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Antioxidants: The Right Amount Counts

by Robert A. Sinnott, MNS, PhD

The atmosphere of earth is composed of around 20 percent oxygen, which is essential for cellular respiration – otherwise known as our ability to burn food for energy. However, oxygen is a reactive element that tends to oxidize and degrade some important substances in our bodies and in the world around us.

For example, if an object made of iron or crude steel sits exposed to the atmosphere, it will slowly rust. This is due to the action of oxygen and moisture on the metal. Similarly, oxygen slowly attacks and damages the fats, proteins and DNA that make up our bodies. Taking an even greater toll on our bodies are the waste products created by cellular respiration because our bodies burn certain foods for energy.

Just as incomplete combustion of fuel in an engine causes smoke and pollution, incomplete cellular respiration within our bodies creates highly reactive pollutants called free radicals. Even when the body is operating as it should, some amounts of free radicals are created during the normal process of cellular respiration. Left unchecked, these free radicals float around the cell until they react with something chemically. If the free radical reacts with DNA, it can cause an undesirable change called a mutation. Moreover, if the free radical reacts with certain fat molecules, it can both destroy the fat molecule and set off undesirable chain reactions in other fat molecules.

Fortunately, our bodies are well adapted to deal with a low level of free radicals being produced as byproducts of respiration. One adaptation our bodies have is the production of natural (endogenous) antioxidants that intercept and neutralize free radicals before they cause damage to components of the cell. Certain foods, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains and nuts, contain natural antioxidants produced by plants. When we consume these foods, some of the antioxidants are absorbed and help provide protection for our body.

Today, many diets are characterized by poor food choices including an overabundance of calorie enriched processed foods and a scarcity of foods containing natural plant antioxidants. This combination creates a double threat for our health because consuming too many calories creates conditions that can overload normal cellular respiration and cause accelerated formation of free radicals. Normal, endogenous anti-oxidants may not control large-scale pro-duction of free radicals, which may cause damage and accelerate the aging of cells.

Whereas plant antioxidants in the diet would normally contribute some additional degree of protection for our bodies, the lack of fresh foods in most diets strip away this layer of protection. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) educates us to get nine to 13 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables daily; however, increased consumption of these items have not occurred.

For those who realize they are not getting all the natural antioxidant protection they should, taking an antioxidant dietary supplement is a good consideration. There are an abundance of antioxidant dietary supplements on the market, which makes it difficult for ordinary consumers to decipher the product claims and decide what would be an appropriate supplement.

Many products claim very high oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) values, which consumers misinterpret to mean that the products are good antioxidant products. This is very often not the case.

The easiest ORAC test to perform, and the one most supplement companies use, is a laboratory test of antioxidant value using an in vitro (test tube) measurement. This does not necessarily translate to any protection in the body since some antioxidants that show very high activity in a test tube are not actually absorbed in the human body.

The Serum ORAC test, another test that measures actual antioxidant capacity of human blood, is considered much more reliable proof of antioxidant effectiveness. We should look for products validated by human clinical studies, including significant, measurable effect on serum ORAC values. Applying this scientific measure will narrow down the qualified candidates to a select few products.

Finally, when considering antioxidant supplements, it is very important to remember that quality is much more important than quantity. While some antioxidant dietary supplements contain "megadoses" of things such as vitamin C, vitamin E and botanical ingredients, too much of any one antioxidant ingredient can actually have detrimental effects.

A well-known example is vitamin C. Small amounts of vitamin C are indeed protective, but large doses of vitamin C taken at once can actually promote the creation of free radicals. This is because large doses of vitamin C are just as foreign to the body as synthetic preservatives. In other words, our bodies are adapted to receiving relatively small doses of vitamins and antioxidants constantly through a diet comprised of mostly plant foods.

When people live on a diet of cheeseburgers and fries, which are poor in natural antioxidants, then try to make up with a megadose antioxidant supplement, it will not work. Large amounts of antioxidant hitting the system all at once overload the body’s natural capacity. In turn, excess antioxidant is treated as waste, so it is detoxified and eliminated by the liver and kidneys. The detoxification of the excess antioxidants then creates dangerous free radicals, so taking too much antioxidant is actually counterproductive.

In summary, due to our poor dietary choices and our reluctance to change, supplementation with a high quality antioxidant supplement is a wise choice.

When choosing a supplement, choose one that contains reasonable amounts of both water-soluble and fat-soluble antioxidants. For the vast majority of people, megadose antioxidant supplements are not required and are not a good choice. Above all, rely on antioxidant products validated by human clinical studies conducted on the product itself not just the component ingredients. By following this guidance, a consumer can cut through all the marketing hype that pervades the dietary supplement industry and find a product that allows proven antioxidant protection.

Dr. Robert A. Sinnott has more than 20 years of experience in life sciences, chemistry, biotechnology and nutrition. As co-CEO and Chief Science Officer at Mannatech, Inc., he oversees the development of the company’s innovative nutritional supplement line based on its Real Food TechnologySM solutions that provide consumers with standardized levels of natural and plant-sourced nutrients.

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