Antioxidants, Part 1
So what's the story with antioxidants? Do they make a difference or not? If you listen to the buzz, you end up more confused than ever.
- According to Julian Whitaker, M.D., "The jury has reached a verdict and I urge my medical colleagues to listen carefully. It's no longer a question of should our patients be taking antioxidant supplements, but rather which ones and why. It's time that physicians recognize the value of the growing body of research showing the many health benefits of natural antioxidants."
- But if you listen to Stephen Barrett, M.D. at www.quackwatch.org (very worthwhile for a contrary perspective), "There is widespread scientific agreement that eating adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables can help lower the incidence of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. With respect to antioxidants and other phytochemicals, the key question is whether supplementation has been proven to do more good than harm. So far, the answer is no, which is why the FDA will not permit any of these substances to be labeled or marketed with claims that they can prevent disease."
- Or this from the Professor Tony Segal of the University College of London's Centre for Molecular Medicine, "Many patients might be using expensive antioxidant drugs based upon completely invalid theories as to their therapeutic potential."
- Confused, yet? Well then, how about this from The Rotterdam Study of Dietary antioxidants and Parkinson disease. "CONCLUSION: Our data suggest that a high intake of dietary vitamin E may protect against the occurrence of Parkinson's Disease."
Get the idea? There is a great deal of confusion and misinformation out there on antioxidants. So let's try and clear some of it up, and for that I can steal from my own book, Lessons from the Miracle Doctors.
What Exactly Is a Free Radical?
A free radical is a cellular killer that wreaks havoc by damaging DNA, altering biochemical compounds, corroding cell membranes, and destroying cells outright.
Scientists now know that free radicals play a major role in the aging process as well as in the onset of cancer, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, and possibly allergies and a host of other ailments. The link between free radicals and the "aging diseases" is the most important discovery since doctors learned that some illnesses are caused by germs.
In a very real sense, the free radical process in our bodies is much the same as the process that causes fuel to burn and oil to go rancid or an apple to turn brown if you slice it open and expose it to air. It is as though our bodies rust from the inside out. When the process gets really out of control, it can cause tumors, hardening of the arteries, and macular degeneration -- not to mention wrinkled skin -- to name just a few.
The bottom line is that we can think of free radicals as ravenous molecular sharks -- sharks so hungry that in little more than a millionth of a second, they can be making a frenzied attack on a healthy neighboring cellular molecule.
Why are Free Radicals So Deadly?
A single free radical can destroy an enzyme, a protein molecule, a strand of DNA, or an entire cell. Even worse, it can unleash, in a fraction of a second, a torrential chain reaction that produces a million or more additional killer free radicals.
There are four primary sources of free radicals:
- The Environment: Air pollution, cigarette smoke, smog, soot, automobile exhaust, toxic waste, pesticides, herbicides, ultraviolet light, background radiation, drugs, and even certain foods can all generate free radicals in the body.
- Internal Production: Our bodies constantly produce free radicals as a byproduct of normal metabolism.
- Stress factors such as: aging, trauma, medications, disease, infection, and "stress" itself all accelerate the body's production of free radicals -- by a factor of eight, or more.
- Chain reactions: When a free radical steals an electron to balance itself, it creates a new free radical in the molecule from which it stole the electron. In many cases the new free radical will seek to balance itself by stealing an electron -- and on and on. And remember, even one free radical is capable of destroying an entire cell, or a strand of DNA.
Are All Free Radicals the Same?
There are many types of free radicals in the body. Four particularly nasty ones are:
- Superoxide radical: This radical tries to steal its much-needed electron from the mitochondria of the cell. When mitochondria are destroyed, the cell loses its ability to convert food to energy. It dies.
- Hydroxyl radical: This free radical attacks enzymes, proteins, and the unsaturated fats in cell membranes.
- Lipid peroxyl radical: This radical unleashes a chain reaction of chemical events that can so totally compromise the cellular membrane that the cell bursts open, spews its contents, and dies.
- Singlet oxygen: Not technically a free radical, this metabolite can nevertheless wreak havoc on the body.
