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
4-minute read
Episode #128

Can You Get Too Many Antioxidants?

You see, it turns out that the production of free radicals in the body triggers the body’s own antioxidant defenses—and also helps the body adapt to the stress of exercise. That ability to adapt in turn enhances the effects and benefits of exercise.  Flooding the body with antioxidants, on the other hand, prevents that adaptation from occurring. It appears that taking high dose antioxidants may reduce the benefit you get from exercise. 

Other studies in nematodes, which are a type of worm, show that big doses of antioxidants actually shorten their lifespan. This is a little like that moment at the end of The Empire Strikes Back (SPOILER ALERT) when you find out that Darth Vader is actually Luke Skywalker’s father.  The mind reels.

Are Free Radicals Good for Us?

At the very least, it appears that in viewing free radicals as the enemy of health, we greatly over simplified the situation. And then, as we so often do, we over-reacted by taking huge amounts of antioxidants. It seems as if we have to learn this lesson again and again: Just because something is good doesn’t mean that more is necessarily better.

Instead of staging a Shootout at the OK Corral, I think we need to take a sort of Goldilocks approach, aiming for a healthy balance. Apparently, free radicals serve a helpful function in the body. So it’s not surprising that wholesome activities like exercising (and breathing) create them.  On the other hand,  too many free radicals can be damaging, which is why it’s a good idea to avoid second hand smoke, deep-fried foods, sunburns, and other things that create excessive exposure to free radicals.

Likewise, antioxidants serve a valuable function, so it’s not surprising that diets featuring antioxidant-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes are linked with good health and reduced disease. On the other hand, overwhelming the body with artificially concentrated doses of antioxidants appears to be of little benefit and may even be harmful.

As you know, I’m not a big fan of vitamin supplements. So this new take on free radicals doesn’t really change what I’ve been recommending all along. Spend your money on nutritious whole foods instead of supplements, stay active, avoid excessive stress, and keep your sense of humor. After all, as Barry Halliwell of the National University of Singapore points out, "You cannot live without [free radicals], nor should you wish to, but they will probably help to kill you in the end."

May The Force be with you!


Free Radicals and Life Span  (Discovery)
Free Radicals and Exercise (New York Times)