Are Anti-Oxidants Overhyped?

We often hear about the power and strength of anti-oxidants and their ability to stave off cancer and help us recover from things like muscle soreness and illness. So what is the real story? are these anti-oxidants really as magical and effective as we are led to believe? well firstly we need to differentiate between anti-oxidants that are:

  1. Man made
  2. Occur naturally in the food we eat

So firstly there are man made anti-oxidants like the ones we see added to foods or in Vitamin pills, take for instance Vitamin C which can easily be found in doses of up to 1000mg. This is a huge amount when you consider an Orange contains around 60mg of Vitamin C and a Bell Pepper contains around 120mg of Vitamin C, these are two of the foods highest in Vitamin C. What this indicates to me at least is that maybe we are not supposed to be ingesting such high quantities of anti-oxidants like the doses that are contained in modern day supplements.

This is something I have always had suspicions about but was compounded recently after reading some interesting research. Which basically tested the effects of supplementing Resveratrol in an attempt to kill off cancer cells and what the study showed is that:

At first, the tumor cells in the resveratrol-fed lab animals grew slower. But as the animals continued to consume resveratrol, there was an increase in blood vessels developing around the tumors of the resveratrol-fed animals, effectively setting up a system of feeding the tumors.

Unfortunately the good results do not always seem to continue and eventually do a 180 and end up feeding the cancer cells. Now this was an experiment done using resveratrol which was fed in huge doses and not from the doses you would normally find by drinking a few glasses of red wine a week or eating some red grapes.

I think we can liken anti-oxidants to Vitamin D which is the vitamin our skin synthesises when in the sun. It is well known that we can overdose on Vitamin D if we take it orally via supplements,this can have many negative effects- one of which is hypercalcemia which can be pretty dangerous. On the other hand when we synthesise Vitamin D naturally from the sun our bodies have a natural mechanism which means once we hit saturation there is a natural halt on absorption stopping any ill consequences, putting a Vitamin D overdose out of the question.

In the age of pill popping and the huge supplement market, we are constantly sold the benefits of this or that anti-oxidant cocktail or super cancer fighting supplement that we should all be taking. When really the truth could be that we are actually causing more harm than good by taking supplements especially those in a high dose and over a long period. Recently I have been reading some of Dr. Ray Peat’s work and came across his perspective on supplements.

Because the quality of commercial nutritional supplements is dangerously low, the only supplement I generally advocate is vitamin E, and that should be used sparingly. Occasionally, I will suggest limited use of other supplements, but it is far safer in general to use real foods, and to exclude foods which are poor in nutrients – Dr. Ray Peat

This seems to be a pretty safe way to approach supplements and a way that will allow us to get maximum benefit without causing harm. As the study showed, supplements have a strong initial benefit but that soon tapers off and turns against our bodies.

  • Get your Anti-Oxidants from real food
  • Vary your diet (strive for colour and flavour)
  • Avoid processed and nutritionally devoid food
  • High dose anti-oxidants and vitamins may have benefits when used short term
  • Use high quality supplements

If your diet is high in naturally occurring vitamins and minerals from things like fruits, vegetables and many other unrefined carbohydrates I feel there is no need to supplement. It maybe of benefit to take high doses of anti-oxidants a few times a year or maybe when you are ill (colds and allergy season) or have been exercising extra hard, but the evidence points against consistent and long term use…..

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