Free Radicals and Antioxidant Supplementation
By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Medicine Bulletin
In 1954, a scientist named Denham Harmon proposed a theory – that aging was the result of errant molecules called free radicals. Even though tens of thousands of scientific studies now support Dr. Harmon’s work, it was a pretty wild hypothesis in its day. Here’s how it works:
Free radicals are molecules that are missing one electron (normal molecules have two electrons). To complete themselves, these unbalanced molecules steal a replacement electron from another nearby molecule – which creates another free radical, which steals an electron from one of its neighbors and so on and so on. The result is a chain reaction –similar to a row of falling dominoes.
Problem is, these misbehaving molecules randomly take electrons from the molecules that make up our DNA, proteins and other cellular building blocks. The resulting damage (known as oxidative damage) is similar to the buildup of rust on iron and can take years to occur – until one day we see the clear signs of aging. This age-related damage leads to wrinkled skin and boosts the risk of nearly all degenerative diseases, including cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
While we can reduce our exposure to some free radicals (like those found in air pollution and cigarette smoke), it’s impossible to avoid them all since our own bodies create them while burning food for energy, fighting infections and breaking down toxins and drugs. In fact, simply breathing creates free radicals!
The good news is that we can counteract much of this damage – as well as our risk of premature aging and disease – with antioxidants.
The more, the merrier
For years, scientists have known that antioxidants can tame these unruly molecules and prevent oxidative damage. And for years, they’ve been studying them – one at a time. But by studying each individual antioxidant in the hope of finding a magic bullet, they’ve missed the bigger picture – that antioxidants never occur by themselves in nature. A strawberry, for instance, doesn’t contain just one antioxidant. It’s packed full of vitamin C, carotenoids and flavonoids. And, as science is finally discovering, they all work together.
A growing number of important studies have concluded that antioxidants work in synergy. In other words, consuming a combination of many different antioxidants is far more potent than taking just one or two. Here’s a good example: as vitamin E is used up fighting free radicals, vitamin C helps restore it back to its full strength. Similarly, alpha-lipoic acid helps recycle and renew vitamin C.
One study, recently published in the journal Atherosclerosis, found that a combination of vitamin E and C significantly reduce the formation of plaque after an angioplasty. Another study found that these two antioxidant vitamins, even at low dosages, slowed the development of cardiovascular disease over a six-year period. Similar studies have found that combinations of antioxidants reduce the risk of eye disease, Alzheimer’s and many other conditions.
A team of researchers at Germany’s Humboldt University have also found that beta-carotene displays more potent free radical fighting power when vitamins C and E are present. This synergistic protection effectively guards against oxidation by repairing the beta-carotene once its been damaged during the electron transfer.
Researchers are now speculating that, when taken in the right combination, antioxidant supplements may mimic the multiple antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables. Of course, nature’s antioxidants can never be replaced by simply popping a few pills. So you should always strive to include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables every day. These foods contain a more diverse selection of antioxidants than you’ll find in any supplement. And that’s one reason why a diet rich in these foods lowers your risk of just about every degenerative disease.
But research also shows that antioxidant supplements can boost your immune system while reducing the risk of heart disease and some cancers. One good way to make sure you’re getting a variety of antioxidants is to look for a supplement that contains at least vitamins E and C, selenium and a variety of carotenoids, including lutein, lycopene and beta-carotene.
One last thing . . .
Herbs are another rich source of antioxidants. For instance, researchers from the University of California-Berkeley have found that while pycnogenol has strong free radical fighting properties of its own, it also helps regenerate vitamin C and protects the body’s vitamin E and glutathione supply from oxidative stress.
And one-third of green tea consists of potent antioxidant polyphenols, including epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Just how much power does green tea possess? Research continues to show that the antioxidants in green tea are among the most potent free radical fighters in nature. In a presentation last year to the American Association for Cancer Research, a group of Shanghai researchers reported that green tea's antioxidants are "as powerful as the well-established antioxidants vitamins C and E at protecting proteins and DNA from oxidative damage." No wonder we keep seeing studies on green tea’s ability to fight cancer, protect the heart and boost the immune system.
Of course, you still need to eat your fruits and veggies. These foods offer a wide range of other beneficial phytochemicals, plus vitamins, minerals and fiber that are essential to good health. But adding herbs into the equation just might give you the antioxidant edge you need.
This just in . . .
If you’re one of the two million people who suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, I certainly don’t have to tell you how debilitating it can be. But hope may be as close as your spice rack.
Researchers have known for years that curcumin, the key component in the curry spice tumeric, was a powerful inflammation fighter and an effective weapon against colon cancer. But a new study in the American Journal of Physiology-Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology shows that curcumin not only reduced inflammation, it improved intestinal cell function and reduced weight loss. As an added bonus, earlier researcher has found that curcumin also possesses strong antioxidant properties. But what was really astounding about the current study was the amount that proved effective – a concentration as low as 0.25 percent.
If you read the e-bulletin “Out of Sight,” you might remember that I told you how turmeric has been used for thousands of years in Asia and India, both as a culinary spice and for its medicinal properties. And while tumeric is available in supplement form, the spice works just as well – and is considerably cheaper! Try to consume one-quarter teaspoon a day, either as a tea (just add boiling water) or by adding it to whatever you’re having for lunch or dinner.
American Association for Cancer Research, 93rd Annual Meeting:
Bohm F, et al. “Beta-carotene with vitamins E and C offers synergistic cell protection against NOx.” FEBS Letters. 1998;436:387-389.
“Curcumin may be an inexpensive, well-tolerated and effective therapy for inflammatory bowel disease.” EurekAlert! 14 August 2003.
Orbe J, et al. “Antioxidant vitamins increase the collagen content and reduce MMP-1 in a porcine model of atherosclerosis: implications for plaque stabilization.” Atherosclerosis. 2003;167:45-53.
Packer L, et al. “Antioxidant activity and biologic properties of a procyanidin-rich extract from pine (Pinus maritima) bark, pycnogenol.” Free Radical Biology & Medicine. 1999;27:704-724.