Are coenzymes keys to longevity?

Preliminary research suggests increasing two of them may help you live healthier, maybe even longer.

Our culture’s fixation on longevity has created a marketplace full of supplements and personalized vitamins. But beyond vitamin D and C, companies are creating pills they claim can play a role not only in maintaining health, but in fighting aging.

The next-level OTC drugs are purported to increase levels of coenzymes called coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+). Like keys, these specialized molecules found in every cell of the body unlock the power of enzymes, which are proteins that speed up or trigger essential chemical reactions in cells.

“All of metabolism—converting food to energy, maintaining blood glucose, making RNA and DNA, making hormones, and detoxifying free radicals—depends on enzymes and coenzymes,” says Charles Brenner, Ph.D., the Roy J. Carver head and chair of biochemistry at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and founding co-director of the University of Iowa Obesity Research and Education Initiative. “There’s no life without these hundreds of chemical transformations.”

The attention of late has come partly because of new research (like this) on coenzyme-enhancing supplements. And while there is still a need for longer-term research to see the drugs’ impact on humans, they’re promising, says Matt Berenc, the director of education at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute. However, you can also increase levels of both coenzymes through your diet and lifestyle.

What you need to know about CoQ10:

What it is:
CoQ10 swims in the oily membranes of cell mitochondria (cells’ power plants). There it serves as a sort of messenger service, shuttling electrons between enzymes that need them to make energy. CoQ10 also works as an antioxidant, blocking free radicals from damaging mitochondria. It naturally decreases with age, which can open the door for damage and interfere with cellular energy.

The supplement:
Popping standard CoQ10 supplements may not help; the molecule is so oily that little of it is absorbed. The creators of a supplement called MitoQ claim to have tweaked the molecule to fix this problem. Multiple in vitro and animal studies show that the CoQ10 in MitoQ may help protect against things like high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, neurodegeneration, inflammatory bowel disease, Alzehimer’s and more.

Now human trials are showing benefits, too. Researchers at the University of Colorado found that when people in their 60s and 70s took MitoQ (which contains 10mg of CoQ10 per two-pill dose) for six weeks, they got a 42 percent improvement in dilation of arteries. Essentially, their blood vessels acted 15 to 20 years younger, according to the study, published in the journal Hypertension.

MitoQ is still a supplement, not a drug, so it can’t make claims about treating disease. But researchers are planning more high-quality, placebo-controlled, double-blind studies that further explore benefits in people.

The food sources:
“Organ meats like heart and liver from terrestrial animals are the most concentrated food sources of CoQ10, with beef heart containing about 16 milligrams of CoQ10 per five-ounce serving,” says Berenc. “The next best sources of CoQ10 are sardines and herring with about half as much CoQ10 per kilogram. Nuts and legumes are also moderate sources.”

What you need to know about NAD+:

What it is:
NAD+ is a central regulator of metabolism and acts like a power source for mitochondria. It’s crucial in DNA repair and gene expression and plays a role in regulating sirtuins, which are linked to longevity. Your body works hard to maintain levels of NAD+, but they naturally decline with age, drinking too much alcohol, overeating, not sleeping enough, working too much, and time-zone hopping, Brenner says.

The supplement:
In 2004, Brenner discovered that a form of vitamin B3 called nicotinamide riboside (NR) could increase NAD+. Since then, in vitro and animal research shows that NR, through effects on NAD+, may help guard against heart failure, protect against obesity and noise-induced hearing loss, improve cognitive and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and enhance stem cell function and lifespan in mice.

And now research is venturing into human trials. A study from the University of Colorado found that after six weeks, a supplement called Niagen increased NAD+ by 60 percent in healthy middle-age and older adults, plus showed a trend toward lowering blood pressure and reducing aortic stiffness in subjects with mild hypertension. (Brenner is the chief scientific advisor and has a financial stake in the company that makes Niagen.)

While the research is promising, more is needed in humans to better understand how NR affects people. Brenner’s anecdotal evidence suggests people may experience improved digestion, bounce back more quickly from workouts and jet lag, and notice improved hair and nail growth.

The food sources
Vitamin B3, which leads to increases in NAD+, is available in dairy milk, chicken, cremini mushrooms, tuna, sardines, salmon, yeast, and green vegetables, per Berenc. “B3 is readily found in the diet and would be the point of focus when tailoring what you eat to support NAD+,” he says. Men should aim for 16 milligrams of B3 a day while women can strive for 14 milligrams.

And keep up your exercise habit as that can help increase levels (though it’s unclear by exactly how much) as well, per Berenc. “It is the result of training that increases mitochondrial density in the muscles, which plays a role in producing NAD+,” he explains.

*Additional reporting by Furthermore editors.