Can You Get Too Many Antioxidants?

New research on antioxidants suggests that we may be getting too much of a good thing.

Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.N,
February 22, 2011
Episode #128

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If you’re at all interested in nutrition, then you’re familiar with the terms antioxidant and free radical. Both are invoked frequently, and always in the same sort of way. We talk about the body as if it were some sort of Wild West shoot-out between the free radicals (in dark bandannas) and the antioxidants (wearing white). I myself frequently cite the potential damage caused by free radicals and the benefits of foods that are rich in antioxidants, such as vegetables.

But lately, there have been suggestions that this Shootout at OK Corral imagery may be an over-simplification—or even an outright mistake. Have we got it all wrong about free radicals and antioxidants? Are free radicals actually good for us? Can you get too many antioxidants?.

Do Free Radicals Cause Aging?

Free radicals, of course, are molecules with an unpaired electron, which makes them electrically unstable. In an effort to stabilize themselves, they recruit electrons from other molecules, which often creates more free radicals.  If it gets out of hand, this electron-robbing free-for-all can cause a lot of damage, disrupting cellular function and DNA.

Way back in the middle of the last century, a scientist named Denny Harmon first introduced the notion that free radicals were a primary cause of aging and disease—and that quelling these free radicals with antioxidants could help us live longer and keep us from getting sick.

Ever since, it’s as if we’ve been in some sort of race in which whoever consumes the most antioxidants wins--which explains why antioxidant supplements are a multi-billion dollar industry. Weirdly, however, it has turned out that taking all these supplements doesn’t actually make anyone any healthier.  In a few studies, people taking antioxidant supplements were actually worse off than those who didn’t.

Should You Take Antioxidants?

It appears that taking high dose antioxidants may reduce the benefit you get from exercise.

In the past couple of years, we’ve been learning that free radicals may actually have some benefits—and that overloading ourselves with antioxidants may be getting in the way of the body’s normal healthy way of functioning. For example, we know that vigorous exercise creates a lot of free radicals in the body. And because we’ve been taught that free radicals are harmful, many people reasoned that athletes should take high-dose antioxidants to counter-act the damaging effects of all those free radicals. But it turns out that this may do more damage than good.