Antioxidants – Hype vs. Reality

Since I’m on the road right now, for the next couple of weeks I’ll be sharing a few articles I’ve previously written for Oasis magazine.  This one in particular is about the topic of antioxidants.




Antioxidants entered the public consciousness in the 1990s when researchers began to understand that damage caused by reactive oxygen species (ROS), also referred to as free radicals, was linked to various chronic diseases including clogged arteries (atherosclerosis), vision loss and some types of cancer.  This led to a rush of products featuring antioxidants, as well as antioxidant supplements hitting the shelves of supermarkets and pharmacies.  But with all the hype it can be difficult to know, how much do they actually help?  Let’s try to tease apart hype from reality when it comes to antioxidants.

How antioxidants work

First, a quick lesson on how antioxidants work.  ROS are compounds that steal electrons from others compounds in the body.  They are natural by-products of metabolism or exposure to sunlight, and can also be found in the food we eat, as well as the air we breathe.  The problem with ROS is that stealing electrons from other compounds not only results in damage to DNA, cell membranes and basically anything else they come in contact with, but the compounds they’ve stolen electrons from become ROS themselves in a sort of chain-like reaction.

Antioxidants are the defense against ROS.  They neutralize ROS by giving up an electron without turning into ROS themselves.  They’re basically the body’s version of using water to put out a fire.

Antioxidants in your diet

Our body naturally produces a whole host of antioxidants to deal with ROS, but we can also obtain them from food.  The best sources of antioxidants are fruits and vegetables (generally the brighter the color, the better), coffee, tea, nuts, whole grains, wine and, yes, even chocolate (but only the dark kind!).  Diets high in antioxidant containing foods are consistently associated with lower rates of chronic disease as well as longer lifespans, but it’s difficult to determine how much of these benefits can be directly tied to the antioxidants themselves.

To supplement or not

So, antioxidants from our diet are probably a good thing, but are you getting enough?  Should you consider supplementing just to be sure?  Some common antioxidant supplements include vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium, manganese, glutathione, coenzyme Q10, flavonoids, phenols, polyphenols and phytoestrogens.

Unfortunately outside of very particular situations there is little evidence to suggest that, supplementing with antioxidants staves off many of the diseases they are often claimed to and in some cases may actually be harmful.  For example, beta-carotene supplementation appears to reduce help prevent the development of macular degeneration (a form of blindness), but had no benefit in terms of heart disease or stroke, and actually increased the chances of developing lung cancer in smokers.

The Bottom Line

Antioxidants play an important role in protecting the body from damage caused by ROS.  Your primary source of antioxidants should be food, ideally from varied sources, including fruits and vegetables.  Most people do not benefit from taking antioxidant supplements, however if you are considering doing so, you should first discuss with your physician or dietitian to minimize the risks of any potential negative side-effects.


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