I can’t be the only bitch around here who’s struggling to get her head around antioxidants and free radicals. Last year they were good for us, we needed more of them, they prevent cancer. This year so far, they’re bad for us. What exactly is the truth here?
I decided to do a little research on the subject and, turns out, the science is still not clear! Well there’s a shock.
In the Scientific American an article by Melinda Wenner Moyer traces the theory that free radicals cause ageing and cell damage back to a scientist called Denham Harman. He noted that X-rays and radioactive bombs sparked the production of free radicals in the body which caused all sorts of nasty shit to happen. Studies at the time suggested that antioxidants from food help to counteract the effects of the free radicals, so he fed a load of mice the antioxidants and demonstrated that they lived longer.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But before you reach for your vitamin C tablets, more recent evidence seems to contradict this theory.
Arlan Richardson from the University of Texas set about genetically engineering mice to produce higher and lower levels of antioxidants than normal and, guess what, he found no difference in their lifespan.
A chap called Siegfried Hekimi from McGill University bred roundworms that overproduced a certain type of free radical (called superoxide) and found that the worms did not develop high levels of oxidative damage and lived, on average, 32% longer than normal worms. In fact, he found that treating them with vitamin C actually prevented the increase in lifespan.
In a recent BBC documentary, Dr Brandt found that when we take in a big dose of antioxidants – in this instance, from a smoothie – this actually makes our natural antioxidant levels plummet after around 4-5 hours. This is because our bodies stop producing natural antioxidants, and it takes around 24 hours for them to climb up to normal levels again. Essentially, our bodies get overloaded and try to balance shit out.
This is all well and good, but now what?
Since the evidence is not clear, scientists are unable to pinpoint exactly which free radicals are bad and which ones are good, our best bet is to eat a healthy, balanced diet and back away from the supplements. Our bodies are really great at creating balance and harmony, so introducing too much of anything will cause them to go out of whack.
The American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association advise against taking antioxidant supplements unless you are specifically diagnosed with a deficiency by your doctor. Cancer Research UK advise speaking to your doctor before taking antioxidants if you have been diagnosed with any form of cancer.
So eat your fruit and veg but there’s no need to go cray-cray, okay? Turns out you can have too much of a good thing.