Antioxidants: No Big Deal?
The Tale of Antioxidants
Once upon a body, there were chemical reactions. While interacting in different ways to create desired products, these reactions also resulted in byproducts. Some byproducts were harmless, such as water, and others were harmful to the body, such as free radicals. The chemical reactions that led to free radical production were normal oxidation reactions. These terrible free radicals are easily addressed when there is a small percentage being formed, however it is when they accumulate and overwhelm the system that we face problems like cancer and aging. What do they do? They run amuck. They interfere. They interact with compounds they should not interact with and disturb the normal functioning of those compounds.
The moral: free radicals are a regular, normal enemy to our bodies.
What's the solution? Compounds (certain vitamins and minerals) with the special property to bind to the free radicals, neutralizing them so they can't bind to anything else. These compounds are called antioxidants. Our bodies regularly produce our own antioxidants to address this threat, and health and wellness companies have absolutely capitalized on this need to prevent chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, and so on. Vitamins A, C, and E, as well as beta-carotene, selenium, manganese, coenzyme q10, and such are some well known antioxidants. But do antioxidants really work like the claims say they do? Do they prevent these conditions from claiming us if we consume certain quantities of antioxidant-rich formulations?
A 2010 study review in France was published in the International Journal of Cancer regarding beta-carotene supplementation and its effects on cancer. The researchers reviewed about 9 randomized controlled trials that addressed the dosing of beta-carotene and its effect on cancers of the breast, lungs, pancreas, prostate, stomach, skin, and gastrointestinal tract. They ultimately found that beta-carotene, given in doses of 20-30 mg a day, does absolutely nothing for a nonsmoking individual in terms of cancer prevention. In fact, it has been associated with increased incidence of lung and stomach cancer in smokers and asbestos workers. I wonder: what is it about these particular individuals that causes beta-carotene to go from pointless to harmful?
In addition to this review, the Physician's Health Study in 2007 determined that beta-carotene taken over at least 18 years does seem to slow down cognitive decline. But that's over 18 years... and finally, perhaps the most compelling evidence I've come across that I think really blew the lid off of this whole antioxidant craze was another French study published in December 2011 in the International Journal of Epidemiology. I found this study to be a formidable threat to the antioxidant-rich super food hype.
Bear with me if I use research terms you don't understand, but they're very important to understand when you make the decision yourself as to whether this study sounds plausible or not. This study was placebo-controlled (meaning there is one group that is not given the treatment for sake of comparison), randomized (meaning the participants were organized into treatment and control groups at random to prevent result fabrication), and double-blinded (meaning the participants don't know whether they're getting a supplement or placebo pill, and neither do the individuals who administer those pills; the researchers, who planned the study, DO know). How many healthy adults participated in this study? 8112. These healthy adult participants took one capsule, either placebo or containing the antioxidant mixture, daily. Now the idea was to take this pill daily for the long term as a preventative measure against disease (this is what many people believe antioxidants do right?). Before the start of the trial, participants completed a questionnaire on their health-related quality of life. They then completed the questionnaire again after about 76 months (give or take about 4 months) and that data was then analyzed.
What was the antioxidant mixture? This supplement contained vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, selenium, and zinc in nutritional doses. What were the results? Ultimately the researchers found that long term antioxidant supplementation had no beneficial effect on the person's health-related quality of life. Interestingly, researchers noted that while physical effects weren't seen, there was a pretty modest improvement in mental dimensions. This merits further questioning, of course, but the point is: Taking high doses of antioxidants short term or long term, especially in supplement form, won't stop you from aging and it definitely won't stop your genetic predisposition for a chronic disorder, unless perhaps it's cognitive in nature.
The thing is...
Antioxidants are important to help the body deal with free radicals, but not as a means of preventing aging or chronic disease, and especially not when they're taken out of natural context. Many times, compounds have "sidekicks" that MUST be present in order for those compounds to do what they need to. For example, you can eat all the calcium supplements you want, but without Vitamin D, your body simply will not absorb any of it. Similarly, eating a cup of blueberries would be far more helpful than taking a pill that claims to contain the same amount (or more) of antioxidants because blueberries are likely to contain any "little helpers" those antioxidants need to do their job.
Relatively speaking, the research must continue in order for some really definitive answers to come about, but we can't deny the consistency in the studies showing that antioxidants are not as big a deal as they've been made out to be. I for one would like to see more research like this last study where instead of supplementation, these thousands of individuals consumed the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables (which are the most common source of antioxidants anyway) for over 6 years. Then, maybe we can TRULY see whether it's the antioxidants we should stop worrying about, or the supplement industry.