Over 200,000 United States troops who fought in the 1990-1991 campaign to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi invaders have been diagnosed with a set of chronic health problems dubbed Gulf War Syndrome. The symptoms range from fatigue, muscle pain and weakness to decreased cognitive function and gastrointestinal and skin problems, even decades after the conflict. 

In a new paper, researchers report that a supplement of coenzyme Q, which is produced in the body, available in meat, and as a a dietary additive – provides health benefits to persons suffering from these Gulf War illness symptoms. (Read an interview with the discoverer of Coenzyme Q, Professor Fred Crane, in Mitochondria And Antioxidants: A Tale Of Two Scientists)

CoQ10 is a fat-soluble antioxidant made by the body to support basic cell functions, including directly assisting mitochondrial energy production, which is how the body produces energy from food. In the study, 46 United States Gulf War veterans who met the Kansas and Centers for Disease Control criteria for Gulf War illness participated in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. They got the PharmaNord brand of CoQ10 supplement - 100 mg per day, 300 mg per day, or an identical-appearing placebo, for about 3.5 months.

The results were that 80 percent of those who received 100mg of CoQ10 had improvement in physical function. The degree of improvement correlated to the degree in which CoQ10 levels in the blood increased. Gulf War illness symptoms like headaches, fatigue with exertion, irritability, recall problems and muscle pain also improved. 

"Gulf War illness is not the same as post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, signature illnesses of later deployments, which are caused by psychological and mechanical injury, respectively," said Beatrice Golomb, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine and principal investigator on the study. "Evidence instead links Gulf War illness to chemical exposures, such as pesticides or pills given to soldiers to protect them from possible nerve agents. These chemicals can damage mitochondria, which generate the energy our cells need to do their jobs. When these powerhouses of the cells are disrupted, it can produce symptoms compatible with those seen in Gulf War illness."

The connection to chemical and toxin exposures is fortified by evidence of mitochondrial problems in affected veterans, said Golomb, as well as evidence showing those veterans who became ill are significantly more likely than others to harbor genetic variants that render their enzymes less effective at detoxifying these chemicals.

"The statistical significance of these benefits, despite the small sample size, underscores the large magnitude of the effects," Golomb said. "Mounting evidence suggests findings in Gulf War illness are relevant to toxin-induced health problems in the civilian sector, so what we learn by studying health challenges of these veterans, will likely benefit others."

Golomb and colleagues are seeking additional funding to test a more complete "mitochondrial cocktail," which combines CoQ10 with additional nutrients that support cell energy and reduce oxidative damage to cells.

Citation: Beatrice A. Golomb, Matthew Allison, Sabrina Koperski, Hayley J. Koslik, Sridevi Devaraj, and Janis B. Ritchie, 'Coenzyme Q10 Benefits Symptoms in Gulf War Veterans: Results of a Randomized Double-Blind Study', Neural Computation, November 2014, Vol. 26, No. 11 , Pages 2594-2651, doi: 10.1162/NECO_a_00659. Source: University of California - San Diego