By ANITA LEE, Contributing Columnist
You may not have heard about acetyl carnitine but your body is very familiar with it. In fact, if nutrients were musicians, most of the nutrients you are familiar with essentially would be background bands but acetyl carnitine would be a rock star. The other nutrients would be The Jacksons while acetyl carnitine would be Michael Jackson or what Mick Jagger is to the Rolling Stones or Beyonce’ is to Destiny’s Child or ...okay, you get the point.
What is this mysterious rock star element called acetyl carnitine and why does it make your body’s cells swoon with love? Is acetyl carnitine the long sought after fountain of youth?
To understand acetyl carnitine’s importance, you have to understand aging.
How do you know that a person is old? You know a person is old by observing outward signs of aging --- gray hair, sagging skin, rickety bones, watery eyes. But inside your body, at the cellular level, something equally profound is happening. You’re not only falling apart outwardly, you’re also falling apart at the cellular level.
As scientists would say, aging at the cellular level is characterized by structural disorganization, disturbances in protein synthesis, decreases in enzyme activity, and progressive impairment of the functions of cellular organelles.
And no where in your body is this disorganization and disturbance more critical than in a little ball inside your cells called a “mitochondria”.
Each and every one of the 37 trillion cells (that’s trillion with a “t”) in your body has a mitochondria. So you’ve got 37 trillion mitochondria in your body. Mitochondria contain all the DNA inherited from your Mother.
Think of your cells as a house. In that house, mitochondria would be the furnace in the basement. Mitochondria supply almost 100% of all of the energy of your cells -- thanks, Mom. As we age, our mitochondria begin to decay. Scientists did not understand for many decades why this decay in our mitochondria occurred but now they believe the answer is something called “oxidative stress”.
What Is Oxidative Stress and What Does Is Have to Do with Acetyl Carnitine Anyway?
Like I said, when you see an elderly person aging fast, you see the outward signs. “ She’s going gray too fast” , you might observe or “he’s started to walk bent over” or “she’s starting to shake when she pours coffee”. But what scientists see when they see an older person is an ever faster process of oxidative reactive species --- compounds in your body which react with oxygen.
This way of looking at aging is called the “free radical theory of aging” and is was first proposed in 1956 by Dr. Denham Burnham who noted that aging bears a strong resemblance to the effects of radiation --- loss of hair, mutagenesis, cellular damage and cancer. Burnham suggested that maybe people age because internally we are being subjected to something that is akin to internal radiation.
This is what oxidative stress is -- a form of internal radiation. Oxygen free radicals bounce against other complete molecules in your blood and wreak havoc. The free radicals are really incomplete, unstable molecules. For example, the molecular structure of water is “H20”, meaning two H’s (hydrogen molecules) and one “O” (oxygen) combine to form water, a stable, harmless compound.
But what if the “H’s” are separated from the “O” in water. What’s left is an unstable agent --- a single O --- which then roams around freely as a “free radical” and can combine in radical, unpredictable ways with stable molecules.
It may, for example, pull off an H from a stable water molecule. Oxidative stress destroys normal cell function. They are destructive, these free radicals. And inside our mitochondria, the energy furnace of our cells, these free radicals cause oxidative stress that exacts a heavy toll.
This is where acetyl carnitine comes in. This substance, made in our bodies when the amino acid lysine and methionine interact, appears to shield our mitochondria from the “radiation” of oxidative stress. Acetyl carnitine is the good cop that “arrests” the free radicals. Apologies for ending up on the wrong side of history in this metaphor and, if at this point, some of you would rather die than take a “good cop” supplement that arrests "free radicals", then think of acetyl carnitine as a raincoat and free radicals as acid rain.
Surprising Health Benefits of Acetyl Carnitine
Here are the top health benefits of acetyl carnitine:
Acetyl Carnitine Boosts The Number of Mitochondria You Have
Taking acetyl carnitine for a long period of time (4 weeks in drinking water) actually increases the number of mitochondria in the skeletal muscle of lab rats, a 2002 study from the University of Naples Federico II, Italy.
Acetyl Carnitine Protects the Brain Against Alzheimer’s Disease
Mitochondrial decay due to oxidative damage ages your brain, making it vulnerable to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, according to 2005 study from Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute, Oakland, CA.
