R&D / Wellness Foods

When it Comes to Heart-Healthy Ingredients, Think CoQ-10

Statin drugs can deplete the body of co-enzyme Q-10, a key ingredient in energy production in the heart muscle.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor

The first of the 77 million Baby Boomers are turning 70, but emotionally the psychedelic generation is still celebrating the culture of youth it started back in the 1960s. There’s just one catch: Physically, 70 is not the new 20.

There’s been a great deal of attention paid to muscle health lately. It makes sense; Americans are at once older demographically and less physically active, than ever. Granted, to look at the activity-obsessed society you’d think we have become a nation of exercisers. But sarcopenia -- age-related muscle atrophy and loss -- is now an epidemic.

Some estimates are that nearly half the U.S. population has suffered at least some level of sarcopenia, which begins as early as in the 30s and accelerates at a rate of 1-2 percent per year until the 60s, when it can increase at an even greater rate. By age 90, for some people, up to half of the body’s muscle mass has disappeared.

The loss of skeletal muscle in those over age 60 has justly attracted a lot of attention from processors and products like Muscle Milk, and ingredients such as whey protein are filling an excellent niche. However, the focus for all these products is skeletal muscle, when it’s the heart muscle -- the actual muscle tissue of the heart -- millions of seniors need to be worrying about.

According to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, the number of people over age 40 on cholesterol-lowering medications has risen nearly a third, to almost 30 percent. The majority of these drugs prescribed are statin drugs.

Tens of millions of Americans are currently taking statins. There is an increasingly supported position that such treatments may be largely unnecessary for many of the people prescribed them, both because of the sometimes severe side effects including muscle pain and weakness and growing recognition that connections between serum cholesterol -- in fact, what even constitutes dangerously high cholesterol -- and disease are more complicated than previously believed.

A growing mountain of research supports that statins severely deplete the body of co-enzyme Q-10 (CoQ10), an indispensable ingredient in energy production in the mitochondria. (Remember in freshman biology mitochondria were referred to ad nauseum as “the powerhouse of the cell?”).

Heart muscle, as it happens, is particularly rich in mitochondria. Without CoQ10, mitochondria cannot do their job cranking out energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), key to every function in the body. There’s no overstating it: If you had no CoQ 10 in your body you would die instantly.

Statins work by counteracting the body’s ability to synthesize cholesterol. They do this through blocking the action of HMG CoA reductase inhibitor, a chemical involved in the fifth step of the cholesterol production process and a key element in the manufacture of a compound called mevalonate that is necessary for the body to make the cholesterol molecule. The problem? Mevalonate also is needed for CoQ-10, specifically for the chemical “tail” that anchors CoQ10 to the mitochondria, allowing it to do its energy-generating work.

With all the statins being prescribed it’s surprising CoQ-10 isn’t on everyone’s radar and thus that more product developers aren’t turning to CoQ-10, especially for formulations designed for the heart, energy and healthy aging. The body makes its own CoQ-10, but its ability to produce it declines from the mid-30s on. Loss of the muscle tissue in which it is generated only aggravates the problem. The incredible concentration of mitochondria in the heart, and therefore of CoQ-10, makes it an important nutrient.

For processors, CoQ-10, while lipid-soluble, shows a lot of promise for inclusion in foods and beverages. It is not toxic, heat stable and flavorless. It’s had GRAS status for nearly a decade. With tens of millions of potential consumers ready and waiting, it won’t take a lot of muscle to move this nutraceutical powerhouse to the forefront.