• Antioxidant Supplements: Help Or Harm?

    Posted June 1, 2014: by Bill Sardi

    The question of whether to take antioxidant supplements has arisen once again.  I’ll chart the beginning of this debate back to 1994 when researchers erroneously and disingenuously reported that beta carotene pills raised mortality rates among smokers.  That report seemed to be timed to sidetrack legislation in Congress that would spare dietary supplements from being declared drugs.  The Dietary Supplement Health & Education Act was passed anyway, which suggests Congressional leaders didn’t even buy into the scientific propaganda.


    Before I move onto the current debate, subsequent analysis shows that there was no meaningful difference in mortality rates between smokers taking beta carotene supplements and those who didn’t.  The so-called striking 18% difference that made worldwide headlines in 1994 but in actual hard numbers, 474 of 14,560 male smokers taking supplemental beta carotene developed lung cancer (3.255%) vs 402 of 14,573 (2.758%) male smokers who did not supplement with beta carotene, for a whopping difference of one-half of 1% (0.497%)! [New England Journal Medicine April 14, 1994]

    And that small difference was later traced to a nutritional imbalance induced by beta carotene’s conversion to vitamin A which competes with vitamin D for storage in the liver. [Cancer Causes Control Sept 2012]

    Take note that what makes seemingly alarming headlines today may later be revealed to be part of the ongoing covert anti-dietary supplement agenda.  Subsequent studies that dispel any fears over taking antioxidant pills are not likely to make front-page news (which suggests the news media is part of the anti-supplement campaign as well).

    The current debate: to antioxidize or not

    The current squabble has to do with a Canadian researcher whose research dates back to 2010.  Siegfried Hekimi is his name.  His research emanates from McGill University in Toronto.

    Anybody who has studied antioxidants realizes virtually every disease involves the process of oxidation, the creation of imbalanced electrons that produce free radicals from oxygen or even nitrogen, the very air humans breathe, which can damage tissues and induces cell death.

    Harmful free radicals also be generated when metals such as iron and copper are released from binding proteins such as albumin, transferrin, hemoglobin and melanin to produce “rusting.”

    Antioxidants lend electrons or bind to metals to counter the problem of what is called a free-radical storm.  So out-of-control oxidation is potentially harmful and antioxidant supplements are posed as antidotes.  That comprises the antioxidant theory of disease and aging.

    Cancer chemotherapy produces an intentional free radical storm to kill off cancer cells, though it is very indiscriminate and kills off healthy cells as well.  The same is true for radiation treatment of cancer, though it is a bit more targeted than chemotherapy.  That is why it is said antioxidants may impair the cancer cell-killing effect of chemotherapy.

    However, the use of antioxidants during cancer chemotherapy is actually advocated by some oncologists to limit the often terrible side effects of treatment, one which is death from treatment itself.  For those antioxidant skeptics who still maintain antioxidants are counterproductive during cancer treatment, they might want to read what oncologist Brian D. Lawenda MD cites.

    Dr. Lawenda says there is not a single study that shows cancer treatment is less effective when antioxidants are given (though there are a few animal studies that show a reduced treatment effect when antioxidants are used)!  In fact there are studies that show that cancer treatment is improved with the co-administration of antioxidants.  [Integrativeoncology-essentials.com March 14, 2013]

    Activating internal antioxidants

    But to get to the heart of the matter, if the human body had to rely upon the provision of dietary or supplemental antioxidants to survive it wouldn’t last long.  So the body makes its own endogenous (internal) enzymatic antioxidants (catalase, glutathione, superoxide dismutase) which are the first line of defense against free radicals.

    To activate these internal antioxidants there must be some mild biological threat to trigger their production.  If supplemental antioxidants negate that biological threat these internal antioxidants aren’t produced.

    As Dr. Hekimi and others point out, it is better that the human body be under some mild biological stress and synthesizes its own internal antioxidants than relying upon antioxidants from foods for pills.

    Now where the news headlines went astray is to say that taking antioxidant supplements will “make our bodies age faster.”

    When Dr. Hekimi exposed a roundworm to a toxin (an herbicide called paraquat) the worms lived longer, a life-prolonging effect that was negated when antioxidants were added to the worm’s diet.  [Cell May 8, 2014] So the antioxidants shortened the worms’ lives but only when compared to being subjected to the biological stress of an herbicide.  Certainly Dr. Hekimi isn’t suggesting that for humans.

    Other common biological threats that trigger the internal antioxidant system can be induced from exposure to mild doses of radiation (radon gas), lack of oxygen (high altitude) and food deprivation (aka calorie restriction).

