Can a 60p pill from the chemist
really add years to your life?
By ANNA HODGEKISS
Forget vitamins C, E or even B12. The real wonder supplement is Coenzyme Q10 or CoQ10.
That's what Boots would have you believe, anyway. This week, it is launching its own version of the supplement.
You can already buy CoQ10 in healthfood shops, but the Boots product is being marketed with the claim that it will help maintain natural energy levels and boost your heart, health and immune system. At roughly 60p a pill, it sounds like a good investment. In fact, so convinced is Boots of its benefits that it is offering a money-back guarantee for the next month if any customer is unconvinced after a seven-day trial.
Boots says CoQ10, its new wonder supplement, helps you maintain energy levels and boosts your immune system. It sounds impressive. But the fact is, scientific opinion is divided over the use of CoQ10 supplements, and some experts believe you'd be better off spending your 60p on fresh fruit.
You might have heard of CoQ10 before. It's found in upmarket beauty creams because of its anti-ageing properties. It is an enzyme the body produces naturally in the liver and is used to turn the glucose from the food we eat into an energy-rich compound called adenosine triphosphate. This is essential for fuelling the body's vital processes, such as breathing, muscle contraction and digestion.
Scientists agree that CoQ10 is key to survival. Without enough, not only do our energy levels drop, but it's harder to ward off illness. "As we get older, the amount of CoQ10 in our bodies can decrease," says Dr Ann Walker, a senior lecturer in human nutrition at the University of Reading. "This can also be made worse by statins - medication used to lower cholesterol levels in people with, or at risk of, heart disease - as they can hinder the production of CoQ10 in the body."
As a result, we feel more tired. Dr Walker says there is "increasing evidence" CoQ10 supplements work. Indeed, a study published last week in the Journal of the International Society for Sports Nutrition found people who took a 200mg supplement of CoQ10 before exercising were able to continue working out for longer before feeling exhausted than those taking a placebo. And last month, a Japanese study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that athletes who took CoQ10 supplements suffered fewer exercise-induced injuries.
As well as its energy-boosting role, CoQ10 is a powerful antioxidant, helping protect the body against disease by reducing levels of harmful chemicals called free radicals. In this way, it helps stave off conditions such as heart disease.
In a recent U.S. study, patients given a daily CoQ10 supplement for the first month after a heart attack had a 50 per cent less chance of developing further cardiac problems.
Another study, published in the International Journal of Cardiology, found patients who took CoQ10 for eight weeks after a heart attack had reduced blood pressure and higher levels of "good" cholesterol than those who took a placebo. There is also evidence to suggest its heart-protective benefits mean CoQ10 could help reduce the side effects of statins.
Around 3.5 million people in Britain take the cholesterol-lowering drugs. Side-effects include headaches, poor liver function, abdominal pain and muscle pain.
Several years ago, Dr Peter Langsjoen, a leading U.S. cardiologist, caused much controversy when he claimed statins could cause heart failure. In a study, he gave statins to patients with high levels of cholesterol but no evidence of heart disease. More than 70 per cent of them went on to develop the sort of problem with their heart muscle that goes with cardiac failure. But when he gave them a supplement of 300mg of CoQ10, the problem was reversed for more than half of them.
Cholesterol, like CoQ10, is produced in the liver.
If you take a statin to reduce your high levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol, you will also wipe out a lot of the CoQ10 - and, in theory, reduce the heart's natural protection.
The British Heart Foundation concedes that in some studies, people with certain conditions - angina, heart failure and high blood pressure - showed an improvement when given CoQ10, alongside other treatment. However, it also stresses that a healthy, balanced diet will provide a good range of antioxidants as well as other nutrients important for heart health.
According to Boots' own research, until the age of 20, the body is able to manufacture enough CoQ10 itself. But after that, our bodies gradually start to lose this ability. By the age of 40, the levels in the kidneys and heart will have dropped by a quarter.
"While it is possible to boost your CoQ10 intake through your diet, the problem is that the foods rich in it are things such as hearts, kidneys and liver - which most of us don't like eating," says Nick Bennett, a nutritional biochemist at Boots.
"Some antioxidants are more powerful than others. Vitamin C, for example, works well between the cells, getting rid of damaging free radicals.
"CoQ10 works at keeping the cell membranes together and is good at carrying the free radicals out of our cells."
Like some other vitamins and minerals, such as selenium (good for brain function) and chromium (which helps the body process insulin), there is no recommended daily amount of CoQ10.
So should we all be taking this supplement?
Not according to David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London, who says Boots' claims are "deliberately misleading customers".
"Yes, CoQ10 helps the body convert glucose into energy, but it's not the psychological get-up-and-go energy you feel day to day. The type of energy it does produce powers our muscles and cells - physical energy. They have confused the two here to promote a product that I'm not convinced would make any difference to how you actually feel at all."
Though he agrees that the body's levels fall with age - and that statins also reduce this, he continues: "There's little solid evidence to suggest taking an oral supplement will replenish to acceptable levels. There's speculation it will help, and studies seem to always conclude that more work is needed, but it never happens. I'm also not convinced by the whole theory of antioxidants - it's not been properly proven yet."
But nutritionist Dr Walker says the recent findings about athletes and CoQ10 supplements do, in fact, suggest the enzyme can give you "the vitality type of energy so many of us feel we lack, rather than the purely physical energy to fuel our body". She also believes some of the scepticism about CoQ10 is down to the fact it's not well known. "Its price has also held it back," she says. "It's not the cheapest of supplements. "However, the benefits to the heart if you suffer from serious problems are convincing. In that case, I wouldn't muck about: take it, as we know it can be helpful."
Among the other sceptics is Scott Marsden, a senior dietician at The London Clinic.
"There haven't been enough trials to warrant us all taking CoQ10," he says. "It sounds boring, but if you are healthy and eating a balanced diet, you will get all the nutrients you need and shouldn't have to take supplements. "Not only could you be spending money unnecessarily, you could also be putting your health at risk. Buy some wholesome food instead."
Dr Clare Gerada, vice chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, is more forthright. "While there is some evidence to suggest CoQ10 supplements may help patients with heart failure or severe respiratory disorders, more work is needed," she says. "This is just another example of normal health being medicalised, and it's an issue that worries me. The human body is an amazing machine, and we have never been in better health. The fact that more people are living well into their 80s and 90s is proof. People need to stop looking for a wonder pill in their quest to live for ever."