Two Powerhouse Nutrients for Optimal Athletic Performance

When it comes to introducing these two powerhouse nutrients, most people have heard of coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). It has a great reputation as a powerful antioxidant and has been well researched as a cardioprotective nutrient.[1],[2] It has been shown to have a positive impact on blood lipid profiles,[3],[4] decreasing LDL-cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglyceride levels; improving lipoprotein(a)[5] and other cardiometabolic parameters as well.[6] Supplementation of CoQ10 may also help prevent the side effects of cholesterol-lowering statin medications including “statin-associated muscle symptoms” which include muscle pain, cramping, and weakness.[7] As if that wasn’t enough, research is beginning to explore the beneficial role that CoQ10 may play in enhancing athletic performance as well.

CoQ10 is synthesized in the human body and is a vitamin-like substance that can exist as ubiquinone (oxidized CoQ10) or ubiquinol (the unoxidized, reduced form). The latter form is often preferred as studies suggest it may be more bioavailable than ubiquinone.[8],[9] The body also has a diminishing ability to reduce it (in essence “activating” it) with age.[10] CoQ10 plays various roles in energy production and is an integral component of the mitochondria, which harness energy from nutrients to produce ATP, the energy that fuels thousands of processes in each of our cells. Organs like the heart and muscles, which have greater amounts of mitochondria, depend on a constant and sufficient supply of CoQ10 and produce less energy and strength if they are deficient in CoQ10.[11]

The concentration of CoQ10 in the tissue can decline as a consequence of environmental toxins, poor diet, oxidative stress, exercise, the use of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, and other pathological changes.[12],[13],[14],[15] Unfortunately, CoQ10 levels also decline as a natural consequence of aging.[16] Despite de novo synthesis of CoQ10, it appears that heavy training or sustained exertion associated with exercise can also result in lower plasma levels of CoQ10, especially in athletes.[17],[18],[19] Highly trained athletes can therefore exhibit lower CoQ10 levels in tissue and blood which can limit their performance due to the importance of this nutrient for cardiovascular and muscular function.

The optimal plasma level for athletes is not definitively known. Some studies have shown that athletes with a CoQ10 plasma level greater than >2.5 mg/L or more showed an improvement in certain markers of physical performance.[20] More recent research also elucidates a link between the CoQ10 plasma level and performance capacity: the higher the CoQ10 plasma level, the higher the performance capacity.[17],[18],[19],[21] A 2013 study looked at the effect of ubiquinol supplementation on physical performance, measured as maximum power output, in young, elite athletes. This study demonstrated that daily supplementation of 300 mg of ubiquinol for six weeks significantly enhanced physical performance in young, healthy, trained German Olympic athletes. While adherence to a training regimen itself resulted in an improvement in peak power output, ubiquinol supplementation significantly enhanced peak power production in comparison to the non-supplemented, training-only placebo group.[11]

Recent research elucidates a link between the CoQ10 plasma level and performance capacity:  the higher the CoQ10 plasma level, the higher the performance capacity.

Other benefits of CoQ10 supplementation in athletes include:

  • A reduction in exercise-induced muscular injury.[21],[22]
  • An ability to increase the duration of exercise to exhaustion in healthy, untrained and trained individuals.[23]
  • Significant improvement of physical performance indexes in cross country skiers.[24]
  • A reduction in oxidative stress resulting in improved muscle recovery after strenuous exercise.[25]

Let’s now introduce the “new kid on the block” – astaxanthin (pronounced “asta-ZAN-thin”), a powerful carotenoid that can be found in both plants and animals. By far, the highest concentration of astaxanthin in nature is found in Haematococcus pluvialis microalgae, which is the source for the majority of astaxanthin supplements on the market today.[26],[27] It is very important to note that one should seek out a natural astaxanthin product such as this because it has 90 times more intracellular antioxidant activity than the synthetic (laboratory-made) version that is also available in some over-the-counter products.[26],[27],[28],[29] 

It is very important to note that one should seek out a natural astaxanthin product because it has 90 times more intracellular antioxidant activity than the synthetic (laboratory-made) version.

