Individual Antioxidants Aren’t Worth Taking

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
Where does your information go?

I am frequently interviewed by health writers. I entered their circles at my last job. Getting my name out is good for driving traffic to my website. I like to read about topics in nutrition and answer questions, but the content of the final article can be a surprise. Let’s see what happens to yesterday’s interview. Check back here for the final version in a few days.

And so, yesterday, I commented on the Cochrane Review of Antioxidant Supplements for Prevention of Mortality in Healthy Participants and Patients with Various Diseases – all 258 pages. The review is of all primary and secondary prevention randomized clinical trials to assess the beneficial and harmful effects the popular anti-oxidant supplements, beta carotene, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium, verses placebo and no intervention. Antioxidants are compounds in plant foods that neutralize the byproducts of normal biochemical reactions. Those processes create unstable molecules (‘free radicals’) that, if left unchecked, can damage cells and, presumably, create disease.

Cut to the Chase

The review concluded that none of the supplements helped, and beta-carotene, vitamin E and vitamin A are potentially harmful. That didn’t surprise me because antioxidant research is in its infancy, and those popular supplements are only five of literally thousands and thousands of nutrients and phytochemicals (nutrients that are neither vitamins nor minerals) with antioxidant action. For instance, beta-carotene is one of more than 600 known carotenoids. Furthermore, some compounds have anti-oxidant activity in the lab but not in the body.

But the writer wanted to know if there is ever a particular situation in which an individual should consider taking one of the supplements in the review paper.  Err, no, the review said that taking individual antioxidants doesn’t work and is sometimes harmful. I recommend those antioxidants only as part of a multi-vitamin-mineral supplement with a full compliment of nutrients. I take such a supplement that does not exceed 100% of the DRI and goes nowhere near the tolerable upper intake level (UL) for any nutrient. And, yes, individuals should take a supplement at times when ‘oxidative stress’ is high. I’m thinking about extreme physical stress (e.g. training for an endurance event, working long hours in manual labor, inability to escape insufferable weather), or extreme emotional stress (e.g. painful divorce, incarceration, being fired), or during convalescence from an illness, accident or surgery, or when their usual diet is just plain crap. Those folks need a complete supplement, not a module, because nutrients work in synergy.

And so, my final answer is to eat a wholesome diet and skip the individual antioxidant supplements. Now, I’m waiting to see what actually shakes down.

Your thoughts, do you that nutritional supplements?