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Vol. 83 February 1, 2013 Antioxidants: Miracle or Myth?

In Alternative/complementary medicine, current events, evidence-based medicine, nutrition on February 1, 2013 at 10:51 AM

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“The hallowed notion that oxidative damage causes aging
and that vitamins might preserve our youth is now in doubt”
-M. W. Moyer, Scientific American February 2013

It was not just a humble roundworm that got us into this debate. it was a MUTANT roundworm, a worm commonly used for the study of aging.

Since the 1960′s the dominant theory of aging blamed a rising level of free radicals. Free radicals are highly reactive organic molecules produced in our bodies by oxidation. We all know that oxidation is “bad” because we learned in high school that it is oxidation that turns steel into rust. Free radicals cause “rust” in our body by mangling other cells, proteins, and even DNA. Therefore, an antioxidant that reduces free radicals will slow cell “mangling”, destruction, and aging. Having lots of antioxidants around should retard our aging process. “Drink red wine and take vitamin E.”  More than half of Americans believe in this theory and take considerable amounts of antioxidants like Vitamin E, Vitamin C,  and beta carotene (carrot juice). (JAMA 2007)

MIRACLE: “These high powered, super antioxidants fight dangerous free radicals, the source of oxidative stress and a leading cause of premature aging. CALL NOW to Receive Your FREE 30-Day Bonus Supply!” (Cape Cod Times ad January 20, 2013, E4)

This super antioxidant is an organic chemical called oligmeric proanthrocyanide, or OPC. It is found in grape seeds and certain pine bark. This particular brand of OPC’s touted by Dr. Fred Vaginini includes some other organic chemicals found in grape skins (hence the benefits of red wine) and other botanicals. It is called OPC Factor (TM);  $59.95 for a month’s supply ($35.99 on Amazon). The “landmark, double blinded research study by the prestigious National Institutes of Health” cited to support the ad’s claims was actually a small study by an NIH grantee in Philadelphia to measure changes in energy levels in 25 adult men who took OPC. The 2006 study  results were posted in 2008 as inconclusive.

In the 1990′s genetic science advanced to the point that worm and mice genes could be manipulated to block antioxidant production resulting in very high levels of free radicals. Much to the surprise of the scientists running the experiments those worms and mice with the highest levels of free radicals lived the LONGEST.

Exercise increases free radicals, but exercise is beneficial. A 2009 study of humans who exercised revealed that the ones that did NOT pop a lot of vitamins to lower their free radical levels  were physiologically healthier than those who did!   A 2010 study of mice bred to overproduce a specific “super” free radical actually lived 32% longer than the others. Free radicals rise as one ages, but it may be a result of aging and not the cause. I remember the classic graph showing the number of lung cancer deaths increasing as the number of refrigerators (or  indoor bathrooms) increased in the U.S. during the early phase of that debate.

MYTH: A 2007 systematic review of 68 clinical trials concluded that antioxidants do not reduce the risk of death. When the analysis is restricted to only the most vigorous, double-blinded studies certain antioxidants were linked to a 5% INCREASED risk of death. The American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association now advise “that people should not take antioxidant supplements except to treat a diagnosed vitamin deficiency”.

“The literature is providing growing evidence that these supplements- in particular at high doses -do not necessarily have the beneficial effects that they have been thought to…We’ve become acutely aware of potential downsides.” -D. Albanes, Senior Investigator, National Cancer Institute

References:
“The Myth of Antioxidants”, Scientific American, Febuary 2013, 64-66, Melinda W. Moyer

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