Studies are showing that this potent antioxidant may play a significant role in protecting the brain, eyes, skin, and many other organs against the oxidative damage associated with aging.[25],[30],[31],[32] More specifically, studies are suggesting that this exceptional antioxidant, which also has powerful anti-inflammatory properties,[33],[34] offers an array of therapeutic benefits that may include improvement in long-term memory;[32],[35] protection against UVA-induced aging such as skin sagging and wrinkles;[36] the reduction and prevention of eye strain;[37] enhanced sports performance;[38] and cardio and neuroprotective properties against conditions such as dyslipidemia, high-blood pressure, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.[25],[32],[39]

WOW – now that is quite an exciting introduction for this rising “King of the Carotenoids.”[40] Let’s dig a little deeper, however, through a series of human studies on astaxanthin’s potential for enhancing energy, strength, performance, and endurance in athletes and active people.

  • In an early double-blind, placebo-controlled study male students were supplemented with astaxanthin at a dosage of 4 mg/day for a period of six months. Results determined that strength and endurance in the astaxanthin group increased by 54.8%.[41] The placebo group, also doing the same amount of training but not taking astaxanthin, showed an improvement of only 19.5%. Strength and endurance increased almost 3x faster in the young men taking astaxanthin compared to placebo. The results of this study are supported by an earlier finding that astaxanthin supplementation in mice increases swimming time before exhaustion.[42]
  • In a Gatorade sponsored study, highly trained competitive cyclists were also given 4 mg/day of natural astaxanthin.[43] At the end of four weeks, the placebo group showed no significant improvement in cycling times. The participants taking the natural astaxanthin were, on average, 5% faster. In addition, their power output increased by 15%. We must keep in mind that these were not average athletes, but highly trained competitive athletes. Even marginal improvements from a supplement regimen after just four weeks in elite athletes is considered an important result.[40]
  • Another study in Europe looked at the effect of taking 4 mg/day of natural astaxanthin on young elite soccer players. This 90 day, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study concluded that: “The plasma muscle enzymes levels were reduced significantly by astaxanthin supplementation and by regular training. The increase in neutrophil count and hs-CRP level was found only in [the] placebo group, indicating a significant blunting of the systemic inflammatory response in the subjects taking astaxanthin. This study indicates that astaxanthin supplementation improves sIgA response [part of a normal, healthy mucosal immune response] and attenuates muscle damage, thus preventing inflammation induced by rigorous physical training.”[44] Although some amount of inflammation is important for muscle building, low-grade chronic inflammation contributes to a condition called sarcopenia,[45] or the “normal” loss of skeletal muscle mass with aging. Not surprisingly, astaxanthin may help prevent this condition as well![46]
  • An additional study has relevance for both athletes and those concerned with heart health. A group of male and female amateur athletes training for a half marathon were randomly assigned to receive 12 mg of astaxanthin per day or placebo for eight weeks. Heart rate during training was tested before and after the eight-week course of supplementation. Results: The subjects were able to perform the same amount of “work” – but at lower cardiovascular “strain” after supplementation with astaxanthin. The authors concluded, “These results suggest natural astaxanthin may be a beneficial ergogenic aid for long/ultra-distance endurance athletes. The data [are] also suggestive of a general “cardiotonic” effect that should be investigated in non-athletic populations including elderly and those with cardiac complications including myocardial infarction, heart failure, statin usage, mitochondrial dysfunction, and chronic fatigue related conditions.”[40],[47]

In an early double-blind, placebo-controlled study male students were supplemented with astaxanthin at a dosage of 4 mg/day for a period of six months. Results determined that strength and endurance in the astaxanthin group increased by 54.8%

Several other studies strongly support astaxanthin’s role in the enhancement of athletic performance with results including: improvement of energy metabolism and efficiency;[47],[48] improvement of the athlete’s antioxidant profile;[47] reduced muscle fatigue during exercise;[41],[42],[47]prevention of joint and muscle soreness after workouts;[49],[50] and the reduction of physical and mental fatigue from not only training but even from the routines of daily life.[51],[52]

After a review of the literature as both an athlete and naturopathic physician, I am a HUGE fan of CoQ10 and astaxanthin. That said, the growing body of research supporting natural astaxanthin’s use in the world of athletic training is impressive. I speculate with time that we will see even more positive human studies for this exceptional nutrient in not only the athletic world but many other categories as well. Given the data on each of these powerhouse nutrients, one could argue that BOTH may be of benefit to include in a daily supplement regimen for training (and aging!) athletes.

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Glandular Therapies: An Age-Old Solution for Chronic Conditions
Molecular Hydrogen: A Surprising New Nutraceutical

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