I've wanted to write a brief piece on the use of antioxidants for a while now, and it seems like with the articles I've been stumbling on, I should have written one a while ago.
The problem with many medical discoveries is that they are never cut-and-paste solutions to our problems. Researchers with a whole alphabet behind their name (triple-PhD type folks) look at a culture of cells on a tea-plate-sized dish and find that with the addition of drug X there is an increase in function Y. Whoa-my-god. Those cells are found in the pancreas; ergo-facto ingesting drug X will increase Y in the body and make you a half-droid disease fighting machine. ALERT THE MEDIA! QUICKLY! (it's usually the media behind this fabrication, but some of the researchers are to blame as well)
Not so fast. Pretty much anything can be taken out of context by the media and expanded into a new pseudomedical revolution. And when the facts come in that there were actually some holes in the findings, the media and it's half brother, pharma, are not as likely to respond. After all, everyone's making money; why ruin the fun?
This is the craze with antioxidants. Unfortunately more recent findings are having trouble reaching the general public, and thus we have more advertisements about, more products with and more spotlight on the 'benefit' of antioxidants. However, I can see why it's hard to break the myth - the theory behind it is very logical and can easily be swallowed (badoom-tschhh) by the consumer, no matter the educational background.
Before I get into this, Dr. Steven Novella wrote a great piece on this that you might find interesting (apologies if the following information is a bit repetitive)
In the process of metabolism, reactive oxygen species (or ROS) can be produced. These are highly reactive compounds that rip apart compounds (react in a random manner) and leave them to do the same thing. What you get is a chain of unfortunate dismemberments. Think of it this way. A bully charges the first kid he sees and takes his ice cream. Now the kid is mad, so he bullies the next kid he sees. What you get is a chain reaction and a neighbourhood of disgruntled, damaged, oxidant kids. The rest of this article doesn't really work for this example since it turns out we want to keep some of those bullies around in the body (but not on the playgrounds).
Antioxidants provide a band aid to this problem by scavenging the premises for the 'bullies', if you will, and reacting with them. So theoretically, the antioxidants stop the harmful effects of ROS by neutralizing them. And there you have the punch line of the whole antioxidant movement.
Cancer is caused by a DNA mutation which results in the wrong instructions being sent to the cells. What you get is a resource hogging, proliferating machine that ultimately leads to the death of its provider. But what causes the mutation? The finger has been pointed at ROS since they can attack protein links and DNA (it's not the only cause, but an easy target).
What's the deal?
As Dr. Novella put it, it makes no sense to tip the scale in one direction. The human body has evolved over such a long period of time to have a sustainable balance in its system through complex cascades and competing environments. The body requires the use of its oxidants (even at a potential risk) to exchange information between cells and kill of potentially dangerous cells. The body uses nitric oxide (an oxidant) as a retrograde neurotransmitter and hormone to play important roles such as vasodilating vessels, promoting second messenger systems in cells, immunity and erection (yea, I was just as surprised). The body also uses various other chemicals that would be considered oxidative to protect itself from harm. It is theorized that just as the oxidants can cause damage to cells to cause cancer, they can damage cancerous cells to stop the spread or its development. And antioxidants can disrupt that delicate use of oxidants. In fact, fat-soluble antioxidant vitamins A and E have actually been shown to increase mortality in those that take them. Vitamin E is very controversial as it has been shown to decrease the risk of colorectal and pancreatic cancer, but increase prostate cancer risk. Dr. Novella has some great examples in his article.
The takeaway from any of my posts is always DO YOUR RESEARCH. I may ultimately be wrong, but as long as the truth is found by those that are looking for it, I'm happy.
- If you hear something about a supplement, look up information about it online form a credible source. A doctor wrote the testimonial? Look him/her up and see their credentials.
- Scientists did the research? There's no such thing. Research can be done by pathologists, immunologists, microbiologists (you know, the ones with the letters behind their name).
- Most marketing ploys use 'scientist' to try to prove that their product works. Look up both sides of the argument - which has more support?
- Tired of reading opinion-based forums for information? Check with a research database.
Dietary total antioxidant capacity is negatively associated with some metabolic syndrome features in healthy young adults
Antioxidants: Molecules, medicines, and myths