Can antioxidants really prevent or cure heart disease, cancer and so many other diseases?
Antioxidants neutralize oxidants (also known as free-radicals), molecules in our bodies that have an electrical charge not unlike the battery in your flashlight. Free-radicals are a normal part of body chemistry resulting from the liver breaking down drugs and other chemicals, exercise, radiation, inflammation and some foods, to name a few. We are concerned about them because the electrical charge can damage the DNA of normal cells. An excess of free-radicals can statistically increase the risk for cancer and heart disease, and is suggested to increase the risk for other diseases including neurodegenerative multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.
One would hope that antioxidants in a healthy diet would keep free-radical levels in check. But the stresses of modern life, chemicals in our food and environment, and the infamous western diet with its emphasis on high (bad) fats, sugar and empty calories increase the risk for free-radical damage.
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So what is a reasonable plan for getting enough antioxidants?
There are many different types of free-radicals. But a particular antioxidant may only neutralize the electrical charge of one specific free-radical and have no effect on others. Therefore, consuming a variety of antioxidants will neutralize the most free-radicals.
Many vitamins, minerals, herbs, foods and chemicals have antioxidant activity. A good place to start is with a diet that includes plenty of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, the more colorful the better. The American Cancer Society recommends five servings per day.
In addition, there is growing evidence that a multiple-vitamin (I recommend one with an even 100 percent of the RDA for ingredients, not 20 percent of this and 2000 percent of that) is worthwhile. Additional antioxidant supplements likely add benefit as well, but very high (mega) doses are frequently not useful.
Consulting a knowledgeable provider to create a customized plan will get you the best result. Antioxidant supplements generally have more than one action. For example, high doses of vitamin E also thin your blood and may put you at risk for bruising or bleeding. High doses of selenium can cause bad breath, fever, nausea, and liver, kidney and heart problems. Also, antioxidants can interfere with conventional medical treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation.
The clinical evidence supporting antioxidants for disease prevention is compelling and growing. As a treatment for diseases such as cancer, heart disease and others, there is a place for antioxidants. But using them carefully with conventional medicine will frequently provide the best outcome. The bottom line is that antioxidants are a worthwhile part of everyone’s health plan, but more isn’t always better.
Future columns will look at integrative medicine (combining the best of natural and conventional medical care), evaluating Internet medical claims, control, prevention and survivorship for cancer, heart and other diseases, fatigue, asthma, and safe natural hormone management, always with a critical eye and in plain English. In the meantime, see you in the organic produce section.
Dan Labriola, N.D.: DrLabriola@nwnaturalhealth.com. Labriola is director of the Northwest Natural Health Specialty Care Clinic and medical director for naturopathic services, Swedish Medical Center’s Cancer Institute; the clinic website is nwnaturalhealth.com.