Using Antioxidants

It’s no surprise that several times each year the mainstream media reports research about the ineffectiveness and even danger of nutrient supplements. Recently, research about the negative effects that antioxidants might have on the benefits of exercise have circulated in health-oriented media. Advocates of the view that you can get all your vitamins from food have used this research to promote their case.

This view seems quite indiscriminant to me. It lacks discrimination for two reasons. First, it fails to carefully examine what the science is actually telling us—and not telling us. Second, it fails to take into account each person’s unique biology, what it’s exposed to, and it’s equally unique nutrient needs.

Let’s take a look at the science. The set up is something like this…

Antioxidants promote health, prevent illness, and slow the effects of aging—as does exercise. So we’d expect the two would work together. But some research does not support that idea—for example, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science titled “Antioxidants prevent health-promoting effects of physical exercise in humans.”

But wait. Is that what the study actually shows?

In the experiment, a small group of young men were put on a four-week exercise program. Half were given 1000 milligrams of vitamin C and 400 IUs of vitamin E each day. At the start and end of the four weeks, measurements were taken of biomarkers for insulin sensitivity and glutathione, another antioxidant. The significance of these measures is that improvement in both is typically seen as a result of exercise. Those who weren’t taking the antioxidants showed just such a change. On the other hand, those taking the antioxidants showed no change.

Here’s the slight-of-hand that was performed in plain sight: the measures are indirect. There’s a presumed relationship between the measures used for insulin sensitivity and glutathione on the one hand and actual health outcomes on the other. It is the same kind of logic that drives risk factor medicine in which, for example, the level of LDL cholesterol in your blood determines your risk of heart disease.

However, we could validly conclude that although the markers for antioxidant takers remained unchanged, antioxidant supplementation caused the young men’s bodies to adapt so that the concrete health benefits of exercise in fact occurred. For example, in one recent experiment supplementation with one antioxidant caused other members of the antioxidant network to adapt. To follow this trail a little further, if traditional (and direct) measures of fitness were used—for example, measures of cardiopulmonary fitness or functional capacity—the data might show that there was no difference between groups or even show antioxidant takers to in fact have better health.

So does this mean that antioxidant supplements are good after all?

In general, what Layna and I say is that we humans are so inundated with oxidative stressors that we need some additional support beyond what we can get in food—which, by the way, should be fresh and nutrient dense.

But there’s another reason for not getting rid of your antioxidant supplements just yet.

Leonardo da Vinci’s painting known as The Mona Lisa measures 21 inches by 30 inches. Imagine taking a sheet of paper that’s 21 by 30 and cutting out a one-inch square then placing the sheet over the painting. Would you be able to understand the painting from what you could see through that one-inch square?

To look at another square inch of what antioxidants do, consider recent research reported in the journal of the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology about how the influenza virus attacks the lungs. It turns out that a specific protein in the virus’s shell disrupts a protein in lung tissue epithelial cells, causing the cells to fail in eliminating fluid, which ultimately leads to secondary infections. Experimenting with cell cultures, the researchers found that introducing glutathione stopped this process. In other words, the antioxidant glutathione supports innate immunity—in my view, the most effective preventive strategy for flu outbreaks.

The moral to this story is: exercise, nutrient rich food, and nutrient supplements to suit your unique biology, what you’re exposed to, and what your biology needs.

The other moral to this story is: information becomes knowledge when it fits with what you already know. You and I and researchers and advocates for vitamins-from-food easily turn information that fits into knowledge. Not so easily do we make sense of information that doesn’t fit. Very often for that, we need to see more of the picture.

These issues are discussed further in Too Much Medicine, Not Enough Health by Jeffry Fawcett and Layna Berman.