March 13, 2014

Take My Antioxidants, Please!


By Research Nancy

(Hi there! This is Crabby poking her head in here to welcome Research Nancy back with another post full of actual research of the sort that I'm too lazy to sort through myself these days. You may recall she rounded up research on whether coffee is good or bad for you, and now she's looking into antioxidant supplements for us and finding some Most Unpleasant Surprises.)

Take it away, Research Nancy! --Crabby)

What happens when you find a good sale on the vitamins you like and purchase a 6 month supply? Sounds great! Well, maybe not when you discover there are a bunch of studies showing that antioxidant supplements may not help, in fact may be very bad for you. How’s that for saving money?

Let me start by first by saying this isn’t the first time we’ve heard this. Just goes to show you that Cranky Fitness was on to one aspect of the antioxidant vitamin problem back in 2009. (Note: I did not pay Nancy to say that! And in fact I totally forgot I wrote it.---Crabby.)  Another reputable blog back in 2009 suggested that antioxidant supplements actually negated the effects of exercise in muscle tissue.  And recently the New York Times reported on a study in Norway with the same conclusion: vitamins may be bad for your workout, and the BBC agrees.

What is going on here?

Aren’t free radicals bad for me? Won’t these antioxidants mow them down?

The Norwegian study, published recently in The Journal of Physiology, took 54 healthy adult men and women, most of them recreational runners or cyclists, and conducted a series of tests, including muscle biopsies, blood draws and treadmill runs, to establish their baseline endurance capacity and the cellular health of their muscles.

They divided the volunteers into two groups: One group took 4 placebos and one group took 4 pills for a total dose of 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C and 235 milligrams of vitamin E. All participants completed a vigorous 11-week training program, consisting of increasingly intense interval sessions once or twice per week, together with two weekly sessions of moderately paced hour-long runs.

While all participants were more fit at the end with max endurance capacity increasing on average by 8 per cent, the two groups showed different results in their mitochondria which generates energy in cells in the bloodstream and muscles. The group with placebos showed robust increases of biochemical markers that increase the creation of mitochondria. The creation of new mitochondria is, in fact, generally held to be one of the most important effects of exercise. The group that took the antioxidants had significantly lower levels of the markers related to mitochondrial creation.

In another study of older men, half took 250 milligrams daily of the supplement resveratrol, an antioxidant famously found in red wine, and the other half took a placebo. After two months of exercising, the men taking the placebo showed significant and favorable changes in their blood pressure, cholesterol profiles and arteries, with fewer evident arterial plaques. The men taking the resveratrol exercised as much as the other men, but their blood pressures, cholesterol levels and arteries had remained s almost unchanged.

The theory here is, “free radicals are not villainous but serve as messengers, nudging genes and other bodily systems into starting the various biochemical reactions that end in stronger muscles and better metabolic health. Without free radicals, those reactions don’t begin.” The reason we were taking the antioxidant supplements was to absorb most of the free radicals produced by exercise.

OK. but what if I’m not worried about my athletic performance but want to avoid health issues associated with free radicals?

Studies show that antioxidants can prevent programmed cell death (apoptosis). Well this sounds good, but is it? Having cells that ignore apoptosis signals is believed to be a common feature in carcinogenesis!

Back in 2009, researchers were already questioning the relationship between antioxidants and cancer, and more recently a study of lung cancer progression in mice as reported in The Scientist suggested that antioxidants could actually accelerate cancer.  Per this research it looks like reactive oxygen species should normally be activating p53, but taking antioxidants disrupts this signaling and allows early-stage tumor cells (before their p53 mutates) to grow much more quickly.

Frustated? I am! All the information I absorbed in the past said that antioxidant supplements and foods placed a role in preventing cancer. However, research is starting to suggest the opposite: that high levels of extra antioxidants can actually give people cancer, or at the very least, help along any cancerous cells that might arise on their own.

Get your antioxidants from real food; at least so far, the general consensus is that eating lots of fruits and vegetables is still good for you.

But anyone who still wants some antioxidant supplements? You can have mine!


25 comments:

  1. I wish I could say it surprised me that supplement x proved to be ineffective or worse-- that path is well worn. As a born skeptic I look at all fads with a jaundiced eye -- remember when oat bran was going to bring world peace? Acai berry was supposed to make us all thin too, right? Oh, and if we just work out hard enough and diet hard enough we will all the thin and gorgeous. I'm still waiting on that one. I agree, stick to real food and spend those supplement/fad diet plan dollars on something more worthwhile like a vacation, or a dog (exercise partner).

    Barb

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    1. Oh Barb, like you I was so bummed when oat bran didn't bring world peace or even cause me spontaneously drop 5 pounds from the pure virtue of it! :) And yay for dogs and vacations!

