The Antioxidant, Free Radical Myth

“Antioxidant” has become one of the most potent buzzwords in the supplement industry and marketers slap it on just about everything. The misunderstood substances have been attributed with a huge range of benefits from curing and preventing cancer to regrowing hair. Conversely, free radicals, which antioxidants neutralize, are portrayed as a sort of gang of rioters, wreaking havoc on your body from the inside out. But studies suggest that this is a gross oversimplification that could be potentially dangerous.

So what is the role of antioxidants, then? Are free radicals really these destructive thugs that need to be wiped out mercilessly? Should we supplement our dietary antioxidant intake?


Misunderstood Free Radicals

Our bodies, even at the smallest level, are constantly trying to maintain balance. When in balance, all healthy molecules have pairs of electrons. When a molecule is damaged and has a lonely, unpaired electron, it becomes a free radical and tries to replace its lost electron by stealing one from another molecule. Once this happens, it can damage cell walls and even the cellular DNA. This activity can cause cancer and several other diseases.

It is true that antioxidants stop this destructive chain of events, but this is only part of the story.

Free radicals aren’t all bad and, in small doses, are vital for energy production and a healthy immune system. Megadoses of antioxidants, then, that totally destroy the free radicals in your system can be counterproductive and harmful, according to several studies.


The Research

Primary study used to defend the reputation of free radicals was published in 2010. The researchers found that worms that had elevated levels of free radicals actually lived longer than normal worms. Interestingly, when the worms were then given antioxidants the effects were reversed and their lifespan returned to a normal length. More research is need, though, to understand how this relates to humans.

A series of ongoing studies carried on since the 1980s has explored the effects and potential benefits of antioxidants, primarily beta carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E. No study has yet been able to prove conclusively that any of these antioxidants have any benefits and its even doubted that vitamin E is an antioxidant at all. Not only could these studies show no benefits from these substances but increased levels of beta carotene and vitamin E was linked with a dangerously high risk of lung cancer and heart disease. Vitamin C supplements have also been shown to accelerate arterial plaque buildup in diabetics.


Should You Take Supplements?

Each of the above-noted studies was performed using a purified extract of the given substance and highlights a interesting fact: Purified supplements are no substitute for a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

Consider, too, that the original tests that gave rise to the interest in antioxidants were executed in test tubes rather than in the human body. When the experiments were reproduced in a healthy human body, the researchers found that the antioxidants had no effect either because they were a form that is unusable to the body or because it was more of the substance than the body needed.

People with a deficiency of a given antioxidant, like vitamin C, are the exception. But you should only take supplements of any kind under the direction of your doctor.

As with all aspects of fitness, balance is vital. Since we still cannot fully explain the role that free radicals and antioxidants play in the body, the best course is to maintain a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.



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About jonathan.thompson

Jonathan Thompson is a Certified Personal Trainer and Running Coach with the American Council on Exercise, specializing in nutrition. In addition to his real-world experience working with clients, his articles and blogs on fitness advice have been published on many websites and magazines.