Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Antioxidants misunderstood

In “Radical thinking on antioxidants” (Chicago Tribune, Oct. 6) there is a useful discussion of the controversial role of antioxidant nutrients in our health. While much of the information presented was fair, there were omissions and inaccurate statements made that should be addressed.

To understand the controversy over antioxidant nutrition, it is important to remember that this particular class of nutrients consists of individual substances that, unlike drugs, do not operate independently in the body. The failure to respect that fact has caused many researchers, especially those assembling and publishing statistical models of supposedly similar already-published studies, to veer way off course from reality. The most common errors include the use of the so called “gold standard” model used for pharmaceutical studies that looks at the intake of an individual substance and is randomized, double-blinded, and placebo controlled. But that model often fails to produce meaningful or consistent results when antioxidant nutrients are involved. Why?

One big problem is that antioxidants are synergistic and depend on one another to survive in a healthy state. A classic example is vitamin C, with a half-life of about 30 minutes. We would all die of scurvy in a few hours if we didn’t have a mechanism for recycling and recharging that spent antioxidant vitamin. That mechanism is antioxidant synergy, where other antioxidants recharge the spent ones so they can continue their essential work in our bodies. Antioxidants that have used one of their electrons to stop a dangerous chain reaction of free radicals ripping electrons from healthy cells –an otherwise uncontrolled electrical spark - can themselves become a problem if they over-accumulate, which is a signal that we lack other types of antioxidants that could restore their antioxidant potential.

Another problem is the tendency of supplement critics to exaggerate their opinions. In this article, a cardiologist reportedly claimed that, “there is little to no data supporting the use of antioxidants to protect against disease.” That can be easily disproven by a cursory look at medical journals. For example, the American Journal of Cardiology reported evidence that “coenzyme Q10 supplementation may decrease muscle pain associated with statin treatment... supplementation may offer an alternative to stopping treatment with these vital drugs.” Another issue of that journal noted that “coenzyme Q10 supplementation in patients with worsening diastolic function with statin therapy improved parameters of diastolic function.” And the Journal of the American College of Cardiology published a referenced Expert Consensus Document that listed evidence for cardiovascular health benefits of antioxidants CoQ10, hawthorn extract, and ginkgo leaf extract.