Let’s talk about getting healthy the “easy” way: antioxidant supplements.
All you need to do is pop a few pills every day, and the antioxidants will turn you into a healthy human being so you can live to be 100.
Because that’s how it works, right?
Well, not so fast.
The effect of antioxidant supplements, or vitamin pills if you prefer, have been studied with great care in several large-scale, long-term, peer-reviewed studies.
And the outcome isn’t pretty.
But most people have never heard about these studies and amazingly many medical doctors haven’t either.
That’s why we’ve read the scientific papers, and summarized their findings in this very post.
And if you rely on vitamin supplements for your health, or know anyone who does, you should definitely keep on reading.
But first of all…
What are antioxidants, and why does your body need them?
There’s a clear answer to this question: Antioxidants are a particular subset of nutrients that include vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene, lutein, and selenium among others.
Your body needs antioxidants in order to fight free radicals.
For those of you who want to have young, clear skin, it is important to know that free radicals are the major source of your skin’s aging process (according to the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging.)
But what are “free radicals”?
The Indian Journal of Experimental Biology provides a clear explanation.
Free radicals are molecules that have unpaired electrons as a result of their exposure to oxygen.
Due to this lack of electrons, free radicals become “outlaw bandits”.
They are constantly scavenging for electrons that they can steal from healthy cells in your body.
This leads to a chain reaction of healthy cells losing their electrons to other cells, which can lead to various diseases and accelerate your aging process.
So antioxidants prevent this chain reaction from occurring in the first place.
Antioxidants achieve this by giving the free radicals the electrons they’re demanding up front, so that they leave your healthy cells alone.
So how do free radicals make it into your body to begin with?
First, your body creates them as a byproduct when it uses oxygen to turn food into energy.
Second, free radicals can also enter your body through unhealthy food that you eat or pollution in the air that you breathe.
So the trick is to get rid of all the free radicals in your body, right?
Hold your horses.
Here’s an eye-opening fact about free radicals
Free radicals have gotten a bad rap as evil elements that cause harm to your body.
What folks fail to mention is that in the small amounts that your body produces them on its own, free radicals are actually very useful.
One major benefit of free radicals is their inclination to attack and kill harmful intruders like bacteria and cancer cells.
Additionally, a study published in The Journal of Physiology found that free radicals ensure that your heart beats with the correct force.
However, this applies only to the small amount of free radicals that your body produces if you’re eating a healthy diet and breathing unpolluted air.
If your diet isn’t great, or you spend a lot of time near a city, or if you frequently come into contact with any kind of smoke, or live in an area where it’s common for people to drive fossil-fuel-powered cars (that’s almost everywhere), then your body probably has more free radicals than is healthy for it.
A large amount of free radicals can lead to diseases through the chain reaction described above.
It’s all about the right balance.
So now that you know what free radicals are, what on earth are antioxidants?
Antioxidants: what you need to know
Antioxidants are vitamins and minerals that exist in certain foods.
Basically, anything that can donate electrons and help to neutralize free radicals is an antioxidant.
Antioxidants include thousands of different substances, but according to the Harvard School of Public Health, the antioxidants that people are most familiar with are vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene.
These substances act as electron donors to free radicals and protect your healthy cells from being attacked for their electrons, thereby serving as a defense system to your body.
This list will make it easy for you to maintain a healthy and natural everyday balance between antioxidants and free radicals in your body.
As important as antioxidants are, there is something REALLY important that you need to know abut them.
Here’s what people get wrong about antioxidants
So based on the above information, it’d be easy to conclude that popping a daily vitamin pill or pouring a bowl of vitamin-fortified cereal is beneficial for your body – including your skin – as many “detox” gurus recommend (read the surprising science behind detox in this post).
But here’s the catch.
Paul A. Offit, the chief of the infectious diseases division of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, offers a clear warning.
He warns that when you take a large amount of artificial antioxidants via vitamin pills or antioxidant supplements, you are tipping the balance between free radicals and antioxidants too much into the other direction.
