|For the week of: 1/4/99
Question: "I hear a lot about anti-oxidants and get the feeling I should be taking them even though I'm a fairly healthy woman in my upper 40's. What are anti-oxidants and what do they do? I would appreciate any suggestions as to exactly what I should be taking, also. Thank you."
by Norman S. Cohen. M.D.
Why do our bodies deteriorate in so many ways with aging and what can we do about it? Scientists have been trying to answer these questions for years and the fact is, we are finally getting some good answers.
In the late 1960s two doctors proposed a theory which attempted to explain how and why many of the diseases normally associated with the aging process become initiated and are encouraged to progress. This theory has become to be know as the "free radical" basis for disease. These doctors were way ahead of their time. We know that much of what they proposed in this theory is true. We also know that there are certain very effective methods to deal with it.
Free radicals are minute chemical particles that are manufactured and released in our cells during normal cell function. In fact, they occur most commonly from the breakdown of one of the byproducts of the oxygen our cells use to stay alive. Free radicals cause injury to our cells. They can interfere with the lining of the cell, interfere with normal cell function, disrupt and even destroy the cell. Since are our bodies are made up of countless cells, excess free radical production can have a major impact on our vital organs and overall health.
If you have ever had too much to drink and have woken up with a hangover, you have felt the effects of serious free radical damage. Alcohol is a potent generator of free radicals. It also gets to the brain very readily. Another potent generator of free radicals is nicotine. This is why smoking is such an overwhelming health risk. If you compare a 50 year old smoker to a 50 year old non smoker, you will see a visible difference just in their appearance. Smokers often appear 10 to 20 years older than their chronological age and that is only on the surface! The effects on their internal organs, heart, lungs and vascular system are dramatic.
Another way that free radicals hurt us is by changing the harmful form of cholesterol, the so called LDL cholesterol. Free radicals help to cause a chemical change in this cholesterol molecule which changes it to its "oxidized" form. It is the oxidized form of the LDL cholesterol that gets consumed by certain immune system cells called macrophages. Though the process is much more complex than I have chosen to explain, these "cholesterol rich" macrophages team up with other molecules and calcium along the walls of blood vessels to form the plaque that blocks our arteries.
The entire process of free radical damage and generation of plaque due to the help of free radicals is often referred to as "oxidative stress". The term "anti-oxidant" refers to any substance that tends to neutralize or keep the free radical process in check. Our bodies certainly have safety systems that do just that but they need to be working at full capacity. For this they need certain vital nutrients. In addition, many vitamins and other important "nutritional supplements" are direct scavengers of free radicals. This means they neutralize free radicals and render them harmless before they have a chance to act in an adverse way.
It has long been argued that if a person eats a well balanced diet, there is no need for nutritional supplementation. However, that fact is that most Americans, though they eat well, do not eat properly. Many of the things we eat have little or no nutritional value and many people, despite never going hungry, do not get adequate nutrients from the foods they eat.
It would be cumbersome to try to give a description of the role that each and every vitamin and nutritional supplement plays in our health. The following is a short list and brief description of some of the more important supplements and anti-oxidants from which most people can derive benefit for prevention and for the improvement of certain conditions:
There many other supplements and foods such as soy protein , Pycnogenol, and Melatonin to name a few, that have potent anti-oxidant value. However for basic prevention a program that provides adequate amounts of the essential vitamins described above, along with Co Q 10 is a sensible practical approach to basic anti-oxidant supplementation.
For most people who are simply looking for prevention, the recommendation would be to take an excellent quality multivitamin and mineral supplement, 800 IU of natural vitamin E and 30 -50 mg of Co Q 10. Obviously, there are many other supplements which are not necessarily anti-oxidants that can be of benefit to certain individuals for prevention as well as specific conditions Examples would be calcium for women and saw palmetto for men over 40. Perhaps we can discuss some of these in the future.
One last comment. Make sure, as best you can, that you are buying pharmaceutical grade products. This means that there is much more quality control in these products and you can be reassured that you are getting what is represented on the label.
by Norman S. Cohen. M.D.