Can You Get “Too Many” Antioxidants?

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Can You Get "Too Many" AntioxidantsIf you’re into healthy living or are a health-buff-in-training, you’re probably no stranger to all the antioxidant buzz going around. You’ve likely heard that it’s wise to incorporate foods loaded with these unseen free radical warriors into your diet, in order to gain from countless health benefits such as boosted immunity, a stronger cardiovascular system, improved vision, anti-aging and disease-fighting effects, etc.  

Antioxidants fight the oxidation process, which is a natural chemical reaction that causes chronic inflammation and damage to healthy cells. When the oxidation process is disrupted, highly unstable and potentially destructive molecules, called free radicals, are created, so antioxidants place a vital role in protecting the body. It’s no wonder that foods rich in these compounds – from blueberries and Brazil nuts to coffee and red wine – have been promoted as excellent anti-aging tools.

Since the 1990s, scientists have conducted clinical trials showing that free-radical damage plays a role in developing chronic medical conditions. Their studies showed that eating foods loaded with antioxidants – especially fruits and vegetables – lower the risk of these conditions. Antioxidants have been linked with fighting against cancer, cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Consequently, “rich in antioxidants” became a buzz phrase thrown around in the media and added to food labels by the food and supplement industries.

No one contests the fact that it’s safe and beneficial to consume antioxidants in natural foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but recently, some controversy has started surfacing when it comes to antioxidant supplements, due to several studies that have had some unnerving and unexpected results. One study showed that taking antioxidant supplements could actually increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers. Another study showed that taking supplements of Vitamin E – which also functions as an antioxidant – increases the risk of prostate cancer, heart failure and increased bleeding. Antioxidant supplementation also increases women’s risk of developing skin cancer. Until more research is conducted about the safety of antioxidant supplements, the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society and other health organizations recommend that you get your antioxidants from food rather than supplements.

Antioxidants – Too Much of a Good Thing?

Research studies conducted at the University of Copenhagen have showed that resveratrol — a natural antioxidant compound located in red grapes, red wine and other foods that recently got a lot of hype in the media for boosting heart-health — actually counteracts the cardiovascular benefits of exercise for older men, such as decreased cholesterol and blood pressure. The compound has been promoted as an anti-aging tool and is readily available as a dietary supplement. Although resveratrol has been shown to improve cardiovascular exercise benefits in animals, the researchers discovered that resveratrol has the opposite effect in older human men.

The findings of this study present a view that the body may actually require some “antioxidant stress,” which is typically blamed for causing aging and disease. It is now being proposed that antioxidant stress may actually be necessary in order for the body to properly function in response to stresses like exercise. The researchers hypothesize that all this popular hyper-dosing on antioxidants may actually have negative effects on our health after all.

We certainly aren’t saying you should cut antioxidants out of your diet. But choosing natural sources of antioxidant, like fruits and vegetables over supplements, is a wise choice. Similarly, the resveratrol-related research findings shouldn’t scare you away from red wine; but regularly concentrating your intake through heavy supplement taking is not advised. Lower your chances of heart disease, diabetes and obesity instead by adopting a healthy, well-balanced diet and regular exercise. 

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