We are constantly bombarded with ads for antioxidants... so what's the deal there? How much of it is all hype? Are you wasting your money or is there a true life-extending and life-improving benefit in taking them?
I'll try to simply things without getting too much into the science. I'll also provide some practical recommendations and approaches.
Reactivate Oxygen Species (ROS)
What are they and why should we care about them?
Simply put, there are chemical molecules present in your body, and which are highly reactive: this means that they have a tendency to react with almost anything they touch, causing all sorts of damage to cellular membranes, proteins, lipids and even a cell's DNA (the code which tells the cell how to behave).
For example, it can change a cell's DNA to instruct it to trigger Apoptosis (suicide), which is linked to aging. On the opposite side of the spectrum, in can change a cell's DNA to have it reproduce uncontrollably, turning it into a cancerous cell.
So why do we have them then?
Believe it or not, ROS actually do have a reason to exit: they are produced naturally by our body and play important functions in things like cell signaling and homeostasis (maintain an optimal balance in your body): sometimes you need cells to "commit suicide" in order to replace them with new ones, that's normal behavior.
But if too many ROS are floating around, they go on a rampage, causing damage everywhere they go. In fact, ROS have been identified as main triggers for aging, cancer, atherosclerosis (increase in thickness of artery wall, increasing risk of stroke), and Alzheimer's (among others).
So a few ROS are helpful, and therefore naturally produced by our bodies, and too many are destructive...
So what causes ROS to rise dramatically?
A number of reasons, including:
- Exercise: believe or not, ROS are a natural by-product of ATP production - when the mitochondria (power plants) in your cells produce energy, they release ROS as a by-product. The more energy is being produced, the more ROS being churned out (so the harder/longer you exercise, the more ROS you're producing)
- High levels of blood glucose: in fact, that's a primary cause of the formation of plaque on arterial cell wall, eventually leading to cardiovascular disease (see http://ow.ly/wzYTE for further details)
- In fact, the typical Western Diet (packed with oxidized fat and sugar) is notorious for causing ROS (see http://ow.ly/wA22H for more details on that and how antioxidants partially countered it)
- Inflammation: this is not limited to inflammation caused by injuries or infections - inflammation can easily (and often is) caused by various types of foods ingested, such as gluten, corn, grains, soy, legumes and others...
- Stress: anything that stresses your body, whether physical (exercise) or psychological/emotional, will lead to an increase in ROS
- Exogenous factors: tobacco (first and second hand smoking), air quality (pollution), radiation, pesticides (buy organic!)
But doesn't our body have a defense mechanism to deal with ROS?
Sure it does, and they're called "antioxidants". Our bodies naturally produce antioxidants, and their main "raison d'etre" is to hunt for ROS and deactivate them.
But just like anything in life, our body can sometimes become overwhelmed: the number of ROS being produced outpaces the number of antioxidants being produced. It actually gets a little worse: you see when some ROS react with anything (proteins, enzymes, etc), they turn THEM into ROS! In a way, ROS are like zombies, one bite and YOU become an ROS.
So unless we can quickly recruit more "zombie fighters", the ROS will gradually overwhelm our entire body: but don't be alarmed! that's the natural aging process... Circle of life, so to speak...
So why worry about it then?
You don't have to... but if ROS causes aging (normal), then too much ROS cause accelerated aging and more diseases. So... if you can do something that prolongs your life and slows down aging, why wouldn't you do it?
Some will say: "human beings lived for thousands of years without worrying about such things". That may be true, but those human beings weren't expose to:
- Cross-bred wheat
- Refined grains and sugars
- Potentially: Genetically modified foods (virtually all wheat, corn, soy you eat today)
- Highly processed foods and drinks with a wide range of chemical additives
- Increase solar radiation (ozone hole)
- Greenhouse gases
- Recycled air (air-conditioned homes, offices, malls)
- EMF radiation (just imagine how much radiation there is in a modern office, where you're surrounded by WIFI and cellular signals, computers and screens, bluetooth, etc)
- Blue light: part of artificial light
- Stress from traffic, financial pressure, etc
ALL of these have been shown to dramatically increase ROS. So yes our body is designed to produce antioxidants to counter ROS, but not this many!
When ROS exceed antioxidants, our bodies are in a state called "Oxidative Stress". There are broadly 2 types of Oxidative Stress (OS) situations: short-term and long-term.
Short-term OS occurs (for example) after a heavy bout of exercise: it's a moderate imbalance which can eventually be rectified as the body produces more antioxidants.
Long-term OS occurs when several factors contribute to a tsunami of ROS, and where our bodies cannot produce antioxidants fast enough.
But before we get into what you can do about that, a word about exercise.
How exercise impacts ROS production and why it matters to us
As I mentioned earlier, ROS is a natural by-product of energy production in our cells: the more energy being produced, the more ROS being churned out.
