We all understand that we should be eating whole foods full of vitamins and minerals to help keep us healthy, energised and young at heart.
You have also probably heard of antioxidants and seen the plethora of products out there being marketed as full of antioxidants that are essential for good health, help ward of disease and fight anti ageing.
In reality, however, are these things really as good as they seem? Can supplementing antioxidants really help us live longer and reduce our laughter lines?
What are Antioxidants and where can we find them?
Antioxidants are naturally occurring compounds, some are produced in the body whereas others are found in plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, coffee, tea, wine, and chocolate. There are thousands but some of the most well known are flavanols in chocolate, resveratrol in wine, and lycopen in tomatoes). Others include vitamins A (beta carotene) C and E.
The function of antioxidants is to counteract the damage done to cells through a process called oxidation.
Oxidation is a common chemical reaction within the body that is not always bad, it is, in fact, often essential and involved in many processes. When uncontrolled, however, it can lead to the malfunction, or even death, of important cells.
Uncontrolled oxidation is usually caused by free radicals.
Free radicals are not always bad. They are indeed highly reactive and destructive but our immune system often takes advantage of this. When attacked by undesirable particles such as bacteria, our white blood cells release free radicals to destroy them.
Our bodies produce free radicals naturally and can handle a certain amount but if we have too many, issues can arise. Stress, poor diet, pollution, smoking and alcohol can lead to their increase.
The damage caused by excess free radicals has been linked to premature ageing and various diseases.
Whilst antioxidants occur naturally, they can also be added to foods to ‘boost’ their health benefits. You will find them added to breakfast cereals, sports bars, energy drinks, and other processed foods, which are then promoted as products that can prevent heart disease, cancer, cataracts, memory loss, and reverse ageing.
Furthermore, the antioxidants found in so called ‘super’ foods are no better than what you will find in your local fruit and veg store so don’t be drawn in by clever marketing or nutritional labels and save your hard earned cash!
As for antioxidant supplements, the research has actually indicated that they can do more harm than good…
A Finnish study investigating the effects of beta-carotene supplementation on lung cancer, amongst heavy male smokers, had to be abandoned because they saw a significant increase in lung cancer within the group taking the supplement compared to the placebo group.
In another clinical trial, more women who supplemented with vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium, and zinc developed skin cancer than those who didn’t supplement at all.
And this 2012 meta analysis showed that, overall, antioxidant supplements are ineffective at best and could even be detrimental to health.
The exact reasons are unclear but it is likely linked to the concentration within the supplement along with the added nutritional benefits alongside a healthy diet.
Balance is key
Whilst it is true that free radicals can contribute to chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s, it doesn’t necessarily mean that supplementing with antioxidants will reverse their development, especially when done so through manufactured products.
As with anything, the key is to aim for balance. Just as when the balance of free radicals is tipped, when we have too many antioxidants, damage can be caused.
In fact, high concentrations of antioxidants could potentially:
- increase oxidation
- protect dangerous cells, even cancer cells, as well as healthy cells
- have unpleasant side effects, i.e nausea
- lead to toxic levels.
In conclusion, there is no magic pill that can improve our health and well-being or make us appear more youthful. It all comes down to balancing a healthy diet rich in fresh, whole foods with an active lifestyle. This is your best defence against disease and early signs of ageing.