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CoQ10 – health benefit or benefit fraud?

 

In 2009, Boots the Chemist promoted a Coenzyme Q10 product under a blaze of energy-boosting publicity. To their great surprise, the high street favourite retailer was hit by a concerted campaign rubbishing the claim that CoQ10 generates energy in the body. A clear case, claimed the critics, including eminent professors of physiology, of bad science and a very misleading claim. Fact is, CoQ10 does help the body’s cells release energy… but not the type of get-up-and-go energy so celebrated with superfoods like wheatgrass juice. Here is an explanation of the type of energy that CoQ10 reputedly produces, taken from an article on the DC Science website – one of the more vociferous critics of pseudo science and natural health but a useful explanation.

COQ10 AND “ENERGY”

Coenzyme Q10 (also known as ubiquinone) is a relatively small molecule. It cooperates with cytochrome enzymes (big proteins) to synthesize a molecule called ATP. This is a chemical form of energy that can be used to do work, such as making a muscle fibre contract.

The word “energy ” here is used in the sense that a physicist would use it. It is measured in joules or in calories. The meaning of the word ‘energy‘ is described nicely in the Wikipedia entry. For example, when an electric current passes through a resistor (like a kettle) the electrical energy is converted to heat energy, and the energy used is potential difference (volts) X current (amps) X time. In other words energy is power (in watts) times time. So another unit for energy is kilowatt-hours (one kilowatt-hour is about 3.6 megajoules).

Energy in this sense has nothing whatsoever to do with the everyday use of ‘energy’ to indicate your vitality, or how lively you feel.

Furthermore there is not the slightest empirical reason to think that CoQ10 makes you feel more lively.

So what are we supposed to think?

The explanation above clearly raises some key issues about vitality and health claims. People who take CoQ10 regularly often report heightened energy levels and feeling ‘great’ on the supplement. The anecdotal evidence (not admissible in the court of empirical reason) supports the ‘feeling energised’ claim and has been consistent enough over the last ten years or so to contest the placebo effect… the explanation doctors and medical scientists normally give in this context.

Surely, if CoQ10 does what it is believed to do (as above) then the body, we assume, operates at a more efficient level than if it was lacking CoQ10. Hence, we experience a higher level of vitality. If only some of the critics actually tried the supplements they condemn so readily, they might experience the same levels of vitality and well-being that others have felt, and so question whether there could be some truth in the claims made. In other words, just because clinical studies have not confirmed something, doesn’t, by definition, make it false.

Getting to the heart of the matter

So what clinical evidence is there to support taking CoQ10? Here are examples taken from the website About Alternative Medicine.

 

·         Double-blind research suggests that CoQ10 may reduce symptoms related to heart failure, such as shortness of breath, difficulty sleeping, and swelling. CoQ10 is thought to increase energy production in the heart muscle, increasing the strength of the pumping action.

 

·         In one study, 641 people with congestive heart failure were randomized to receive either CoQ10 (2 mg per kg body weight) or a placebo plus standard treatment. People who took the CoQ10 had a significant reduction in symptom severity and fewer hospitalizations.

 

·         A study randomized 55 patients with congestive heart failure to receive either 200 mg per day of CoQ10 or a placebo in addition to standard treatment. Although serum levels of CoQ10 increased in patients receiving CoQ10, CoQ10 didn't affect ejection fraction, peak oxygen consumption, or exercise duration.

 

A longer-term study investigated the use of 100 mg of CoQ10 or a placebo in addition to standard treatment in

·         79 patients with stable chronic congestive heart failure. The results indicated that CoQ10 only slightly improved maximal exercise capacity and quality of life compared with the placebo.

 

·         Lower levels of CoQ10 have also been observed in people with Parkinson's disease. Preliminary research has found that increasing CoQ10 may increase levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is thought to be lowered in people with Parkinson's disease. It has also been suggested that CoQ10 might protect brain cells from damage by free radicals.

 

·         A larger 16-month trial funded by the National Institutes of Health explored the use of CoQ10 (300, 600 or 1200 mg/day) or a placebo in 80 patients with early stage Parkinson's disease. The results suggested that CoQ10, especially at the 1200 mg per day dose, had a significant reduction in disability compared to those who took a placebo.

 

·         In a 12-week randomized controlled trial, 74 people with type 2 diabetes were randomized to receive either 100 mg CoQ10 twice daily, 200 mg per day of fenofibrate (a lipid regulating drug), both or neither for 12 weeks. CoQ10 supplementation significantly improved blood pressure and glycemic control.

 

·         A small study looked at the topical application of CoQ10 to the periodontal pocket. Ten male periodontitis patients with 30 periodontal pockets were selected. During the first 3 weeks, the patients applied topical CoQ10. There was significant improvement in symptoms.

 

Clearly, CoQ10 can have beneficial effects and so is worth trying as a supplement, even perhaps as a preventative before degenerative illnesses creep in. The same could probably be said for Coenzyme A supplementation. CoA is reputedly the master coenzyme that helps raise levels of CoQ10. CoA and CoQ10, as supplements, are catalysers, helping the body create Coenzyme A or CoQ10. But whatever the defenders of good science say, people on these coenzyme supplements often report restored levels of vitality… even those who were skeptical beforehand. So where does that leave the placebo effect?