Our bodies can deal with "moderate exercise", as the ROS being produced can be dealt with before it goes out of control (moderate Oxidative Stress).
But there are 2 scenarios to consider here which can tip us into long-term Oxidative Stress:
- Combine "moderate exercise" with any of the ROS-causing factors I mentioned above (say, processed foods for e.g.), and now you have multiple factors causing ROS to rise dramatically, potentially out of control
- "a lot of exercise" will churn out a lot more ROS as well. So those of us active in endurance sports (triathlon, ultra-running) or Crossfit-type exercise are certainly generating a lot more ROS than most people.
Does this mean we shouldn't exercise? or even that we shouldn't compete in triathlons or Crossfit competitions? Absolutely not, but we should be aware of what's happening to our bodies and take steps to minimize the damage and accelerated aging that comes along with it.
Oh and by the way, going back to that analogy of what human beings did for thousands of years: yes hunter/gatherers did have to occasionally sprint (run away from a lion), run long distances (chase a prey), or lift heavy things (build houses), but they certainly did not do this "5-6 days a week all year-round and earning a finisher's medal in the process!".
Ok, so now let's talk antioxidants. What exactly are they?
Let me make it clear from the beginning: this does NOT mean that you have to take supplements: good clean eating will provide more than sufficient antioxidants.
Of course, you can supplement from time to time when you know that ROS production is off the charts (see below for examples of such situations).
There are 2 groups of antioxidants our bodies naturally utilize to combat ROS:
- Group 1: Antioxidants which our bodies can synthesize internally (i.e. you do not need to obtain them from food or supplements)
- Group 2: Antioxidants which our bodies are not capable of synthesizing, and which can only be obtained from food or supplements.
Group 1 consists primarily of: Glutathione, Ubiquinol, Uric Acid, and Melatonin
Group 2 consists primarily of: Vitamin E, Vitamin C and Beta-carotene
(Note: you will note that I mentioned Melatonin as part of Group 1. Melatonin is your "sleep hormone". It's produced to get your body ready to sleep, and of course, as an antioxidant, it helps "repair" your body while you sleep. But guess what? Blue Light blocks your body's ability to secrete Melatonin. Blue light is emitted by many sources of artificial light but especially handheld devices, smartphones, tablets, computers, etc)
As molecules, antioxidants are tremendously powerful: they are continuously on a "search and destroy" mission on free radicals (ROS). In fact, they operate like a well-organized army, with several lines of defense:
1. First line of defense: as preventative antioxidants - stopping the formation of an ROS chain reaction (killing the first zombie)
2. Second line of defense: as scavengers / hunters of ROS
3. Third line of defense: as "repair" battalions, fixing damage caused by ROS
4. Fourth line of defense: adaptation - they learn from previous attacks, a "let those zombies try again this time" attitude
Ok fine, but you didn't answer my question: do I need to take antioxidants?
Let me try to simply it by going back to the 2 scenarios I talked about earlier:
Scenario 1: you're in Short-Term Oxidative Stress - moderate exercise, plenty of recovery, and limited exposure to all the external ROS-causing factors I talked about earlier.
Scenario 2: you're in Long-Term Oxidative Stress - any combination of: heavy exercise, not enough recovery, not enough sleep, any of the external factors mentioned above.
Who's in Scenario 1? To be perfectly honest? I don't think I know anyone who's in Scenario 1, because:
- Most of us are exposed to urban pollution
- Most of us are breathing recycled air
- Most of us are eating food that's either processed, covered in pesticides, or transported on planes and trucks
- Most of us are exposed to blue light for 16-18 hours a day
- Most of us are pretty stressed out most of the time
- Some of us are smokers
- Some of us are hard-charging athletes (triathletes, crossfitters)
So in my mind, most of us are in Scenario 2: Long-Term Oxidative Stress.
But hold on! Before you pack your bags and move to Nepal, there are some things you can do to counter the damage.
