Free radicals can be described as unstable, hyperactive atoms that literally trek around your body damaging healthy cells and tissues.
Most of us have heard about antioxidants, but I bet a good number of people don't really know what they are and how they work. Here's the scoop: As you know, every cell in your body needs oxygen to function normally. Unfortunately, the utilization of this oxygen produces harmful by-products called free radicals. Free radicals are also created from environmental pollution, certain industrial chemicals, and smoking.
Outside the body, the process of oxidation is responsible for a sliced apple turning brown and the rusting of metal. Inside the body, oxidation contributes to heart disease, cancer, cataracts, aging, and a slew of other degenerative diseases. In other words, free radicals are the enemy.
So why isn't everyone falling apart? Well, in part because antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and selenium help mop up these nasty free radicals. However, current research indicates that antioxidants may not be the cure-alls they were once thought to be—at least not for certain ailments.
Although beta-carotene is still considered a powerful antioxidant, it is no longer recommended in supplemental form. Many years ago, a study found that smokers who took beta-carotene supplements showed an increased risk of lung cancer. however, these findings certainly do not mean that you shouldn't eat plenty of foods rich in beta-carotene.
Food for Thought
What most people do know is that in large quantities, arsenic becomes a lethal poison. What most people don't know is that in very small amounts, arsenic is an essential mineral that your body needs to function properly.
Here's the latest on antioxidants and health:
- Cardiovascular disease. Several major studies have found that high doses (400 IU or more) of vitamin E do not help prevent heart disease after all. Lower doses (more like 200 IU per day) might still be helpful, but you may just want to stick to the amount in a typical multivitamin.
- Cancer. Theoretically, antioxidants should help protect against cancer because they're great at mopping up those DNA-damaging free radicals. However, several large-scale clinical trials haven't yielded particularly promising results. Other trials are still on-going (including one on selenium, vitamin E, and prostate cancer), so stay tuned. And keep in mind that many factors influence the development of cancer, including heredity, smoking, nutritional excesses and deficiencies, and the environment.
- Macular degeneration. Here's a winner! The Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) indicates that you can slow the progression of macular degeneration by taking 500 mg vitamin C, 400 IU vitamin E, 25,000 IU beta-carotene, as well as 80 mg zinc oxide and 2 mg copper per day. Note: 80 mg of zinc may impair your immunity, lower your “good” HDL cholesterol, and raise your risk of prostate cancer. And if you are a smoker, remember that high doses of beta-carotene may increase your risk of lung cancer.
- Immunity. Researchers theorize that antioxidants might help to strengthen the immune system by preventing the action of free radicals.
How Much Should You Take?
Your primary (and secondary) focus should be on eating foods rich in antioxidant vitamins. Contrary to what people might think, there are no magic bullets (or pills) to good health. Another plug for food is that scientists are constantly discovering new food substances that might help with the quest for well-being. Furthermore, future findings may even reveal that it's not just one isolated vitamin, but interactions between several food ingredients that enhance disease prevention.
The bottom line: if you decide to take antioxidant supplements, stay on top of the current research and speak with a competent health professional.