These days in the supplement industry, antioxidants reign supreme. They’ve been heralded in the media for their disease-fighting abilities. Which has sent droves of former skeptics to the nearest GNC to stock up on these so-called heroes of the nutritional world.
But, despite the impression we’ve been given, antioxidants aren’t necessarily the “be all, end all” of good health and disease prevention.
In fact, in some cases, they may cause more harm than good.
It all comes down to chemistry— and context. Two things modern medicine never seems to consider.
I was a chemistry major in college. But I was in high school when I learned one simple acronym that explains how so-called “antioxidants” really work.
The acronym I’m referring to is: LEO goes GER.
If you haven’t heard it before, it stands for this:
Loss of Electrons = Oxidation (LEO) Gain of Electrons = Reduction (GER)
But what, exactly, does this clever saying mean? And, more importantly, how does it relate to the antioxidants you hear so much about in health and medical news? In two very important ways:
1.) Any oxidizing agent can become an anti-oxidant by stealing an electron from another molecule.
2.) Any anti-oxidant can become an oxidizing agent when it gives up an electron to another molecule.
Which means there is no such thing as a “universal” antioxidant.
No nutrient—no matter how hyped by the media or acclaimed in studies—acts as an antioxidant all of the time. It all depends on the chemical and biochemical environment as to whether a nutrient acts as an anti-oxidant or an oxidant.
Supposedly chemistry is a requirement for getting into medical school. So I’m not sure why so many medical scientists, physicians, and so-called nutritionists don’t seem to remember these basic principles.
While it isn’t specifically an antioxidant, iron is a perfect example of the dangers of a “beneficial” nutrient being turned loose in the body in excess amounts and dangerous chemical forms. When there is too much floating around, it acts like an oxidizing agent, taking electrons from molecules, and creating “free radicals.” Those free radicals damage tissues and contribute to the creation of cancer cells.
If the folks at the NIH or CDC could remember their high school or college chemistry, they wouldn’t have been so surprised and dismayed when Nobel laureate Baruch Blumberg and I proved that too much iron can cause cancer (for more on this, see my report, Classified Cancer Answers that you received when you subscribed to Insiders’ Cures).
Quality, not just quantity
In medicine today we are obsessed with measuring the quantity of a biochemical, electrolyte, metabolite, or nutrient. And when it comes to antioxidants, there are a couple of specific measurements frequently used. Several years ago, scientists relied on Total Antioxidant Capacity (TAC). But, more recently, another measure, known as Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) has grown more popular.
And the higher a nutrient ranks on either of these scales, the better it is for us. Or so we’ve been told. (But now even the ORAC level is being questioned in terms of its usefulness. See the sidebar, Beware ORAC value claims below.)
But both of these measurements miss a critical factor—quality.
And in terms of antioxidants, quantity and quality should always be considered together.
This is a critical issue in assessing the real role of antioxidants. A chemical that we think of as an “antioxidant” (such as many vitamins
and minerals) in fact may actually behave like an oxidant if its quality or quantity in a given biochemical environment shifts its balance from being in the reduced state (as an anti- oxidant) to being in the oxidized state (an oxidant). There are only so many electrons to go around in a given chemical matrix.
The effects, if we could measure them at a given place in the body, may be entirely dependent on how much, in what concentrations, and in what form and matrix the supposed anti-oxidant is given.
Why “good” nutrients sometimes have “bad” effects
This explains why you see so many news reports about the “harmful” effects of vitamins that have been previously touted as powerful antioxidants.
These vitamins are made in factories. They’re given in doses and forms never before seen by normal human metabolism. And, most important, they’ve been separated from their natural biological matrix—foods.
We have witnessed this tragically with beta-carotene, vitamin E, and even vitamin C. An inappropriate quantity, of the wrong quality, of “anti”-oxidants may have entirely the wrong effects.
Expecting them to behave the same way they do when they are in their natural state is unrealistic at best. And downright dangerous at worst.
How to get the antioxidants you need—without putting yourself in danger
Obviously, the best, safest way to get the nutrients—and antioxidants–you need is from foods.
Green leafy vegetables are some of the standout nutrient powerhouses, full of biologically active constituents (some of which haven’t even been identified as micronutrients yet, per se). Healthy sources of meat are also important for fat-soluble antioxidant vitamins like A, D, and E .
Of course, this isn’t to say that you should avoid supplements. They can be an invaluable source of these essential nutrients. But when it comes to supplements, it is important to look for the best formulations in physiologic doses from reliable manufacturers. (For more on how to choose the best supplements, see the Daily Dispatch articles “Setting the Standard” and “Going for the Gold.”)
SB: Ancient wisdom overlooked by modern technology
In the 10th century, the ancient physician Avicenna (or Ibn Sinna, the leading physician in the western world for 500 years) wrote extensively about the importance of not just quantity but the quality of what he called “humors.” Which, in our modern biology are called blood constituents and metabolites.
Unfortunately, the importance of the quality of metabolites and nutrients as a factor in health is something scientists rarely pay attention to when they’re measuring the quantity of a molecule.
SB: Beware ORAC value claims
Unfortunately there have always been too many players within the nutritional supplement industry who focus more on pushing profits than fostering clear, clean science. And unfortunately, the natural products industry’s inappropriate use of
ORAC values couldn’t be more complicated or unclear…which makes it a perfect subterfuge for spinning the truth and making exaggerated and essentially meaningless claims. ORAC is just another term for a particular measured characteristic that should be taken for what it is. Not extrapolated to insinuate remarkable healing powers.
Just because an ingredient or product claims to have the “highest ORAC value ever”—doesn’t mean it will benefit your health.
Not only do ORAC values fall short by measuring only quantity. They are not designed to provide any picture of the potential impact of a nutrient on your health. The measure of an antioxidant activity in the context of a test tube does not translate to how much would actually be absorbed by the body. Or how it would work there. In other words, how that ORAC value translates into fighting free radicals in your body is completely unknown. It is essentially the same “LEO goes GER” problem we have with antioxidant nutrients themselves.
There are other problems with ORAC values, as well. Which have led to an ongoing, active debate in the industry. Thanks in part to the USDA removing the ORAC values from their nutrient database. I’ll be sure to cover the ongoing debate in my Daily Dispatch emails.