Health and wellness are increasingly at the forefront of many people’s minds these days, but often efforts focus on getting more exercise and eating a healthier diet. Those things are important for a healthy lifestyle, but we rarely think about how healthy our bodies actually are at a cellular level and how major systems of the human body, like the immune system, can be affected by our lifestyle choices.
Supplements can help here, but while Vitamin C and Vitamin E (tocopherol) are very common, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is another that can be very helpful. Supplements like CoQ10 aim to support the body’s major systems such as immune function by boosting mitochondrial health, but they aren’t as effective as hoped, even in the form of ubiquinol, ubidecarenone or ubiquinone. To truly help, you need to go much deeper.
What is the immune system and why is it important?
The immune system is one of the major components of the body, and it’s among the most important systems that we have. Why? The immune system is our natural defense mechanism that helps protect us against outside aggressors. When your immune system functions poorly, you get sick more often. Think of it like the walls of a castle; when the castle walls are strong, invading forces are kept out and the people inside the castle are safe. When the walls are attacked and get damaged over time, they become weaker, eventually allowing the bad guys in if they aren’t repaired. The immune system in our bodies functions in a similar way. The immune system is made up of many different components, including white blood cells, antibodies, the lymphatic system, spleen, bone marrow, and thymus, and it is also aided by “good” bacteria inside our bodies called probiotics.
How does the immune system protect us?
Our immune systems are hard at work around the clock to protect against all sorts of foreign invaders, like pathogenic bacteria, viruses, protozoa and more. One of the biggest components of the immune system is actually the skin, because your skin acts as a defensive barrier that keeps harmful intruders at bay and also helps protect against injury. Inside the body, many different types of cells, including macrophages, T-cells, leukocytes and natural killer cells, are hard at work attacking any invaders that make it past the skin and could potentially cause infection. The immune system actually keeps an internal record of every germ, virus and intruder that it comes into contact with, which allows it to recognize and defeat the pathogen the next time it enters the body. Our immune systems are constantly evolving to recognize and defend against new threats.
What role do mitochondria play in immunity?
In high school biology, you probably heard over and over again that “Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell.” If you learned nothing else, it’s that mitochondria are responsible for giving our cells, and therefore our bodies, energy in the form of ATP or adenosine triphosphate. Until recently, the role of mitochondria in the immune system was not understood, but recent studies show that the strength of the immune system is linked to the health of the body’s mitochondria. Mitochondria help regulate the body’s immune responses, and white blood cells, which are one of the most important components of the immune system, need a reliable mitochondrial network in order to do their jobs effectively. However, as we age and depending on certain lifestyle factors, our mitochondrial health can begin to decline, which may lead to a CoQ10 deficiency, which can affect the immune system.
What causes a decline in mitochondrial health?
Our mitochondria produce an important enzyme called CoQ10 which helps create cellular energy and neutralize harmful free radicals. However, as we age, our mitochondria naturally start to slow down and produce less CoQ10, and therefore energy.
The mitochondria produce CoQ10 and free radicals when they are healthy but over time, less CoQ10 is produced leading to CoQ10 deficiency allowing the free radicals to cause cellular damage.
However, mitochondrial health isn’t just linked to age. Lifestyle factors, like eating an unhealthy diet, not getting enough sleep, and not exercising enough could also led to a decline in mitochondrial health. When our mitochondria struggle in energy production in the electron transport chain, the early evidence shows in increased feelings of sluggishness and slower recovery. So, it then makes sense that when our mitochondria are performing at their peak, we are more able to maintain energy levels and support optimal wellbeing.
How can mitochondrial health be improved?
Obviously, there’s not much you can do about the fact that we all get older, but there are other things you can control in order to improve the health of the mitochondria and help support immunity. We already know that mitochondrial health is influenced by lifestyle factors including how much sleep we get, the quality of our diets and regular exercise, so it’s important to maintain a healthy lifestyle by focusing on these areas. Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, exercising regularly at a moderate to vigorous effort level several days a week and getting enough sleep will go a long way towards helping your mitochondrial health. However, that pesky aging thing keeps coming back to haunt us; even if you maintain a healthy lifestyle, your mitochondria can still decline with age. Adding a nutritional supplement with coenzyme Q10, the antioxidant that helps defend the mitochondria against oxidative stress, can help support mitochondrial health and immune system function.
Can a CoQ10 supplement really help immunity?
It stands to reason that if one of the factors of a decline in mitochondrial health and thus, immunity, is a decline in CoQ10 levels, then adding in CoQ10 supplementation should solve the problem, right? The reality is a bit more complicated than that. Simply adding a CoQ10 dietary supplement doesn’t help to improve mitochondrial health as much as we would expect because CoQ10 is a large fat-soluble molecule that must be taken with food containing oil or fatty acids. Due to the size of the CoQ10 molecule, not a lot of the supplement actually makes it into the mitochondria because our mitochondria have impermeable membranes. Unfortunately, the mitochondria is exactly where the CoQ10 is needed if it’s to be of most benefit, which is why previous efforts to supplement with CoQ10 haven’t been as effective as we would have liked. The good news is that scientists in New Zealand made a breakthrough with CoQ10 absorption in the late 1990s.
They discovered that because mitochondria have a negative charge, CoQ10 needed to be attached to a positively charged molecule in order to be sufficiently absorbed. Their formula, sold today as MitoQ, allows high levels of this enhanced CoQ10 to make their way into the mitochondria thanks to this positive charge and a smaller molecule size that allows the supplement to breach the mitochondrial membrane. Once there, the MitoQ is then able to help rebalance the levels of CoQ10 and free radicals inside the cell and help reduce free radical damage. The highly absorbable formula of MitoQ means that people can use ten times less than the normal Coenzyme Q10 concentrations and still receive a boost to their mitochondrial health and, by proxy, benefit the function and regulation of their immune system.
While there’s no substitute for living a healthy lifestyle and making smart choices, supplementing your diet with a clever CoQ10 in the form of MitoQ can help support immune function and boost mitochondrial health as we age. The older we get, the harder it is to work the hours that we used to, and our bodies are no different. Supporting immune function with the use of Coenzyme Q10 supplementation is just one more part of good health care as we age.
Reviewed by Kai Man Yuen/ BSc PGDipSci MSc