We all seem to “know” that free radicals are bad, and that antioxidants mop them up and prevent damage to us, slowing down the aging process, reducing the incidence of cancer and other major illnesses like heart disease. There are just a couple of problems with this theory, the biggest one that being that the research shows the complete opposite.
This all started because research back in the ’50’s showed free radicals in areas of damage (originally it was radiation damage) and concluded that the free radicals caused the damage. This was a really convenient theory, because the logical jump would then say that if you reduce free radicals, then you must reduce the damage caused from them — the aging process, cancer, heart disease, and the like.
Here’s the first big problem: the initial studies were done adding large amounts of free radicals to petri dishes, seeing the damage to the macromolecules, and then concluding that the same thing happened in the human body. The next, and very large problem with this free radicals = aging theory is that free radicals actually perform a function in the body and it’s a vital one: fighting pathogens like bacteria, increasing apoptosis, and fighting cancer (white blood cells churn out tons of free radicals to bolster the immune response). Taking antioxidants blunts and neutralizes this response. Do you really want that?
Another problem is this: there are no clinical studies conclusively showing that production of free radicals leads to chronic disease and aging. It’s mainly on the strength of studies on worms, fruit flies and rats that we have all the hype generated for resveratrol supplements, 1000 mg of ascorbic acid fizzy drink packets, and the constant recommendation to take alpha-tocopherol (also known as vitamin E).
Unfortunately, not only are there no clinical studies showing that free radicals cause the problems mentioned, but taking antioxidants, especially as supplements, can actually harm you. In 2008, the Cochrane Collaboration (which is a group of independent scientists who scrutinize the legitimacy and accuracy of studies) looked at 67 different studies with nearly 400,000 participants and came to the conclusion that there was “No evidence to support antioxidant supplements to prevent mortality in healthy people or patients with various diseases.” In fact, it also said “Antioxidant supplements need to be considered medicinal products and should undergo sufficient evaluation before marketing.”
Not only does taking antioxidants seem to make no difference for cardiovascular disease but it also has been linked to increased rates of lung cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, prostate cancer, impaired ovulation, reduced apoptosis and increased mortality (references upon request). The American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association both state that “the scientific data do not justify the use of antioxidant vitamin supplements for CVD risk reduction.” The HDL-Atherosclerosis Treatment 2001 study showed that the addition of antioxidant vitamins blunted the rise of protective HDL. The Alpha-Tocopherol Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention study reported an increase in cerebral hemorrage for patients taking merely 50mg of alpha-tocopherol daily (July, 2003). Most damning, in 2007, JAMA reported on the largest ever meta-analysis of antioxidant peer-reviewed studies (47 low-bias trials with over 180,000 participants) and stated in conclusion that, “Treatment with beta carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E may increase mortality.” Yikes.
Let’s look at “vitamin E”. Alpha-tocopherol what’s known as vitamin E, but in actuality, the full E complex contains multiple tocopherols, tocotrienols, (8 antioxidant levels in total to protect the vitamin complex), selenium, xanthine, and lipositol, plus other compounds. Yet some researcher decided that alpha-tocopherol was the active ingredient in this entire complex, named THAT vitamin E and now alpha-tocopherol is made in a lab which puts 1000% of the RDA into gel caps, and you actually think that’s vitamin E as it’s found in nature. It’s not — you would never find alpha-tocopherol isolated and in large amounts like that in food. In fact, it is this one distinction between the full complex of E and alpha-tocopherol that is the reason we are Clinical Nutritionists — read Dr. Marlene’s story here.
Ascorbic acid has the same story. Vitamin C is a full complex, including not just ascorbic acid, but also bioflavenoids, rutin, and multiple other compounds. But in naming ascorbic acid “Vitamin C”, you can now manufacture it in a lab, and make pills with 1000 mg of ascorbic acid in them, labeling them as vitamin C. When was the last time you saw a gram of ascorbic acid in nature? Right, never.
We’re not saying that we don’t need antioxidants, but we ARE saying that taking synthetic, high-dose isolates has the very real potential of harm. This is why we ONLY use whole food supplements, where the vitamins and minerals don’t come in crazy amounts never found in nature, but come with hundreds of other nutrients that help with absorption and balance. While it would be great if we could get that in our food, many of us don’t eat well enough, and the food isn’t nutrient-dense enough to help heal us.
If you want to talk to us about a program to help you on whole food supplements, and reduce your chances of illness and degenerative disease, please contact us. We are here to help in any way we can.