If you’re like most people, you’ve probably already heard or read about the importance of antioxidants in supporting good health. You may have also heard or read that supplementing your diet with antioxidants may be valuable tools for aging gracefully, but is it really a “fountain of youth?” Currently, there is no absolute clinical evidence that consuming more antioxidants will prolong the lifespan of humans. The reason for this may partly be that many people did not start taking antioxidant supplements until the late 1960’s. Many studies follow antioxidant users for about 5-20 years, which may or may not be enough time to see any significant addition to their lifespan. It can also be hard to separate the effects of antioxidant supplements from the intake of antioxidants naturally found in fruits and vegetables. However, while there is no clear-cut evidence for antioxidants prolonging lifespan in humans, there is indirect evidence that antioxidants (as part of a nutrition approach to diet) can increase our lifespan and more importantly, the quality of our health as we age.
For example, antioxidants given to mice that were pregnant had offspring who aged slower relative to mice that did not receive additional antioxidants. We also know that in humans, natural antioxidant defenses begin to decline significantly around the age of 28. This means that genetically, our bodies become less able to respond to oxidative damage as we age, and need additional help in combating that damage. Of particular importance is the brain. Fifty percent of the brain is made fat, and fats are very susceptible to being damaged. Many elderly people have deficiencies of multiple nutrients, which makes a good case for them to supplement their intake of antioxidants. It’s also important to note at this point that while aging may be inevitable, loss of brain function is not. According to neuroscientist B.T. Hyman, brain cell loss is not associated with normal aging. As a result, we can make an educated guess that continued healthy brain function is dependent on having enough antioxidant intake.
What exactly is oxidation, and why is it harmful? To answer this question, let’s look at an example of prolonging lifespan in an animal model. When animals are fed less food, they tend to live significantly longer. Could it be that more food intake is causing more damage inside the body, leading eventually to disease? Damaging molecules, also called free radicals, can be generated in a variety of ways, including smoking, natural and man-made radiation, pesticide exposure, ultraviolet light exposure, and air pollution. Fortunately, the body has several methods of regenerating antioxidants, but these come from a reserve, which may become depleted as we age and as we defend against more and more free radicals in our systems. After these reserves become depleted, tissue damage and aging speeds up. This is the main reason why we need to supplement our diets with antioxidants.
The four main antioxidants in the body are vitamins A, C and E, along with the protein-derived glutathione. While they provide a number of benefits to our health at a cellular level, we are continually learning more about their importance, especially as we age. For example, a recent Danish study found that a deficiency in the antioxidant beta-carotene (which is converted to vitamin A in our bodies) resulted in an almost two hundred percent higher rate of neurological and thinking problems. Similarly, a Swiss study found that people that had higher beta-carotene and vitamin C levels had better scores on memory and vocabulary tests.
It has been shown that elderly patients in a study that took vitamin E supplements had a 34% lower death rate. However, a recent study of past vitamin E supplementation studies showed no lower death rate; in fact it showed a slightly higher death rate. There are a number of reasons this may occur. First, vitamin E is a fragile antioxidant. A vitamin E capsule will go bad if left out of its bottle at room temperature for a few days. Even within its bottle, vitamin E may still lose potency at room temperature several months after opening the bottle. As a result, I recommend that you always keep vitamin E bottles in the refrigerator, whether they are opened or not. Second, vitamin E is one of the first antioxidants to “sacrifice” itself against a free radical. This means that the vitamin E is now oxidized itself. If there is not regeneration by the body of vitamin E back to its antioxidant form, it can unfortunately act as a “pro”-oxidant and possibly damage other molecules. Third, vitamin E thins the blood. If a person is also taking aspirin or a prescription blood thinner such as Coumadin along with supplemental vitamin E, they could end up having bleeding problems. Fourth, vitamin E comes in four major forms, but most capsules only contain the alpha-tocopherol form. Supplementing with only the alpha-tocopherol form may be detrimental to use as a supplement, since the body needs all forms of vitamin E: the other forms may find it hard to compete for absorption with the supplemented alpha-tocopherol.
The vitamin E death rate analysis found that only supplementation of 400 IU/day or greater increased the death rate, while 200 IU/day did not increase or decrease the death rate significantly. Until this new information regarding vitamin E supplementation is sorted out, I would suggest that you do not supplement with more than 200 IU/day of vitamin E unless otherwise directed by your doctor. I also recommend that when you do take vitamin E supplements, look for one that is a “mixed-tocopherol” supplement; that is, one that contains multiple forms of vitamin E. Besides vitamin E and vitamin A, most other antioxidants are safe to take in the amounts found in the health food stores and vitamin shops. If you would like additional information about antioxidants, you can e-mail Dr. Jensen in the Contact page, or call 1-800-390-5365.
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