Antioxidants, free-radicals and you

“Antioxidant” has become one of the most persistent, and successful, buzzwords in the fitness industry. The substances are portrayed almost as microscopic superheros, patrolling our bodies to fight against the evil free radicals. Prevailing theories tell us that antioxidants fight cancer, aging and just about every other disease and condition out there. But emerging science has shown this view to be a potentially dangerous oversimplification of a very complicated system. What is the role of antioxidants, then? Are free radicals really the villainous molecular marauders that they’re made out to be? Is there any harm in antioxidant supplementation?

Poor, Misunderstood Free Radicals

Even at the molecular level, everything likes to be in balance. One of the ways that molecules maintain their balance is by having pairs of electrons. When a molecule has a lonesome, unpaired electron, it becomes a thief and tries to steal an electron from a neighboring molecule. The victim now becomes a thief, trying to replace its lost electron. These are free radicals and, through their criminal activity, they damage cell walls and cause disease. It is true that antioxidants neutralize free radicals and prevent them from damaging further cells but this is only part of the story. Free radicals aren’t all bad and, in small doses, may even be vital since they are used in energy production at a cellular level. Certain free radicals, like those produced by hydrogen peroxide, actually play a key role in a healthy immune system. This means that megadoses of antioxidants, which destroy these free radicals, may be counterproductive, according to several studies.

The Science

The chief study that points to the benefits of the much maligned free radicals was conducted in 2010 by researchers at the Department of Biology at McGill University of Montreal, Canada. The study found that worms that had higher levels of free radicals actually live longer than normal worms. Additionally, when the worms were given antioxidants, their lifespan returned to a normal length. More research is needed, though, to fully understand this relationship as well as the effects in humans. It also worth noting that, despite all the positive press, there is no research that conclusively proves all of the touted benefits of antioxidants. In fact, beta carotene, vitamin E and vitamin C have all produced lackluster results in studies on human. Beta carotene supplementation actually increased the risk of lung cancer by 28 percent and the death rate by 17 percent, in one study. An extensive U.S. Women’s Health Study also suggested that vitamin C supplements could accelerate atherosclerosis in diabetics.

Should You Supplement?

Each of these studies on various antioxidants are performed with a pure extract of the substance and point to something interesting: Taking supplements that contain the purified forms of the compound is no substitute for a diet high in fruits and vegetables. The tests that initially led to the fame of antioxidants were performed in a test tube, not in the human body. When they were reproduced in humans, researchers found that the antioxidants had little to no effect since the human body only uses specific forms of the substances and excretes the rest. People who already have a deficiency in a given antioxidant, vitamin E for example, are the exception. But you should only supplement under the direction of a doctor since even these substances can have side effects when taken in large doses. As is the case with most health and fitness topics, balance is the key. Science still cannot full explain the relationship between free radicals and antioxidants, apart from knowing that they are both important in the right doses. The safest course, then, is to stick to a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and let your body do the rest.