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February 2004 Issue
Which antioxidant supplements should we take?
by Michael Fick
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Our bodies run on chemistry. We take in chemicals through our mouth, nose, and skin, break them down into simpler chemicals, transport those to wherever the body demands, then combine/burn/combust/oxidize them in every cell to create energy and more chemicals. This oxidation process is facilitated by and produces highly active versions (free radicals) of otherwise ordinary atoms and molecules. The results of all this chemical activity include everything our bodies need and do, such as raising an arm, hearing a sound, thinking up E=MC**2, building bone, and carrying out our internal garbage.

Ideally these processes operate in balance to produce a lean, mean, clean, long-living machine with minimal waste. In reality, however, we ingest pollutants, we eat oversized portions and wrong proportions of wrong foods, and many of our body’s daily billions of chemical conversions go wrong go wrong go wrong. The result is excess free radicals in every cell of our body. They keep oxidizing and oxidizing and oxidizing, like Energizer bunnies in a power blackout, until they burn themselves out oxidizing the scenery. This wreaks slow, molecular havoc on the cells’ genetic blueprints (DNA), and over decades the corrupt DNA propagates and accumulates its genetic damage into growing numbers of corrupt replacement cells. The results include aging, most cancers, cardiovascular disease, blindness, dementia, and many other problems.

We have at least four general preventative lines of defense against the excess free radicals: we can block some from entry, reduce their production inside our bodies, neutralize them, and pray we have genes which will help resist them. We cannot yet determine our genes, but we can significantly fortify the first three defenses.

First, try to block existing free radicals from entering your body. Avoid anything deep fried, especially in used or rancid oils (you don’t want fries with that), cigarette smoke, urban pollution – especially exercising in urban pollution, food blackened in a pan or on the grille (where it’s subjected to excess, oxidizing heat), and lawn and garage chemicals.

Reduce free radical production in your body by avoiding the types of “food” which generate free radicals, such as sat-fat-laden sludge such as bacon, ribs, chicken skin, butter, ice cream, whole milk, cheese and many others (read labels). Far more dangerous are trans-fat-laden (avoid “partially hydrogenated”, and watch for the upcoming trans fat category, in food labels), manufactured, commercial food substitutes like donuts, cookies, chips and margarine. Go cold turkey -- consciously scorn it at work and don’t bring it into your home -- and you’ll never miss it. Some rabidly obsessed vegetarians may get less sat fat than they need, but the other 99.999% of us get too much. Read http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/reviews/transfats.html and you’ll never want another Oreo cookie.

The nutrients which neutralize the excess free radical oxidants we ingest or create are, by definition, antioxidants. Every type of brightly colored plant contains its own unique cocktail of hundreds of phytochemicals (which include antioxidants), and most bodily organs and systems hoard their own unique blend of antioxidants, such as vitamin A in healthy eyes. People who eat adequate amounts and varieties of high-antioxidants fruits and vegetables have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, cataracts, dementia, and many other dread diseases. No one doubts that adequate antioxidants help us live healthier, longer lives.

And because America’s way of treating health problems is shoving pills into our bodies in the hopes they will kill what ails us before what ails us kills us, antioxidant supplements are sold on every corner of the web and the mall. (“If healthy eyes contain vitamin A, isn’t more better?”) Moderate amounts of antioxidant supplements such as vitamin A, C, and E are no-brainers, especially since vitamin C tablets are widely known to help prevent and/or cure many diseases from colds to cancer. Dick Clark eats antioxidants by the pound and doesn’t look a day over 74 under his makeup.

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