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  2. OK this just makes me really cranky!!!!! I am trying to improve my health. I am trying to push this massive boulder made up of exercise and good nutrition up a hill to improved health and I keep getting one person after another telling me I'm on the wrong path.
    Well I am particularly cranky today because I overused my abs and now its "Don't look at me, Don't talk to me and DON'T ... make me laugh or sneeze!

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    1. Well congrats Cindy on doing so much you can't move or breathe without wincing, on the rare times of done that I have felt (painfully) quite proud and I hope you are at least basking in smugness today!

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    2. Smugness? No! Does that come after the stage where you find yourself bribing the cat to stay away? Maybe that comes before you spend hours online pricing out hot tubs?

      I can confirm at this point that plank is a much better exercise than crunches and when you combine them with climbers the effect is memorable in my opinion.

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  3. All I know is I was told to stay away from antioxidants during and after my breast cancer treatment.

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    1. Sounds like at least the word is getting out to the medical community Geosomin! If not the food manufacturers...

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  4. This is amazing information to have, Research Nancy! Thanks both for this post AND your easy to understand, yet not 'dumbed down' explanations :).

    Part of me - very UNscientifically - suspected that there really couldn't be such a 'bad' side effect (more free radicals) after exercise and that maybe what was considered bad was actually good? Plus - don't know about the rest of y'all, but my not so secret persona is that of a "free radical"! :)

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    1. Good point UltraKaz! "Free" and "Radical" both SOUND like good things! :)

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  5. Death Ride GrandmaMarch 13, 2014 at 1:07 PM

    Thanks, Research Nancy. This makes sense to me. And when you figure that we never really know quite what is contained in those supplements since they reside in a regulatory gray area...I never have any problem walking right past them. Uh, sometimes I walk right past them to the candy counter or the ice cream store, so maybe my logic is not yet perfected. Oh, well, there always has to be something to aspire to.

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    1. Ah yes, DRG, there's the additional problem of supplements not even containing what they're supposed to contain!

      I still take some, but ditched the A, C, and E and other antioxidants a while back, though I still take a few miscellaneous things, some of which I can't even remember why...

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  6. Wow, I feel a lot better about forgetting to take my vitamin pill daily. I probably only take it once a week, if that much. So, I guess I'm safe um healthy!

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    1. Good going Bob Ben, "strategic forgetting" is an underappreciated talent!

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  7. While i've always said a pill can't cancel out a terrible diet, i never quite expected the pills to turn out dangerous. This means i'll just keep having my green smoothies and whole, real foods.

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    1. I know messymimi, it was a surprise to me too when the research started coming out. But yay to green smoothies!

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  8. I've never been one to listen to anything conventional - it's stood me in good stead. As well, I've been in "science" my entire professional life - as I get older, I get the feeling that we don't have the intention of our scientific forebears at all...I digress.

    I've always thought of the number of chemical reactions and metabolic pathways in our bodies to be similar to the universe - there's a lot we don't know and we don't even know what we don't know. I mean...look at this chart:

    http://biochemicalpathwayswallchart.blogspot.com/2010/10/roche-biochemical-pathways-wall-chart.html

    It's HUGE! And - we've only scratched the surface.

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    1. OMG LuckyMama, that chart made me dizzy just looking at it! And I so love that Cranketeers tend to be sciencey and I learn so much from the comments you guys leave, as my aimless googling sometimes leads me to some ridiculous conclusions, especially where wishful thinking comes into play.

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  9. I pretty much read but stuff but do what feels best for me. I am so tired of hearing 5-10 years after a study that told us to do one thing is now reversed. I really just exercise, eat as many whole foods as possible & do what is best for me.... I am not sure what I even trust anymore in studies since they so often reverse the findings years later.. or get us confused for sure!

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  10. Goodness! That's kind of scary. I will stick to eating fresh fruit and vegetables!

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  11. I was never terribly concerned about free radicals (possibly because how can anything with a name like that be bad? :) ) but I continue to take my two grams of vitamin C a day because it has demonstrated an antihistamine effect in my life, and has also proven a deterrent to colds over the past twenty-five years. My allergies make me prefer "real foods" because I'll know whether I'm allergic to them or not.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

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  12. This review is so straightforwardly well written that I'm in awe of Research Nancy!

    LynM

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  13. I only take standard process supplements. They make me feel better and have no gunk in them. I don't take any antioxidants though, I don't think. Hmmmm I am not surprised either, the FDA deems a prescription safe and a year later we find out that it causes holes in your heart. Yeah I'm a big skeptic.

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  14. this is a good and very informative website but there's more than one way to skin the cat, check out my weight reduction method here also

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  15. Sometimes I just get SO tired of new research that changes old research that was changed when the old research was new research. Makes my head spin. . . like my sentence structure spins! lol

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