Are antioxidants the good guys or the bad guys?


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There was a time when the packaging of groceries trumpeted loudly about antioxidant content. Though the word still bounces around the aisles, it is becoming less favored by food companies as a means to push their products. What happened to the first word in healthy living?  


So what are antioxidants? 

There is some research that suggests antioxidants help clear up free radicals in the body. These free radicals occur naturally in your body’s cells as waste, but they can also be caused by human-made environmental factors like pollution and radiation. Antioxidants can chemically neutralize free radical molecules, thereby slowing down damage to cells. It’s this damage that can lead to cell degeneration or cancer.


What’s the problem? 

You need a few free radicals hanging around. In fact, your body produces them to help its own immune response. If you have too many antioxidants, therefore, you could be interfering with that all-important process. More worryingly, in a recent article, Dr. Darlene McCord says that “at super-high doses, antioxidants turn into pro-oxidants and add to the body's load of oxidative stress.” 

An analysis of the study of antioxidant supplements shows that those who take antioxidant supplements in the form of vitamins A, C and E are not significantly less likely to develop cancer than those who don’t. 

A recent study in Sweden suggests that ingesting large doses of antioxidants might actually prevent the body from detecting (and thus fighting) cancers in their very early stages. The body’s natural damage-seeking protein p53 is inhibited by antioxidants, and so the natural process by which cancer might be stopped before it starts is disrupted.

There is even a worry that patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who take N-acetylcysteine to help maintain clear airways might be adding to their problems. The medicine is an antioxidant,so there is a chance that p53 in the bodies of those with elevated risk of cancer might be prevented from detecting the disease.


Some good news … please?

The good news is that, according to the National Institutes of Health, “there is good evidence that eating a diet with lots of vegetables and fruits is healthy and lowers risks of certain diseases.” 

The role of antioxidants in such a diet has yet to be fully established. As always, the message is: Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and maintain an overall balanced diet. It is clear that the exact function and effect of antioxidants has yet to be fully understood. Until that happens, popping large doses of them might well be inadvisable, to say the least.