Coenzyme Q10 just might be the most important energy nutrient you’ve never heard of.
It’s not a vitamin and not a mineral, but it’s found in every cell in your body. It was first discovered in 1957 by two different researchers working in completely different parts of the world—Frederick Crane, PhD, of Wisconsin, who isolated the substance from the heart tissue of beef, and professor R. A. Morton, PhD, of England, who found an identical compound in the liver of rats.
So what’s a coenzyme anyway, and why is this one so important for energy and overall health?
You may remember from biology 101 that an enzyme is something that speeds the rate at which certain chemical processes can take place. You use enzymes in the laundry machine—they speed the chemical process by which the dirt on your teenager’s jeans can be dissolved. Your body uses enzymes for hundreds of metabolic processes, including digestion, the conversion of food into nutrients, and the creation of energy in cells.
Without enzymes, life as we know it would simply cease.
Well, a coenzyme is a substance that enhances the action of an enzyme. A coenzyme is necessary for an enzyme to work, much like a spark plug is to a piston.
Coenzyme Q10 is the Mac Daddy of coenzymes. It charges up the energy-production factories in the cells, improves the function of the little power stations in every cell called mitochondria (where energy is actually produced), and, as a bonus, and helps protect cells from nasty little molecules called free radicals that can damage cells and their DNA and contribute to degenerative diseases (and sap your energy in the process).
The highest amounts of CoQ10 in the body are found in the heart (where Crane first found it) and the liver (where Morton found it) as well as the kidneys and pancreas. Because the heart especially relies upon CoQ10 to produce energy and to function efficiently, CoQ10 is absolutely essential to a healthy heart. In fact, CoQ10 is an accepted treatment in Europe and Japan for congestive heart failure.
Necessary for Energy, But Hard to Find
Coenzyme Q10 is a great supplement to take for many reasons. Although the body can actually make it (and does), it does so through a complicated seventeen-step process that requires at the very least seven different vitamins (vitamins B2, B3, B6, B12, and C, folic acid, and pantothenic acid) plus a whole bunch of trace elements.
Because plenty of people aren’t getting optimal levels of those vitamins to begin with, there’s likely to be less than optimal production of CoQ10—after all, if a factory isn’t getting enough raw materials, its output suffers.
If you add to that the fact that coenzyme Q10 production slows down with age, and that many commonly prescribed medications block CoQ10 production (more on that in a moment), it starts to make a lot of sense to supplement with CoQ10. In fact, CoQ10 should be high on the list of supplements any high-energy person is going to want to take on a regular basis.
And no, you’re not going to get optimal amounts from food (are you listening, American Dietetic Association?) CoQ10 is found mainly in organ meats such as the heart, liver, and kidney—not popular dishes for most people—as well as beef, soy oil, peanuts, and sardines.
But you’d need 1 pound of sardines, 2 pounds of beef, or 2 1/2 pounds of peanuts to provide your body with a measly 30 mg of CoQ10, the absolute minimum dose to take for healthy folks looking for general protection. For people who are energy compromised, the recommended dose is much higher.
So how exactly does CoQ10 work? The body strips foods of electrons, tiny subatomic particles that carry a negative electric charge, which surround the nuclei of atoms. Our body then transports these electrons to an electron “receptor,” which happens to be oxygen. (To get any energy from food we have to breathe oxygen!)
This whole transportation system—not surprisingly called the electron transport system—is the final step in converting intermediate energy carriers with weird names such as nicotine adenine dinucleotide (NAD) and flavin mononucleotide (FMN) (don’t bother to remember them) into molecules of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
ATP is the famous “energy molecule” that functions like a battery, storing energy that’s used to power anything from dozens of cellular processes you’d never notice to doing biceps curls at the gym. (Without enough ATP, you run out of steam really quickly. Lack of immediate ATP is one of the reasons your muscles “fail” after a certain amount of repetitions of bench presses or biceps curls.)
CoQ10 has the ability to increase ATP production. It’s one of the electron carriers in the electron transport system, so it basically helps the cells use oxygen and create more energy.
Once you understand this, it becomes easy to see why CoQ10 is so important for a healthy ticker. The average human heart beats more than 100,000 times a day. That’s a lot of energy and a lot of work. No wonder the heart cells produce more energy than any other organ; they have to keep working even while you’re sleeping. Being your heart (or mine) is a full-time job. It never gets to take a vacation.
Solving the Energy Slowdown
As we age, for a variety of reasons, the ability of our bodies to produce that energy starts to slow down.
And without enough oxygen and vital nutrients, guess what? You start to feel rundown and tired.
It’s hardly surprising that there are low levels of CoQ10 associated with numerous diseases. Karl Folkers, PhD, an early coenzyme Q10 researcher, noted that a reduction of coenzyme Q10 levels in the body by just 25 percent (to 75 percent of optimal) may cause illness, and falling by 75 percent (to 25 percent of optimal) could cause death.
There are many reasons why CoQ10 production in the body could be compromised—aging, lack of optimal vitamin and mineral intake, stress, and medications are a few examples. (The statin drugs used to bring down cholesterol are among the biggest offenders; if you’re on one of those, you should definitely supplement with CoQ10!)
According to CoQ10 expert Peter H. Langsjoen, MD, there can be big individual differences in absorption rates, with some people attaining fine blood levels on 100 mg a day and others requiring a good deal more. For the average person, 30 to 60 mg a day is a nice maintenance dose, but I’d recommend higher doses for those on statin meds or those with energy issues (100 mg or even higher).