Anti-Oxidants – Myths and Truths

What are Anti-oxidants and how do they help our bodies?

An Anti-oxidant is a molecule that is produced or used by the body to help neutralise free radicals which can build up in cells and cause damage. Anti-oxidants are either produced by our bodies in the form enzymes or proteins or can be found and ingested from our diet. Naturally occurring anti-oxidants that we can find in our foods are vitamins such as Vitamin c and E, resveratol found in chocolate and red wine, carotene found in carrots and xanthophylis found in peppers, kiwis and oranges among many others,

Why would the body create a situation that is potentially harmful?

It would seem odd that the body as a result of different reactions could naturally create a situation where cells interact and cause damage and stress to our system. It is very easy if you start to read about anti-oxidants to suddenly start feeling that we are at greater risk of some pretty nasty side effects as a result of body just going through some simple and necessary processes. Remember that the body is incredibly clever and where we once thought the presence of free radicals was only a negative thing we know otherwise.

Everything within the body works on a state on homeostasis. Which means for the body to function optimally everything needs to be in balance. This applies to anti-oxidants and free radicals as well. Although free radicals can be dangerous, if they exist in an environment where they are in balance with anti-oxidants they are an important part of the way our body responds and changes to different stimulus. If we look at the potential oxidative stress caused by exercise we can see how beneficial some forms of oxidative stress can be. When in balance oxidative stress caused by exercise is a signal to the body to adapt in order  to prevent future stress and to allow our cells to become more efficient. Research has shown that biopsies taken from trained muscle shows a higher amount of counter-acting enzymes, not because someone has supplemented with anti-oxidants but because their body has adapted to the stress.  This therefore suggests that free radicals have a role to play and are not always negative. There is also research that shows if someone over supplements with anti-oxidants this adaptive reaction is inhibited and the individual potentially experiences reduced strength and fitness gains.

That begin said there is no doubt that uncontrolled production of free radicals or a sudden increase in their production causes damage. It is about creating balance so the body can use these naturally occurring molecules for it’s benefit.


Lets Debunk the Myths

Now we know what anti-oxidants are and why they are useful to body, and have an understanding of exactly what free radicals do  and why they exist lets look at the common assumptions made about anti-oxidants.


Supplements are the best way to ensure you are getting enough?

What makes antioxidants effective is the way in which you take them and this is where supplements begin to fall behind. Anti-oxidants like many substances in our bodies work in a synergistic nature with any other compounds. This is why many practitioners advise people to eat a wide variety of vegetable and fruits to ensure you are not only getting enough nutrients but so these vitamins and minerals are consumed with other vital elements that are needed to allow the body to use them effectively. A good example of this would be vitamin E. Vitamin C recycles vitamin E and once vitamin E has neutralised a free radical vitamin C converts it back to a anti-oxidant so it can be used again. You can see Yse interaction between the 2 compounds and therefore is you were supplementing with vitamin E but your vitamin C was low you wouldn’t get much benefit. Other factor to consider is that there are substances in our food that we don’t even know about yet and some we still don’t fully understand. Food is incredibly nutritionally complex and a supplement will never be able to mirror the intracaties of natural nutrients. The best way to ensure you anti-oxidant levels are high is to consume varied natural diet


Berries, Goji berries and kale are superfoods

Yes these food contain anti-oxidants but all foods have a unique combination of compounds including anti-oxidants, that work together to support the body and help it fight stressors. If you only focused on the “superfoods” you might be a risk of neglecting other varieties and limiting your diet to a selected few foods. Unfortunately it is an easy and effect message to sell to consumers to encourage them to buy more of a certain foods and often ones that are quite expensive. Keep blueberries on your porridge but also have raspberries, strawberries and blackberries and have a mix of seeds, nuts to make sure you are always supplying your body with the mix and range of nutrients it needs. It makes for a far more interesting and versatile diet!


If anti-oxidants benefit my body then surely more is better

This is such a common mistake that people make, if something is good for me I should take more and more of it. If we go back to how important balance is in the body to achieve the state of homeostasis then it already suggests that flooding the body with high levels of anti-oxidants is not going to be beneficial. Not enough research has been done to find out the potential risks of too high a dose of many of the anti-oxidant supplements on the market and for that reason the level of toxicity is also unknown. Too high a dose can suppress immunity, cause digestive issue and lead to cellular dysfunction.

If anti-oxidants are consumed through food it is very difficult for this to occur because of the interacting nature of the compounds found in food. For the average individual a diet based on natural foods and low in processed options and sugar will create the best equilibrium within the body.


Artificial fortified foods are a good way to get some extra antioxidants

Some products on the market, whether its cereal bars, rice cakes or drinks will advertise that they products are fortified with antioxidants and because of this many people think it is a healthy choice. Before putting that cereal into your basket just think about what else is in the food. Is that product processed, does it contain a high level of sugar, does it contain a high level of trans fats. Even though there may be anti-oxidants in the food if there are also high levels of sugar for example this will create it’s own level of oxidative stress and therefore the whole purpose of consuming anti-oxidants is null and void.


What’s about intravenous vitamin therapy?

Vitamin drips are considered to be a fast and effective way to provide the body vital nutrients,  this method bypasses the mouth and goes straight into the blood and therefore the absorption rate is very high allowing the different mineral, vitamins and amino acids to be quality delivered to cells. IV drips claim to improve sleep, reduce stress, improve skin, increase hydration and immunity amoung many other benefits. But is it the next best thing or just another fad that having a good solid natural healthy diet can beat hands down everytime.

One of the major components of many of these drip is glutathione. Glutathione is considered the master of all anti-oxidants, it’s found in every cell and effectively helps to keep the cell running by neutralizing free radicals as well as helping the liver to remove foreign chemicals from the body. It has been shown to help a number of age related diseases from Alzheimer’s to cataracts to high blood pressure. It has also been shown to be incredibly effective in people who have cancer, aids or other serious diseases where depleted glutathione levels are present.


But what about in normal healthy people who are not depleted? 

The research is varied and there are many different opinions on whether or not it is effective and whether or not healthy people should supplement with it. When it comes to glutathione, as with many antioxidants, it occurs naturally in many foods and people who have a good varied diet consisting of fresh veg and freshly prepared meat are likely consume a sufficient amount.

It ultimately comes down to preference and the individual. You need to make sure you are informed on the potential side effects of what is essentially an artificial way of supplying your body with nutrients and take on board the research that huge hits of anti-oxidants may not actually be that good for the body. Can the complexity of food be rivaled with an artificial vitamin boost and match up  with the complex interaction of naturally occurring nutrients? Or is it a good option for someone who is really struggling with their diet to choose this fast and easy way to potentially look and feel better. I know my personal preference would be to choose a healthy balanced diet and work on lifestyle change over going for quick fix but everyone is different and people would argue that is an easier choice for me make. Binge informed taking the stance of an optimistic skeptic will prevent you from falling for marketing and promotional tactics and will ensure you make the right decision for yourself.

Like many areas in nutrition things can easily become over complicated and confusing for the average person. Supplement companies play on our desire for a quick fix. If in doubt and unless working with a nutrition practitioner choose for real food. Work to make your diet high in natural produce, eat a wide variety of vegetables, keep your diet low in sugar and keep alcohol and other potential foreign substances to a minimum. This coupled with exercise and regular water will leave you feeling all the benefits supplement companies would have you believe you can’t experience without artificial aid.