Mon, Sep 03, 2007 - Page 9 News List

What are the real benefits of using antioxidant supplements?

By Goran Bjelakovic

The influence of diet on health has been known since the Ancient Greeks. Our bodies simply cannot synthesize many essential compounds, so our health partly depends on what we eat and drink. Antioxidants, which are believed to help protect us against both cancer and heart disease, are one such element that we must import into our bodies. Studies have shown that there is a significant positive association between a higher intake of fruits and vegetables and reduced risk of chronic disease.

Fruits and vegetables are sources of numerous micronutrients, and some -- including b-carotene (a precursor of vitamin A), vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium -- have potential as antioxidants. But what specifically makes fruits and vegetables so beneficial is not clear.

The main role of antioxidants is to prevent oxidative damage to cellular components, so it has been proposed that dietary antioxidants decrease such damage and with it the risk of disease. This has stimulated interest in the possible preventive potential of antioxidant supplements.

Indeed, consumption of antioxidant supplements in developed countries has become widespread. More than one-third of adults in developed countries now ingest antioxidant pills, which is much easier than eating fruits and vegetables. But will the benefits be the same?

As with any therapeutic intervention, the most convincing and direct proof of the preventive efficacy of antioxidant supplements requires randomized, controlled clinical trials. Such trials eliminate the problems of participants' dietary record and controls the effects of both known and unknown confounding factors. So far, many studies have been conducted to verify the supposed beneficial effects of antioxidant supplements. But, while the results of the epidemiological studies have been almost uniformly positive, the results of clinical trials have remained largely inconclusive.

Some of the clinical trials were terminated prematurely because harmful effects of antioxidant supplements were observed. Indeed, the overwhelming evidence currently calls into question the preventive effect of antioxidant pills. On the contrary, they may be harmful, leading to an increased risk of mortality in people consuming them.

There are several possible explanations for the negative effect of antioxidant supplements. First, the "free radicals" that anti-oxidants act against perform a dual biological function. Free radicals are produced continuously in all cells as part of their normal functioning. In moderate concentrations, they are essential mediators of reactions by which our bodies eliminate unwanted cells.

By eliminating free radicals from our body, we interfere with important defensive mechanisms for eliminating damaged cells, including cancerous cells. In this way, antioxidant substances can also harm people. Whereas our diets typically contain safe levels, highly concentrated antioxidant supplements can be hazardous. In fact, the amount of antioxidants that lends protection is not known and probably differs among individuals. People exposed to increased oxidative stress may have elevated antioxidant requirements.

Moreover, antioxidant supplements in pills are synthetic and biochemically unbalanced compared to their naturally occurring counterparts. They are also not subjected to the same rigorous toxicity studies as other pharmaceutical agents. Indeed, we still lack substantial information on how our bodies metabolize them and how they interact with one another. As a result, it is still unclear whether dosage, duration of use, or parallel intake of other agents will result in differences in their effect.

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