Do Antioxidants Help or Hurt?

Fresh blueberries are good for your heartThe message that antioxidants are good for you has ruled the airwaves, supermarket aisles, and the natural health industry. It’s a wellness message that’s hard to miss in daily life and a lot of people subscribe to it. According to a 2010 Gallup Study of Nutrient Knowledge & Composition, more than 30% of women and 24% of men make a strong effort to consume foods rich in antioxidants.

Recently, a bombshell was dropped by Dr. James Watson, one of the world’s most famous scientists, the Nobel Laureate who identified the sequence of DNA, and a figure known for occasional controversial and provocative remarks. Watson authored an article in the scientific journal Open Biology taking a critical look at cancer research and the (lack of) progress in the war on cancer. In addition to many cancer “fails” identified by Watson, he remarked that the public’s confidence in antioxidants is misplaced and that “the time has come to seriously ask whether antioxidant use much more likely causes than prevents cancer.”

So, what’s the truth: Do antioxidants help or hurt? Let’s take a look at the science in order to understand the real story:

Oxidants and Antioxidants Are Both Good

The first thing to know is that both oxidants and antioxidants are naturally present in bodies, even without supplements. Our cells, blood and organs, use both of these substances as part of our body’s homeland defense. They keep our body’s chemistry balanced, and serve as weapons to prevent microbes from taking root after injury. In fact, oxidants are not necessarily bad.

Natural oxidants create so-called “free radicals” in our bodies to help kill bacteria and to get rid of other unwanted invaders. When their job is completed, our body supplies a cocktail of its own naturally occurring antioxidants to quench these effects and restore what is called an “oxidative” balance in the body. Oxidants can also help get rid of damaged or defective cells. Scientists have lots of evidence that cancer cells can also be killed by flooding them with free radicals, i.e., oxidants. Hence, getting rid of all the free radicals in our bodies is not a truly desirable goal.

When Free Radicals Attack

When present in excess, free radicals caused by oxidants can seriously damage DNA by ripping it apart. Cells containing damaged DNA can’t function properly, and we know this kind of damage can cause cells to become mutants, and some can go on to be cancerous. Fortunately, the antioxidants in our body also can quench these effects.  Mostly.

Overwhelming assaults by free radicals can be a byproduct of modern life. Sometimes, this is avoidable. Cigarette smoking, for example, is a huge generator of free radicals. Pollution in the environment, the char from grilled meat, chemicals in processed foods, and sunburn cause lots of free radicals to form. Ultraviolet radiation creates free radicals in the body. This is why we advise both patients and healthy people not to smoke, and to eat grilled meats and suntan in moderation. But even emotional stress can cause oxidants to be generated and free radicals to build up in the body. Too much of anything can be a bad thing. The real threat is that our body’s ability to protect us with naturally produced antioxidants can be overwhelmed.

Advice on Antioxidant Supplementation

Antioxidant pills are supposed to help the body combat these excess free radicals, protecting our DNA, and there is clear data that sometimes this is useful. The best support for antioxidants is for preventing vision loss from an aging disease called age-related macular degeneration (AMD). A cocktail containing vitamin C, E, zinc, copper, lutein and zeaxanthin was tested by the National Eye Institute and was found to reduce the risk of this cause of blindness.

However, it’s not clear for many other diseases, including cancer, whether antioxidant supplementation through pills or capsules is useful. In fact, some antioxidants, like vitamin E and beta-carotene, have actually been linked to an increased risk of cancer.  For beta-carotene, the risk is especially seen in people who smoke.

So, what’s the right thing to do?  Follow the evidence. For people over the age of 50 at risk for AMD, taking the tested supplement is a smart thing to do. As for the supplements linked to increased cancer risk, best to avoid them, unless guided by your doctor.

What’s the best way to get your fill of antioxidants? Eat healthy food, mostly fruits and vegetables and whole grains. The body absorbs what it needs from the diet, and expels what it can’t use.

Antioxidants’ Other Beneficial Properties

There’s another reason that antioxidants from foods may be useful for disease prevention: It’s called anti-angiogenesis.

Angiogenesis is the process that our body uses to grow new blood vessels, and in many diseases, ranging from cancer to AMD to arthritis, blood vessels are thrown off kilter from their usual health balance. In certain situations, new blood vessels grow and become very damaging, such as in cancer, arthritis, obesity, and in AMD.

It turns out many of the antioxidants found in foods such as kale, tomatoes, onions, carrots, and green tea actually have anti-angiogenic properties.  These can act to “starve” microscopic cancers lurking in our bodies, by preventing them from growing their own blood supply. Hence, eating a diet rich in antioxidants may have a double-barreled protective effect.

So there’s no need to have the blues from eating blueberries. They taste good, and now there’s evidence they are actually good for you, too. In fact, a recent study of more than 75,000 women showed that eating at least one serving of blueberries per week had a reduced risk of breast cancer of 30%.

Learn more about foods containing anti-angiogenic substances and visit www.eattodefeat.org.