Remember how we mentioned earlier that a certain amount of free radicals are useful and necessary for your immune system and heart function?
An onslaught of antioxidants can cause your body to struggle when attempting to kill harmful invaders such as bacteria.
Your immune system doesn’t just protect you from bacterial and viral infections. It also protects you against cancer cells.
Did you know that our bodies produce cancer cells (that is, cells that “act like zombies” by not dying when they’re supposed to) on a regular basis?
Usually, our immune systems do such a great job of getting rid of these abnormal cells that they don’t have a chance to stick around and turn into the disease we know as cancer.
Pretty awesome, right?
So now, here’s where it all comes together.
Here’s the research about antioxidant supplements that will surprise you
A massive, long-term study published in The Journal of Nutrition—it lasted for over 7 and a half years, and included over 13,000 adults—found something very interesting.
Women who took a daily pill of antioxidant supplements as found in most multivitamin pills (120 mg vitamin C, 30 mg vitamin E, 6 mg beta-carotene, 100 microg selenium, and 20 mg zinc) were more likely to develop skin cancer than a control placebo group that did not take these supplements.
What vitamin A and beta carotene supplements really do to you
The New England Journal of Medicine published a vitamin supplements research study including 18,314 adults who had an elevated risk of getting lung cancer due to a history of smoking and exposure to asbestos.
Two test groups were formed. One was given a placebo, and the other was given daily antioxidant supplements of vitamin A and beta carotene.
The antioxidant pills resulted in an outcome so worrisome that it caused the researchers conducting the study to stop it earlier than planned.
The researchers found that members in the group that took the daily antioxidant supplements were 46% more likely to die of lung cancer.
Not the kind of result you want from your vitamin supplements, right?
But keep reading. There’s more.
The surprising effect of alpha-tocopherol and beta carotene supplements
Another vitamin supplements study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute examined 29,133 male smokers who “were randomly assigned to receive [either a mixed antioxidant supplement] or a placebo daily for 5-8 years.”
This study also confirmed that members in the group that took antioxidant supplements were more likely to get cancer.
I know what you’re thinking: 29,000 people. Maybe still “too small” of a sample size, right?
Lets move on to the largest study that has ever been conducted on antioxidant supplements.
How vitamin E and beta-carotene supplements impact your health
In one of their groups that included 81,788 patients, the researchers found that there was no positive effect of taking vitamin E supplements.
But their findings regarding beta-carotene, which is included in most over-the-counter multivitamins, were downright alarming.
In another group that included 138,133 patients, the researchers found that taking beta-carotene supplements increases the risk of death to a “statistically significant” degree.
So you thought there were no more studies on antioxidant supplements?
We could even list more academic studies that have found similarly concerning long-term effects of vitamin supplements and cancer, but we think that by now, you got the point.
If you’re still curious, though, and want to read a summary of further major studies that were conducted on the effect of antioxidants on severe diseases, you can check out the fact sheet put together by the National Cancer Institute.
You will find that there is not even one major study that confirms a long-term health benefit of antioxidant pills or multivitamin supplements regarding disease prevention, or any benefit of taking antioxidant supplements during cancer therapy.
Wait, you’re thinking. Time out.
This sounds like seriously harmful stuff.
And the research can’t possibly be true, you’re thinking, because vitamin pills are sold all over the place.
It’d be against the law to sell an over-the-counter health-supplement that increases people’s chances of death, right?
In many countries, including the United States, the vitamin industry is virtually unregulated.
According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “Federal law does not require dietary supplements to be proven safe to FDA’s satisfaction before they are marketed.”
Furthermore, “For most claims made in the labeling of dietary supplements, the law does not require the manufacturer or seller to prove to FDA’s satisfaction that the claim is accurate or truthful before it appears on the product.”
Holy wah, you’re thinking.
This is disturbing.
So how come this is the first you’re hearing about the risks of multivitamins?
We can only speculate.
