aging?

The results so far have been mixed. Although multiple studies have shown that CoQ10 levels decline as mammals age, the decline can vary widely across different tissues, which may explain why some tissues age faster than others. In human studies, especially, the results have been contradictory: One study of elderly women found no significant correlations between CoQ10 plasma levels and age. Studies of specific tissues — pancreas, adrenal glands, heart, brain, lungs — have repeatedly found declining levels, but at different rates. This may explain why CoQ10 may be helpful for certain conditions but may not be a silver bullet for aging more generally. Indeed, studies in worms and rodents supplemented with CoQ10 have not found any significant increases in lifespan overall.

However, there have still been positive results of CoQ10 in both animals and humans, when diet is taken into consideration. For example, one short-term study in humans found that CoQ10 supplementation reduced markers of oxidative stress and inflammation for elderly patients on a Mediterranean diet. This supports animal studies that have linked CoQ10 supplementation with lower cholesterol numbers, healthier blood vessels, and better functioning mitochondria — but the effects were only seen if the rats were on a high-fat diet. And the best results were seen among rats on diets rich in healthy plant-based fats like sunflower oil. 

Together, the results suggest that even if CoQ10 does not directly extend lifespan, it may be helpful in certain situations to defend against oxidative stress and delay some of the effects of aging. As the research continues to pile up, industry has become interested in building on the findings. Most recently, a small but randomized and placebo-controlled 2018 study published in Hypertension found that a version of CoQ10, which was altered to better cling to mitochondria inside cells, was able to improve subjects endothelial function by 42 percent. Researchers estimated this was the equivalent of turning back the clock on subjects blood vessels by 15 or even 20 years, a sign that no one is ready to give up on ubiquinones just yet.

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