Antioxidants Will Not Cure Anything That Ails You

Our food and drinks are chock-full of antioxidants nowadays, along with promises of protection from illness and even faster recovery when you've taken ill. US News explains that antioxidant studies show hardly conclusive data, and what we think heals us isn't really doing much at all.

Picture: AGorohov/Shutterstock

First, it's important to understand what antioxidants do. Charles H. Brown, writing for US News, explains:

The body generates hundreds of substances called "free radicals" when converting food to energy. Other free radicals are extracted from food or breathed in from the air, and some are generated by the sunlight's action on the skin and eyes. Once formed, these toxic compounds can start a chain reaction like dominoes. Cells may function poorly or die. Resulting oxidative stress is associated with more than 200 diseases. The scavenger-free radical molecules are missing an electron in their outer shells and will do anything to fill them, including stealing electrons from your body's cellular structures. Such cellular thievery may damage DNA, proteins (enzymes), and cell membranes. When these cells are damaged, your body is damaged, creating the foundation for disease and accelerated ageing.

Antioxidants are molecules which can safely interact with free radicals and terminate the chain reaction before vital molecules are damaged. Although there are several enzyme systems within the body that disarm free radicals, the principal antioxidants are vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and selenium. When these antioxidants neutralize free radicals by donating an electron particle, they are left with a small problem. The antioxidants are now missing an electron and have become free radicals themselves. The body cannot manufacture these antioxidants, so they must be supplied in your diet.

While antioxidants can help in theory, no studies with any conclusive evidence of disease prevention were found. At best, they seemed to help slow "age-related macular degeneration", and nothing more. Currently, the benefits of antioxidants don't appear helpful in most cases, and they certainly won't cure an illness like many would like to believe. If you're spending extra money to have them in your daily diet, you might want to reconsider.

Do You Really Need Antioxidants? [US News]


Comments

    Mmmm. Antioxidants become free radicals when they 'donate' the missing electron. Is it really that simple? I'd have though that this would have been discovered ages ago when studies first identified the interaction between antioxidants and free radicals.

    I'm rather skeptical about the information in this article (and the US News source as well). I have a scientific background, although I'm no expert on oxidative stress, but the part about antioxidants becoming free radicals seems dubious. Many of the antioxidants in our body are enzymes, and these never change their form or structure after catalysing reactions. And these enzymes are very effective free radical scavengers.

    I don't argue with the point that studies have not shown much evidence to support the efficacy of antioxidant supplements in preventing or reversing disease, but this would much more likely be due to the supplements being far less potent than the antioxidants produced in our bodies, rather than antioxidants just don't work.

    Stinger, most antioxidants are co-enzymes. But you're right to be skeptical: Many chemical compounds can donate hydrogen ions without becoming free radicals themselves.

    I suspect the author's understanding of antioxidants is a little shaky, but the point stands: Antioxidants do nothing for your health.

    For decades we thought otherwise, as antioxidants are an essential component of reducing oxidative stress in the mutation pathways that result in cancers. A number of trials were conducted, and their results analysed.

    At best, they do nothing to improve survival. In some trials, outcome was worsened in the antioxidant group.

    The consensus at the moment is that you get enough antioxidants from your diet, and that supplementing this won't help you (and may harm you if you have cancer see JAMA 297 (8): 842–57 for a good example).

    Ooh, and here:
    http://www.cochrane.org/reviews/en/ab007176.html

    there is some evidence for antioxidant supplementation, although it might be a bit limited
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17584062
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18220719
    http://cardiovascres.oxfordjournals.org/content/47/3/446.abstract

    Fast as I can tell, the major role of antioxidants in the 'neutralisation' of reactive oxygen species (ROS) would be of greatest benefit in the elderly and frail who have a background of coronary heart disease, where the risk of myocardial ischemia reperfusion injury is a relevant and major cause of morbidity and mortality. Use of antioxidant supplementation is such select populations might have some benefit. If only we had a cochrane review looking at that.

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