If you have joint pain, then there’s a supplement to help you with your arthritic problem. Maybe you’re concerned about memory, you can find something at your local pharmacy for that too. Suffering from fatigue? No worries because you’re bound to find something to give you an energy boost. No matter what your health woes might be there’s a supplement you can find to help you. And antioxidant supplements are incredibly popular because they fight against harmful free radicals, which are substances that destroy tissue and lead to health problems like heart disease and cancer. But many studies are reporting an opposite effect that antioxidants are harmful to your health.
While the FDA requires manufacturers of supplements to disclose information on the label (e.g., such as a complete list of ingredients, a descriptive name for the supplement, distributor information), manufacturers don’t need FDA approval before they market their supplements. In fact, the safety and efficacy of supplements are strictly the manufacturers’ responsibility, unlike pharmaceutical drugs that must undergo rigorous testing and clinical trials to demonstrate the drug’s safety and effectiveness before they can be marketed to the public.
A Deeper Look at Studies
To complicate matters even further, the body of research on the use of antioxidant supplements is quite overwhelming—with some research in support of or against the use of antioxidants. From news headlines to tweets to the evening news, the coverage of pro- and anti-antioxidant studies has people running to buy supplements one day and dumping their pills the next day. For example, one study explored the effects of beta-carotene in smokers; the study reported that beta-carotene increased lung cancer risk among smokers. It should be noted, however, that a synthetic form of beta-carotene was used in the study. The downside of using synthetic beta-carotene is that it’s not from a natural source. Also, beta-carotene is one of many carotenoids found in plant-based foods. So isolating beta-carotene doesn’t mimic how nutrients in food work together in the body. Besides, fruits and vegetables contain multiple nutrients in which antioxidant activity is one of many functions; nutrients also work to boost immunity, trigger cancer cell death, and detoxify the body.
In another study, researchers found that antioxidant supplement use is associated with advanced aging. They go even further to say that free radicals promote longevity. The researchers increased the levels of free radicals in nematodes (these round worms have nervous systems that function at the same level as higher functioning organisms), and it resulted in the increased lifespan of the worm. Cell death is triggered to kill damaged, old, or abnormal cells. While free radicals target cells by triggering apoptosis only healthy cells can defend against free radicals, while weaker cells will die. So free radical damage is a selective process that is needed to eliminate weaker cells and allow stronger cells to survive. The findings of this study are intriguing because they turn free radicals, which have had a bad rap for causing tissue damage, into a necessary process for cell survival—allowing only the strong to survive. And the use of antioxidant supplements prevents that process.
Yet antioxidants are an important part of our health because they do help to keep tissues healthy in our present-day environment (refined foods, polluted air and water, cigarette smoke). And surprisingly, free radicals are borne of a process that is required for our survival—the production of cellular energy.
A Closer Look at Free Radicals and Antioxidants
For the most part, people think free radicals are bad and antioxidants are good. Yet this view is too simple and doesn’t describe the entire interaction between these two substances. The free radical–antioxidant relationship requires balance. Free radical attack is also referred to as oxidative stress and is a sequela of a natural process by which our body uses food to produce energy (ATP) by a process aptly named oxidation. Our body needs energy to carry out cellular activity; one of the pathways to produce cellular energy is called oxidative phosphorylation (OxPhos). Carbon-carbon bonds of food are broken down to produce ATP—the energy currency needed by every cell in the body. OxPhos takes place in the mitochondria (an intracellular warehouse for energy storage) and uses oxygen to break the bonds between carbon molecules to produce ATP. During the process of OxPhos, some unpaired electrons escape the ATP producing machinery to interact with ambient oxygen, and this leads to the development of free radicals. The free radicals have unpaired electrons, so they act as scavengers stealing electrons from various components of cells like cell membranes or DNA.
Antioxidants are molecules that act as a barrier to protect cells from the oxidizing damage of free radicals. The antioxidants happily give electrons to free radicals and wait for another antioxidant to replace the electron it has given away. The difference between free radicals and antioxidants is that the latter is quite stable even after it loses an electron to free radical molecules. While the body is equipped with its natural stores of free radical fighters, the body can deplete its antioxidant stores easily while defending against poor diet, lack of exercise, and poisons that invade our water and air. Even glutathione, an abundant and potent antioxidant made by the liver, is used up readily because of excessive toxic offenders. Here are just a few examples:
- Halogenated hydrocarbons (commonly found in non-stick cookware, pesticides, plastics, and herbicides) are toxins that pollute ground water.
- Cigarette smoke toxins are in the trillions and quickly use up the bodies antioxidant supply.
- OTC drugs such as Tylenol® damage the liver, which is the organ responsible for making glutathione.
- Diets that are low in fruits and vegetables and high in processed foods and refined sugars lack the nutritional support; poor diet tips the scale in support of free radical attack.
High-quality, not synthetic, supplements are meant to boost your health. Especially in today’s world where poor diet, over-the-counter drugs, lifestyle choices, and the environment have a significant impact on health. Supplements play a significant role in health. For instance, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends folic acid supplementation for all women planning or able to have children in order to prevent neural tube defects.
Some antioxidants used in isolation can be harmful because that’s just not how a healthy diet works. Eating a healthy diet that includes plant-based foods and organic lean meats provide a variety of health-promoting nutrients that carry out myriad functions to protect the body. The analysis of studies show that the use of 3 or fewer synthetic antioxidants doesn’t affect health in a positive way; in fact, it may carry some bad side effects. But the use of 5 or more antioxidants is associated with health benefits. Nutrition is a complex process that involves many variables. However, clinical trials that explore nutrients are usually setup in a similar way to drug studies—the cause and effect (or lack of one) is based on a one-on-one relationship, which is hardly the case when it comes to food. Good health depends largely on many nutrients interacting together.
While I’m a proponent of pharmaceutical-grade supplements, I believe supplements are a secondary option to food and should only be used to support not replace a good diet. Nutritional deficiencies begin with taking a look at what is in your cupboard and refrigerator and what is one your plate. Leave processed foods on the shelves at the supermarket. Instead, eat organically produced meat, fruits, and vegetables. This is always a great place to start when it comes to a healthy lifestyle because you’re getting a variety of healthful nutrients that support the body’s natural defense systems to protect against advanced aging and disease.