Your body is constantly replacing and repairing free-radical damaged cells; but with the way we live and abuse ourselves, our bodies are bombarded with more free radicals than they can handle. By supplementing with antioxidants, we help our bodies keep up with the carnage. We can even get ahead of the game and reverse damage.
What Are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are compounds that render free radicals harmless and stop the chain reaction formation of new free radicals.
Where Do They Come From?
There are three sources of antioxidants.
- Several metabolic enzymes produced by the body are extremely effective antioxidant scavengers. Unfortunately, the body's ability to produce these enzymes fades dramatically in our late twenties.
- Many foods and plants provide powerful antioxidants. Among these are: Vitamins E and C, Beta Carotene, and the Proanthocyanidins (including Pycnogenol®).
- Cutting edge research is continually uncovering new antioxidants.
What Are the Benefits of Antioxidants?
Many scientists now believe that free radicals are the MAJOR villain in both aging and disease. The amount of cells destroyed over the years by free radicals is enormous. Free radicals literally "eat away" the major organs of the body. Just one example: the size of a 25 year old's liver is often TWICE that of a person of 70.
- The use of antioxidant supplements at a maintenance level may provide the ultimate defense against premature aging and a compromised immune system.
- At therapeutic levels, antioxidants may actually play a significant role in reversing many of the effects of aging and disease.
And it is those last two statements that take us right back to the heart of the controversy.
So Why the Inconsistent Test Results?
Now that we have a little understanding of what antioxidant's are and how they work, let's go back to where we started and see if we can understand why studies have produced such inconsistent results.
First, in many cases, antioxidants exist as part of complexes -- in nature, beta carotene always comes as part of a carotenoid complex, not in isolation (more than 400 carotenoids in a single carrot, for example). In nature, vitamin C always comes as part of complex containing bioflavonoids and calcium -- not as pure ascorbic acid. Ellagic acid as part of a group of ellagitannins, not as chemically pure ellagic acid. Etc. Etc. Etc.
Medical science, however, when testing, doesn't like complexes. Complexes are too, well, "complex." For this reason, scientific studies much prefer to test isolates. Unfortunately, this skews results significantly to the negative. Understand, there is a huge difference between a full vitamin E complex that contains all 4 tocopherols and all 4 tocotrienols and isolated d-alpha tocopherol (which is never found by itself in nature). But it's even worse than that.
You see, there is often a huge difference between the natural and the synthetic form of an antioxidant (or vitamin for that matter). dl-alpha-tocopherol, the synthetic form of vitamin E isolate is at best only 30-50% as effective as the naturally derived isolate -- which is, as we mentioned above, is only fractionally as effective as the whole complex. Now, understanding this, you would think that anyone testing the efficacy of Vitamin E as an antioxidant, would automatically use only the full complex. Right?
Currently, one of the largest cancer studies in US history is underway: The Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT). The study is taking place in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Canada. It's goal is to find out if taking selenium and/or vitamin E supplements can prevent prostate cancer in men age 50 or older. The SELECT trial is expected to stop recruiting patients in May 2006. The study will continue for 7 years after the last man has enrolled, meaning that each man will participate for 7 years or more, depending on when he joins the study. More than 400 sites in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Canada are taking part in the study. Over 32,000 men will participate in SELECT. Sounds impressive, yes?
Well here's the catch.
- The vitamin E they're using is dl-alpha-tocopherol -- the synthetic isolate form of vitamin E, the least effective form possible.
On the other hand, the selenium they're using is l-selenomethionine, which is an organic, highly useable form of selenium. The study gets points for that.
But based on the forms of antioxidants being used, the results of the study are highly predictable even before it starts.
- Selenium helps
- Vitamin E does not
- There is little synergistic effect from the use of selenium and Vitamin E together.
There you go. At great savings to the American taxpayer, I've just given you the erroneous results that will be documented 13 years from now. What a waste!!
That's it for now. In the next issue, I'll detail the ultimate antioxidant formula ingredient by ingredient.
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