Your Brain on Food

How chemicals control your thoughts and feelings.

Why Are You Taking This Antioxidant?

Yet another bogus claim by snake oil salesmen

Ten years ago a few small studies were published that extolled the potential benefits of an exotic-sounding molecule, Co-enzyme Q10 (CoQ10), which is also known to scientists by the equally-exotic name of ubiquinone. Ubiquinone is a fat-soluble antioxidant that is produced by virtually every cell in your body. Its level in the body tends to peak around age 25 and then decline for a couple decades before leveling off around age 50.  Its main job is to prevent the oxidation, i.e. the combination with toxic atoms of oxygen, of proteins and fats as well as your DNA.  The DNA within your mitochondria is particularly vulnerable because these little organelles are exposed to exceptionally high concentrations of oxygen as they convert food into energy.

Ubiquinone is an essential piece of mitochondrial machinery that allows our cells to extract energy from the food we eat.  As we age, the decline in CoQ10 levels leads to increased vulnerability of our mitochondria.  When this happens, our cells they begin to die or develop serious functional problems.  Without CoQ10 our energy production fails.  I know this sounds surprising but the decline in CoQ10 is not why you feel more tired as you get older.  Thus, taking high doses will not give you more energy.  It doesn’t work that way.

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In spite of the science, snake oil salesmen (and many of these are physicians who should know better than to try and make a fast dollar on the ignorance of their patients!) are always eager to have us not pay attention to the man behind the curtain. Thus, the web is full of misleading claims (read lies) about the ability of high doses of CoQ10 to treat or prevent many different age-related diseases of the brain. Clinical trials have never found any significant benefits.

Why?  Shouldn’t supplementation with such a critical substance be useful for something in the brain? Unfortunately, orally administered CoQ10 does not cross the blood brain barrier.  Given this fact it is amusing to read how one web site compares their formula with that of others showing how fast blood levels raise when you consume their special version of CoQ10; however, since CoQ10 does not cross the blood brain barrier, it does not matter how fast blood levels increase because none of it will ever enter the brain.  That bothersome little fact has probably never hurt sales, particularly if you include a few glowing testimonials.

So why does CoQ10 appear to work so well in these people being quoted on Dr. Quack’s Anti-Aging web site?  The answer is easy: the placebo effect.  Never, ever underestimate the power of the placebo effect.  The medical literature is full of truly miraculous stories about people responding to sugar tablets as though they were morphine or powerful anti-depressants.  The more expensive the placebo the better they seem to work; which might explain why CoQ10 is so incredibly expensive.

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford Univ Press)

Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University.

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