Monday, May 14, 2007

Antioxidant Supplementation

Not what we thought

Antioxidants in pills have been a popular source of what has been assumed to be a beneficial habit. For years, advertizing campaigns have been espousing the varied and important positive role of this family of compounds.

The claim in these media blitzes is that the general population is deficient in antioxidants or that the general diet suppllies too little of this precious substance to adequately defend against those dangerous inflammatory mediators- free radicals.

Another part of the message has been that all free radicals and inflammatory mediators are very negative things, adding to the misery of disease, and contributing to the general degradation of the body. As popularity of this concept has increased, a plethora of supplement manufacturers and food industry companies have rushed to produce antioxidant pills or include antioxidant label content on their products.

Unfortunately, as with so many of these things, the cart has gone way ahead of the horse. What the big pharmaceutical companies are always accused of (often rightly so) the vitamin/supplement complex ran with. The general population, especially the health oriented folk, unwittingly contributed to a boon and a cottage industry grew into a mega-billion dollar power house (attracting investment from big guns; as in corporations that own pharmaceuticals by the way).

That we can obtain many of our nutrient needs by taking pills seems on the surface a good fit for a fast paced society. However, as the science begins to catch up with many nutritional claims, the results are trending towards a surprising conclusion. Antioxidant supplements don't work and they can even be detrimental to your health.

The concept of extracting those active ingredients, or making them in a lab and ingesting them as replacements or supplements to what is found in food seems logical. In fact, many compounds are isolated this way successfully including antibiotics, flavorings, and some vitamins. Antioxidants, though are a different can of worms. There are manufacturers who try to side step this issue by claiming their supplements are made from whole foods and contain everything but the kitchen sink- so don't worry. However even this is not food and the evidence is just not there. Simply eating reasonably well should be good enough in most cases.

Contrary to what many people believe, antioxidants are part of a complex "push me-pull me" system of inflammation and anti-inflammation working as a team for a total appropriate effect. Additionally, there are literally hundreds of different kinds of antioxidants acting on many different levels and mechanisms of the physiology of a living body. Though I am not a biochemist and these matters can quickly get complicated, I do know there is a vastly complex chemical interplay going on. Dietary antioxidants (i.e., tocophenols, tocotrenols, polyphenols,catichins,...) have differing effects on a variety of radicals, damaging compounds, enzymatic paths, or free radical producing pathways (i.e., super oxygen radicals, peroxinitrites, NO excess, O signets, myeloperoxidases, iNOS, cNOS, H2O2...). There are even likely, other as yet undiscovered mechanisms in this dance. Taken as a whole, the broad effect of these interactions is an overall tenuous balance- and thats a healthy situation.

For example, H2O2 is a potent inflammatory radical, it also is a primary weapon of neutrophils (a white blood cell) when combating infection or participating in the process of localized inflammation and healing. Some anti oxidant "spin trap" compounds may actually extend the life spans of these kamikaze cells thereby impeding their primary function, namely combating infection; not a good thing.

Whether we are dealing with aging, longevity, or a disease process the predominant excess of one oxidant or another will vary. It seems likely that a mix of oxidant compounds get in the game at different times and places, and the body responds physiologically with appropriate measures. Trying to influence this process is a delicate matter. So even though there is data that indicates a possible beneficial effect from antioxidant supplementation in certain diseases and conditions it is a mistake to then prematurely extend conclusions to a healthy population.

Dietary antioxidants in the context of single to multiple supplements as studied in many of these trials seem to stimulate effects that push this inflammatory/anti-inflammatory system towards detrimental imbalances. Supplements claiming their product comes from whole food sources can't convincingly bridge the gap between pill and real food either. Though, these studies, reviews, and meta analysis have analyzed a limited number of antioxidants, they do add to a growing data base supporting food as the best way to health.

These ongoing trials suggest that whatever their effect, dietary antioxidants ingested normally through eating a balanced diet will avoid dire antioxidant effects and work beneficially along with everything else that is consumed. Supplementation, on the other hand, seems cause for concern.

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