    Numerous times Dr. Hekimi makes his main point:

    • Dr. Hekimi specifically notes that “reactive oxygen species” or so-called free radicals are needed to activate the immune system in cell energy compartments called mitochondria.  [Oncoimmunology April 2013]
    • He goes on to say “our findings indicate that maintaining normal stress resistance is not crucial to the rate of aging.”[Proceedings National Academy Science April 2012]
    • In 2011 Dr. Hekimi said increased free radicals are “necessary and sufficient to increase longevity,” an effect that “is abolished by vitamin C or N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) antioxidants.”  He identifies a particular oxidizing agent called superoxide as the trigger to produce a longevity effect.  [PLoS Biology Dec 2010]
    • In a press release issued by McGill University Dr. Hekimi says “when stimulated in the right way by free radicals, (this) actually reinforces the cell’s defenses and increases its lifespan.” [Science Daily May 8, 2014]

    Dr. Hekimi has been refuting the free radical theory of aging for some time now [Cellular Molecular Life Science Jan 2010] He says the generation of free radicals “is not the primary or initial cause of aging.”  [Trends Cellular Biology Oct 2011]  But his studies do not address what causes aging but rather what prolongs life.

    Dr. Hekimi has been publishing scientific reports on this phenomenon since 2010 and he sounds like a frustrated researcher for not having talked the millions of antioxidant pill users to stop taking them.

    Dr. Hekimi is quoted to say: “Don’t expect to see nutritionists recanting anytime soon, however. The oxidative stress theory has become too well entrenched, in both the scientific community and the public consciousness. “It has become like a dogma in a religion,” he explains. [Headway, McGill University Vol. 6, No. 1, 2010]

    Now Dr. Hekimi appears to be on a mission to convince antioxidant advocates to throw away their antioxidant vitamin tablets, but he’s not quite forthright when he omits saying some dietary and supplemental antioxidants are also biological stressors themselves.

    For instance, the red wine molecule resveratrol (rez-vair-ah-trol) is a molecular mimic of a calorie restricted diet.  Resveratrol, via what is known as a gene transcription factor called Nrf2, activates internal antioxidants such as glutathione, heme oxygenase, catalase and superoxide dismutase. [PLoS One July 22, 2013] The paraquat used in Dr. Hekimi’s experiment provokes synthesis of the same internal antioxidants.

    There are some 60 natural molecules that have been demonstrated to activate Nrf2 and activate the internal antioxidant system.  Among these are sulforaphane from broccoli, curcumin from turmeric spice, catechin from green tea, to name a few. [Molecules Nov 3, 2010]

    Have antioxidant supplement users shortened their lives?

    So have devotees of antioxidant supplements shortened their lives by taking supplemental vitamin C or E?   Well it is a stretch to say that since antioxidants are essential for life and the best diet doesn’t provide sufficient amounts for optimal health.

    For example, the US Department of Agriculture estimates 86% of the American public are deficient in vitamin E.  [US Dept. Agriculture] Furthermore, there is not only mortality but also morbidity that can result from a shortage of antioxidants.

    The antioxidant skeptics run wild by citing study after study that shows antioxidant supplements don’t work (but they really aren’t harmful).  For example:

    • An analysis of 246,371 subjects in 57 published studies finds supplemental vitamin E appears to have no effect on all-cause mortality at doses up to 5,500 IU/day. [Current Aging Research July 2011]
    • A review of 78 randomized trials with 296,707 participants concluded that overall, antioxidant supplements had no significant effect on mortality.  [Cochrane Database System Review March 14, 2012]
    • Among 293 studies analyzed antioxidant vitamin supplementation has no significant effect on the incidence of major cardiovascular events (null effect), myocardial infarction (-2%), stroke (-1%), total death (+3%), and cardiac death (+2%). [PLoS One Feb 20, 2013]

    However, there are also these recent studies:

    • A study of 717 hospitalized patients over age 65 admitted for treatment of pneumonia found that vitamin E supplements reduced risk for death by 63%. [BMC Geriatrics May 2010]
    • Among critically ill hospitalized patients a study of 593 subjects (91% which were trauma victims) the relative risk for morbidity was -19% among patients who received antioxidant supplementation.  Multiple organ failure was significantly less likely to occur (-57%) among patients receiving antioxidants compared to patients who didn’t. [Annals Surgery Dec 2002]
    • Ten pooled studies involving vitamin C supplementation and among women with diagnosed breast cancer reveals that C-supplements reduced the risk for breast cancer mortality by 15% and total mortality by 19%.  [European Journal Cancer May 2014]

    Tobacco depletes vitamin C so it would make sense that the 42 million smokers in the U.S. supplement their diet with vitamin C.  Is there evidence for that?

