Antioxidant Supplements vs. Antioxidants from Food
Imagine that you walk into a supplement store where you are immediately greeted by an employee who says, “Welcome. We have just the thing for you!”
The employee starts grabbing bottles of vitamins and minerals, going on about how when you work out, your body produces copious amounts of free radicals that damage your body and how these antioxidants can help protect against that. Like everyone, you want to protect your body. But are these antioxidant supplements the most effective way to do that?
Reactive Oxygen Species and Their Purpose
With tons of reactions occurring every second in order for our bodies to function correctly, the human body is one of the most complex machines around.
One of these reactions is called an oxidation-reduction (redox) reaction, which is when a chemical reaction occurs that changes the number of electrons in an atom.
If you are still thinking, “What does that even mean?,” you’re not alone. Let’s unpack that.
Oxygen is essential for vital reactions to occur within the body. However, if the oxygen that is taken in by the body is not completely reduced through this redox reaction, it creates a byproduct known as reactive oxygen species (ROS). Keep in mind that all the production of ROS is a normal product of this metabolism pathway, especially during exercise when ROS are being produced in our muscle.
There are two types of ROS: free radicals and non-radical derivatives. ROS serve many purposes. They activate certain DNA repair pathways, are involved in signaling immune responses throughout the body and play a role in drug detoxification. On the other hand, free radicals have the ability to start a chain reaction that produce many more free radicals.
When the body is bombarded with this overwhelming number of free radicals, it is known as oxidative stress and can affect the function of our bodies cell membranes, damage DNA and induce excessive inflammation.
However, our body has this amazing ability to fight off these free radicals and not reach the point of oxidative stress.
What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are our bodies’ defense mechanism to assist in protecting our body against the damage that free radicals can cause. The antioxidants that our bodies produce naturally are called non-enzymatic antioxidant and enzymatic antioxidants. The very existence of these antioxidants reinforce the point that the production of ROS is completely natural.
There are also the more commonly-known antioxidants that are provided through our dietary intake. The antioxidants that can be ingested are vitamin C, vitamin E, beta creatine, selenium, copper, zinc and magnesium. All of these are found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Now back to that supplement store employee who was handing you bottles of little pills.
If there is nothing else that you take away from this article, remember this: there is no strong evidence that antioxidant supplementation protects the body from the development of free radicals. In fact, there are studies that indicate the antioxidant supplements actually cause more harm than anything.
When you work out, your muscles tear a little in order for them to grow. When this tear happens, there is an amount of inflammation that needs to occur for the muscle to build back properly.
Antioxidants protect against inflammation and if your body has an excessive number of antioxidants vis a vis taking supplements, the signaling that occurs in the body to assist with repair and growth are hindered.
There have also been studies that found high dosage of vitamin E supplements increase the risk of stroke and the development of prostate cancer. Antioxidant supplements can also have adverse reactions with certain medication, therefore you should consult with your healthcare specialist if you decide to take supplements and prescribed medication.
The best way to get an adequate amount of antioxidants and not overwhelm the body with them is through a diet that incorporates a variety of foods from all food groups.
Taste the Rainbow!
The easiest way to ensure that you’re getting a variety of foods is to simply look down at your plate. What colors do you see? If you see just one or two colors, this may indicate there is not enough variety. When filling your plate with food think of the famous slogan, “taste the rainbow.” Different colored foods contain different nutrients.
Orange and red foods, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, contain carotenoids, more specifically, beta-carotene. This is very beneficial to the body, as beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A, which is important for a functional immune system, bone growth, and healthy vision. Have you ever seen a rabbit wearing glasses?
Blue and purple foods like blueberries contain flavonoids. These are important for blood flow and brain function.
And of course, green foods and leafy vegetables, which contain tons of beneficial vitamins and minerals. When it comes to antioxidants green leafy vegetables include beta-carotene, vitamin C, copper and manganese.
So before you start seeking out supplements, try filling your plate up with as many colors as you can.
So next time you walk into a supplement store and only to have vitamins and minerals foisted on you while they claim that this is the most efficient way to consume antioxidants, keep in mind that your body and your dietary intake of various foods will provide your body with exactly the right amount of antioxidants to promote your health and support your training.
There is no evidence that supports the idea that antioxidant supplements protect the body against the effects of free radicals. There is evidence, however, that indicates concentrated amounts of antioxidants can hinder necessary reactions that are needed to sustain a healthy and active body. Consuming a variety of food is the most desirable - and often easiest - way to get the nutrients your body needs.
If you are interested in learning about more specific studies, what free radicals are and oxidative stress is, please click HERE!
Samantha Mason is a Dietetic Intern and Graduate student at Western Carolina University (WCU). She also received her B.S. in Nutrition and Dietetics at WCU. Being located in Western North Carolina she has access to many hiking locations that fulfills her need for adventure.