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What is CoQ10: A Complete Guide

As we become more aware of how our diet influences our overall health and wellbeing, commercials are increasingly filled with references to powerful antioxidants and the importance of vitamins and minerals. We know that we need antioxidants and nutrients, but how many of us actually know what antioxidants are and what role they play in the body?

Few people can name many antioxidants, even though you've probably heard of more than you think. One important antioxidant that has gained attention in recent years is CoQ10, also known as ubiquinone or ubiquinol, which is naturally produced by the body. Just because we produce CoQ10 naturally doesn’t mean we produce enough of it to support optimal health, however. Sometimes, the number of antioxidants and free radicals can become unbalanced. So, what is CoQ10 and why is it important?

What is CoQ10?

Coenzyme Q10, also known as CoQ10, is a naturally occurring antioxidant that’s produced in the cells by the mitochondria, often referred to as the “powerhouse of the cell”. Mitochondria are responsible for producing the energy for almost all cellular processes in nearly all the cells in the body, which they do by converting the oxygen you breathe and food you eat.

+ Here is a breakdown of everything you need to know about mitochondria

CoQ10, is a defensive antioxidant that supports mitochondrial health by reducing excess free radicals, a by-product of energy production, which can be damaging to cells in excess numbers but also play an important role in metabolism. CoQ10 lines the mitochondrial membrane, providing a secure, defensive barrier that helps to neutralize excess free radicals. This provides mitochondrial support during the energy production process, and helps to reduce the potential damage that free radicals can cause within the cell.  

What are free radicals?

It might seem strange to think that the body produces compounds that could actually harm it, but free radicals are capable of doing just that. Free radicals are waste products that are produced as a result of cellular reactions, including cellular respiration, which is the cell’s energy production process and one of the most important processes that occurs within the body. During the process of cellular respiration, the mitochondria convert carbon, that we take in through the food we eat and the air we breathe, into a substance called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. This is like the gasoline that keeps the body’s motor running, as it serves as the main fuel source for the cells, organs, and tissues. As a by-product of cellular respiration, excess free radicals are also produced as waste. Free radicals generally consist of an oxygen or nitrogen atom with an unpaired electron in their outer shell, and they’re considered especially unstable because they are missing an electron. The missing electron encourages free radicals to try and “steal” electrons from nearby molecules, which could lead to both compromising and damaging the structure of the nearby molecule. No part of the body is off limits, including fat, protein, DNA and more.

What are antioxidants?

If you think about free radicals as the villain or “bad guy” in the story, you can think of antioxidants as the superhero that swoops in to save the day. Antioxidants are substances that help support the body against damage to cells that can be caused by free radicals. The substances can be naturally occurring or artificially produced. Antioxidants scan the body seeking out free radicals that need to add a missing electron. After recognizing a free radical, the antioxidant links up with the free radical, offering the missing electron and turning the free radical into a stable atom. By stabilizing the free radical, the antioxidant is able to protect other molecules within the cell.

Antioxidants that are produced by plants and ingested in the foods we eat, like fruits and vegetables, are called phytonutrients, while those produced naturally by our bodies are considered endogenous antioxidants. CoQ10 is an endogenous antioxidant, while antioxidants like vitamin A and vitamin C are phytonutrients. Antioxidants that most people are familiar with include substances like vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, selenium, manganese and zeaxanthin. In general, foods that are richly and brightly colored, such as blueberries, spinach and broccoli, are found to be high in antioxidants.

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What happens when the amount of free radicals and antioxidants becomes unbalanced?

Under normal circumstances, our metabolic and cellular processes produce free radicals as waste products and antioxidants neutralize them resulting in improved health benefits. However, lifestyle factors like an unhealthy diet, not getting enough exercise, or not getting enough sleep, as well as the process of aging in general, can disrupt the balance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body. When we have more free radicals than antioxidants, oxidative stress can occur. Oxidative stress is a state in which antioxidants and free radicals are unbalanced, and antioxidants are unable to sufficiently counteract the damaging side effects caused by free radicals. Helping to reduce oxidative stress supports healthy aging.

Although oxidative stress is normal under certain circumstances, like when we’re engaged in physical activity, the condition can become a problem when it is experienced over a long period of time or at a high level. Oxidative stress is often a sign of poor mitochondrial health. 

+ Learn more about oxidative stress and healthy aging

What is mitochondrial health?

Mitochondria seem so tiny that it might sound impossible that their health can impact our overall physical health, but it’s true. Mitochondrial health refers to the level of efficiency at which our mitochondria are working and how able they are to produce the energy that we need to exercise, support the immune system, recover and carry out all of the major life functions on a daily basis. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell, driving the processes that give us energy and keep us alive. Changes in mitochondrial health can occur for a number of reasons.

Why do declines in mitochondrial health occur?

We all know that aging gets the best of all of us, and mitochondrial health is no exception. In fact, the primary factor impacting our mitochondrial health is our physical age. During our younger years the mitochondria produce free radicals and the antioxidant CoQ10 neutralizes them. But over time, we begin to produce less CoQ10 yet continue to produce free radicals, causing an imbalance. The major contributing factor to declining mitochondrial health is age, but lifestyle factors, including eating a diet high in fat, sugar or processed foods, not getting enough sleep and not exercising enough can also contribute.

What are some early signs of declining mitochondrial health?

Mitochondrial health usually declines slowly over time, and everyone experiences the side effects differently. Common signs of declining mitochondrial health include:

  • Feeling tired or lacking energy
  • Increased effects of physical aging
  • Diminished athletic performance and recovery
  • Diminished mental focus
  • Aging skin

Mitochondrial health is largely impacted by our age, but it can also be attributed to a number of controllable lifestyle factors. 

How does a CoQ10 supplement help improve mitochondrial health and reduce oxidative stress?

Although a natural decline in CoQ10 levels is inevitable, a CoQ10 supplement can help support your mitochondrial health and help reduce oxidative stress. Scientists initially believed that taking a simple CoQ10 dietary supplement would improve mitochondrial health, however it's now known that the large molecule size of these supplements and the limited permeability of the mitochondria means that very little is actually absorbed into the mitochondria. 

Our scientists in New Zealand made a breakthrough with CoQ10 absorption in the late 1990s when 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 into the mitochondria. They created a new molecule, available today as mitoquinol mesylate - the hero ingredient of MitoQ, that enables it to cross the mitochondrial barrier thanks to its smaller molecule size and positive charge, allowing the supplement to breach the mitochondrial membrane. MitoQ is able to begin improving mitochondrial health by rebalancing the levels of CoQ10 and free radicals inside the cell and helping to reduce the levels of free radical damage. In fact, MitoQ is absorbed into the mitochondria up to 1,000 times better than regular CoQ10.
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