Taking mitochondrial nutrients such as acetyl carnitine helps to block this damage and thus offers protection against degenerative brain diseases.
The amount of the supplement matters. Too little and no effects are seen. Too much and the oxidation actually gets worse. The 2002 study from the University of California at Berkeley found that a dose of 0.5% lowered oxidative stress while a dose of 1.5% actually increased oxidative stress in the brain.
Acetyl Carnitine Protects Aging Brains Against Memory Loss
Acetyl carnitine also protects the aging brain against memory loss, a 2002 study from the University of California at Berkeley discovered. The hippocampus is the area of the brain in both humans and rats that is responsible for memory.
As we age, oxidative stress damages this area of the brain. In this study, researchers gave lab rats drinking water laced with 0.5% or 0.2% acetyl l carnitine. They also gave some of the lab rats R-a-lipoic acid.
The study found that the acetyl carnitine, in combination with the lipoic acid, worked best to restore spatial memory --- which helps you navigate your way home or follow a map --- and temporal memory, which is the ability that helps you remember names, people and events over time.
The same type of tests were repeated in 2007 with beagle dogs. Scientists from the University of Toronto, Division of Life Sciences supplemented the diets of older beagle dogs with a combination of acetyl carnitine and alpha-lipoic acid twice a day for 2 months.
The dogs ranged in age from 7.7 to 8.8 years of age, roughly equivalent to 48 to 52 human years. After taking the supplements, the dogs were tested on their ability to remember landmarks.
The dogs that had been given the supplements tested far better --- 83% of the dogs that had received the supplement passed the memory tests while only 50% of the dogs without the supplement passed, even after 25 training sessions.
Acetyl Carnitine in Combination with Lipoic Acid Protects the Aging Heart
As we age, the mitochondria in the muscle of our hearts also experiences oxidative stress. Scientists from the Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University in 2002 tested whether acetyl carnitine could protect the heart against this damage. They discovered that, alone, acetyl carnitine cannot protect against oxidative stress to your heart.
But, in combination with alpha lipoic acid, acetyl carnintine does appear to prevent the mitochondria in the heart from decaying as fast. A word of caution is in order. This study and many of the studies showing positive health effects of acetyl carnitine have been performed on lab rats, so we have to reserve our enthusiasm for acetyl carnitine until more human studies are completed.
Acetyl Carnitine Improves Physical Activity As You Age
Feeding older lab rats acetyl carnitine and alpha lipoic acid increases their physical activity. Feeding acetyl carnitine and lipoic acid to old rats significantly improved their metabolic function while decreasing oxidative stress, scientists in 2002 from Oregon State University found.
Are Most People Carnitine Deficient?
There is no official recommended daily value of carnitine is. Many scientists, including those at the National Institutes of Health believe that most healthy people get all the carnitine they need from their diet. The body’s liver manufactures carnitine from the amino acids lysine and methionine.
Carnitine is found primarily in meat. A ounce serving of beef steak for example, has between 56 and 162 mg of carnitine. Ground beef has between 87 and 99 mg of carnitine in a 4 ounce serving. In fact, the National Institutes of Health notes that the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academies has concluded that acetyl carnitine is not as essential nutrient.
Other scientists disagree. Carnitine insufficiency occurs often in the aged brain, observed scientists in 2014 study from Case Western Reserve University. And the other studies that have touted acetyl carnitine’s health benefits agree. Both camps of scientists agree that if you have been diagnosed with carnitine deficiency --symptoms include cardiomyopathy, skeletal muscle weakness and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) then you really should be taking acetyl carnitine supplements.
So what is the real answer? Do we “need” acetyl carnitine supplements? The answer depends on your age and health. If you are young and healthy, it is doubtful that you will need to supplement acetyl carnitine, so long as you are eating a balanced diet that includes some meat.
However, as you age, you will need to consider acetyl carnitine and alpha lipoic acid supplementation because, as we have seen, numerous studies have found that your mitochondria would otherwise decay from oxidative stress.
Talk to your doctor, especially if you find that you are beginning to feel low in energy, listless, or are starting to experience memory problems or simply feel that you are getting old before your time. Acetyl carnitine is not a “miracle in a bottle” but it appears to be part of the answer to the puzzle of why some people age faster than others.