Recommendation 1: be aware of ROS-causing factors and try to limit them
Recommendation 2: obtain as many antioxidants from whole foods as possible
Recommendation 3: when required, obtain some Group 2 antioxidants from supplements
Recommendation 4: in extreme situations, obtain some Group 1 antioxidants
Recommendation 1: manage your exposure
- Limit your exposure to blue light: avoid fluorescent lights, minimize TV watching before bed, avoid smartphones and tablets in the evening, install filters on your computer screens (I use flu.x at work and at home), and if you want to take it to the limit, use blue-light blocking glasses
- Breath fresh air as often as possible: get out from the office frequently, use air filters and check them for mold
- Exercise moderately or give yourself the opportunity to recover if active in more demanding physical activities (endurance sports, Crossfit, etc)
- Use deep breathing exercises to manage stress levels throughout the day. Research other stress management tools and tips
- Of course, avoid processed foods and wash your vegetables well with water/vinegar to get rid of pesticides and pollutants
- If you can, get away from the city as often as possible to breath fresh clean air
Recommendation 2: eat real nutrient-dense food
I won't get into the massive topic of what nutrient-dense foods are and what you should be eating. Rather I'll focus on a list of foods with the highest content of Group 2 antioxidants (Vitamins C and E and beta-carotene):
- All types of berries (blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries)
- Citrus fruits (lemons, limes, oranges, etc)
- Bell peppers (especially red)
- Certain fruits (Prunes, Apples
- Tea (especially green and black tea)
- Onion and garlic
- Spices (cinnamon, turmeric, black cumin)
- Dark chocolate (at least 75% and no processed sugar)
- Beta-carotene rich foods: sweet potato, carrots, spinach)
Needless to say, try to obtain these from high quality sources, don't let nutrients leach into water (boiling) and keep things fresh.
Natural sources of Group 1 antioxidants:
- Ubiquinol is available in sufficient concentrations in beef, pork, tuna, chicken
Recommendation 3: Group 2 supplements
My preference is always to obtain all of your Group 2 antioxidants from food. However sometimes this may not be possible (travel, bad quality of produce, seasons, etc.).
Also sometimes, your Oxidative Stress may be higher than normal (back to back Crossfit workouts, an office full of coughing and sneezing co-workers, etc.). In such cases, it's fine to supplement with Group 2 antioxidant supplements:
- Vitamin C: make sure it's from natural sources. Note that "most" of the VitC supplements out there are synthetic and made from corn through a chemical process involving more than 20 steps!
- Vitamin E: remember, this is a fat soluble vitamin: you have to take it with fat-containing food in order for it to be absorbed. Also, keep it in the fridge
- Beta-carotene: again, shoot for natural sources
Recommendation 4: Group 1 supplements
I would rarely recommend taking Group 1 antioxidant supplements (Glutathione or Ubiquinol).
While they are tremendously beneficial, I would prefer to allow my body to naturally produce these powerful antioxidants on its own, and continue to adapt and produce more over time.
However, there are "unnatural" circumstances which the human body simply wasn't designed to deal with on a regular basis, and where a "helping hand" in the form of Glutathione and / or Ubiquinol may help.
- Extensive travel: exposure to solar radiation and EMF on planes, a wide range of bacteria and viruses, sleep disruption, etc.
- High volumes of exercise: heavy training for ultra-endurance events (ironman, ultra-marathons, etc), or insufficient recovery between high-stress exercise sessions (back to back Crossfit workouts), or the whole combination of traveling to a race (14-hour flight, sleeping in hotels, racing, ingesting processed sport nutrition, flying again, etc.)
In terms of supplements:
- Glutathione is available in capsule format as a supplement
- Ubiquinol is available in 2 forms: Coenzyme Q10 (precursor to Ubiquinol) or straight Ubiquinol. Studies have shown that as you age, you start losing your ability to convert CoQ10 into Ubiquinol. As a general rule of thumb, if you're above the age of 25, use Ubiquinol. For more info on that, read this.
So what how do I personally manage all that?
Perhaps using myself as an example can shed some light on a "practical" approach to adopting the recommendations (1-4) I included above. So here are some of the main things I do to minimize the damage from ROS, counteract accelerated aging, and protect my body from the world we live in today:
- I get out of the office every 30min for a walk outside (within reason)
- I spend 2min doing deep breathing exercises several times a day to keep stress (and related hormonal impact) under control (these are also very helpful when stuck in traffic or airport passport queues)
- I've installed f.lux on both my office and home computer
- I keep the brightness on my iphone a the lowest possible setting and avoid looking at it (and the ipad) before bed
- I keep my iphone in airplane mode when on the bed stand at night: avoid radiation so close to my head during the night
- I avoid all processed foods, period
- I avoid all genetically modified foods
- I avoid all refined grains and sugars (including sports nutrition)
- I avoid inflammation-causing foods (wheat/gluten, corn, soy)
- I keep my gut healthy with probiotic-rich foods (main defense against all sorts of infections)
- I make sure to frequently eat nutrient-dense foods, focusing primarily on vegetables, healthy fats, a bit of protein and less carbs
- As a triathlete, I train hard, but I'm also in tune with my body: I know exactly when it's recovered and ready for the next workout.
- I make sure I challenge all energy systems in my body: not to become a one-trick pony
- I make sure to include strength training
- On easy or non-training days: nothing, I get nutrients from real food
- During moderate training blocks: multivitamin, Cod liver oil, Vitamin C
- Occasionally Vitamin D (when I feel I'm not getting touch sun exposure)
- During very heavy training blocks/racing or heavy travel: Glutathione, Magnesium