    • A large population study showed that blood serum levels of vitamin C were much lower among smokers than non-smokers (35.2 versus 50.7 micromole/liter). [American Journal Clinical Nutrition Nov 2009]
    • Another study reveals that blood plasma levels of vitamin C are markedly lower (0.18 milligrams/deciliter of blood plasma) than non-smokers (0.50 mg/deciliter of blood plasma), a 2.7-fold difference and other studies corroborate this finding.  [PLoS One Sept 6, 2012]
    • Vitamins and Mineral Antioxidants (SU.VI.MAX) study 6 y after the end of the trial.  Verbal memory was improved by antioxidant supplementation only in subjects who were nonsmokers or who had low vitamin C blood levels to begin with.  [American Journal Clinical Nutrition Sept 2011]
    • Supplemental vitamin C (500 mg) taken by pregnant smokers has recently been found to decrease newborn wheezing (asthma) through the 1st year of life in infants. [Journal American Medical Assn May 28, 2014]

    Diabetics typically have low vitamin C levels.  An estimated 25.8 million Americans have diabetes.  [NIH Facts About Diabetes]  Should they take vitamin C supplements?  Some studies say yes.

    • A study of 170 diabetic patients given 266.7 milligrams of vitamin C per day for three months remarkably showed that this antioxidant vitamin raised blood levels of glutathione and superoxide dismutase, the very internal enzymatic antioxidants said to be activated by mild biological stressors in a hormesis effect.  [Global Journal Health Science Marcy 2013]
    • Seventy diabetic patients who were taking the anti-diabetic drug metformin had 500 mg of vitamin C added to their regimens twice a day (1000 mg total/day) and this reversed the decline in vitamin C levels and reduced fasting glucose and long-term blood sugar levels (Hemoglobin A1c) than metformin alone.  [Advances Pharmacological Science Dec 2011] One wonders why vitamin C supplements aren’t a staple among diabetics.

    Let’s solely review some of the recently published studies involving antioxidant supplements:

    • For example, two grams of vitamin C (2000 mg) provided to patients with gall bladder problems halted the first step in the crystallization of gallstones. [Review Medicine Chile Jan 2014]
    • Preterm premature rupture of membranes (PPROM) threaten the pregnancy. In one study of pregnant women the provision of 100 mg of vitamin C per day reduced the risk for PPROM from 44.7% to 31.8%.  Premature rupture of membranes (PROM) occurred in 18.8% of women given 100 mg vitamin C/day versus 34.1% for women who did not take supplemental vitamin C.  [Iran Red Crescent Medical Journal Feb 2013]
    • While in one study vitamin E supplements were not found to have a beneficial effect upon men age 65-70 years of age, for subjects age 71 or older vitamin E supplementation reduced mortality by 24%.  [Age Ageing March 2011]
    • Among 20,649 men and women aged 40-79 years, the subjects with the higher plasma vitamin C concentrations had a 42% lower risk of experiencing a stroke than those whose vitamin C blood concentrations were lowest.  [American Journal Clinical Nutrition Jan 2008]

    But a leading dietician predictably advises “the best way to get antioxidants is from a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables.”  This mindless antioxidants-from-foods-only mantra has been going on for decades.  [Daily Mail UK May 26, 2014]

    But the National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute’s 5-Servings-A-Day plant food diet failed to reduce mortality.  [British Medical Journal April 8, 2010]

    Bottom line advice

    Bottom line, Dr. Hekimi’s message gets lost here because he is so hell-bent against antioxidant supplements.  Dietary supplement advocates had better get past their knee-jerk reaction to Dr. Hekimi and learn that nature provides a broad number of molecules that can activate the body’s internal antioxidant system.

    No, humans don’t have to be exposed to low doses of herbicides to live longer, they can consume Nrf2-activating molecules from green tea, turmeric spice and red wine or wine pills that will do the same.  The beneficial effect only works in modest doses.  Consumption of 500 milligram curcumin tablets or 1000 milligram resveratrol pills may negate the proposed beneficial effect.  Self-induced biological stress must be mild.  Maybe when that fact is realized everybody will be living into the tenth decade of life.  That will perplex the population control planners.  ©2014 Bill Sardi, Knowledge of Health, Inc.

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