Profit is undoubtedly a factor, considering that vitamin supplements are a $27-billion industry in the United States alone.
But more broadly, many well-meaning people and health enthusiasts have simply accepted the conventional wisdom that vitamin supplements are inherently good for you, without taking the time to dive into the research studies.
Caught your breath?
Let’s dive back in; the story goes even further…
Think you’re safe from antioxidant supplements if you don’t take vitamin pills?
Better think again, because here it comes.
The safety concerns for antioxidant supplements also apply to foods including juices and breakfast cereals that have been artificially “fortified” or “enriched” with antioxidants. According to the Harvard School of Public Health:
“These mostly disappointing [research] results haven’t stopped food companies and supplement sellers from banking on antioxidants. Indeed, …[a]ntioxidants are still added to breakfast cereals, sports bars, energy drinks, and other processed foods, and they are promoted as additives that can prevent heart disease, cancer, cataracts, memory loss, and a host of other conditions.”
How can you know if the foods in your cupboard have been artificially “fortified” with antioxidant supplements?
The best way is to read the ingredients list. (You’ll find it above or below the Nutrition Facts pane on the back of each product).
If vitamins or minerals are listed as ingredients, this means that they have been artificially added.
But multivitamins and processed foods aren’t the only aspects of your daily routine that might contain artificial antioxidants.
Antioxidant supplements in skin care products
There are also implications for your skin care products.
One example is a synthetic form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate, also called retinol palmitate, which is found in many face creams and sunscreens.
According to the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology and the National Toxicology Program, retinyl palmitate can speed up the growth rate of cancer cells in your skin, and can also increase the number of tumors in your skin.
Make sure you double-check for synthetic antioxidants among the ingredients of your personal care products, as these are some of the things that we recommend you should never put on your face.
So in short, the next time someone tells you that you need to take antioxidant tablets for your health or to get younger-looking skin, refer them to these studies.
But there is a different side of antioxidants that we have not mentioned yet.
Should you avoid antioxidants altogether?
Even though the results from the studies sound like bad news, there is one very important point that needs to be made.
All the above studies examined the effect of antioxidants from artificial sources like over-the-counter vitamin supplements.
However, the impact of antioxidants is very different when your body gains it from natural sources.
The Cleveland Clinic examined the effect of antioxidants that are naturally occurring in food.
In their study of supplements vs food, the researchers found that natural antioxidants, as they appear in fruits and vegetables, do have a positive effect on your body, and should be consumed.
This was also confirmed by the Harvard School of Public Health, which concluded that antioxidants, when consumed in a natural form, can help to prevent a number of chronic illnesses.
This information is also further affirmed by the European Heart Journal, which published a study that included a sample of 313,074 men and women.
They discovered that participants who consumed at least 640g (four cups) of fruit and vegetables per day had a 22% lower risk of heart disease than those who did not.
The moral of the story: when it’s between vitamin supplements vs fruits and vegetables, the latter clearly win.
Instead, the best way to give your body the nutrients it needs is to load up on a variety of antioxidant foods: plenty of fresh fruit and veggies.
Easier said that done, you might say. There are a lot of fruits and veggies, and not all of them are significant sources of antioxidants.
How do you know which ones to choose?
In true Sunshine Organics form, we want to make it easy for you, so we began by researching antioxidant rich foods among different fruits and vegetables.
Then, we prepared a list for you of the food that is rich in these components.
You can download it, print it out, and stick it on the refrigerator for the next time you make your shopping list.
Eating a rich variety of these high antioxidant foods will keep your body supplied with important nutrients.
Now we’d like to leave you with a final thought.
Don’t forget about other factors besides antioxidants that impact your health
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, it is really important for your health to eat lots of antioxidant fruits and vegetables because it reduces the risk of getting several diseases.
However, it is not entirely clear that the health benefits of fresh produce is definitely related to the amount of antioxidants in these foods.
It’s possible that it might be due to other components, or even to a combination of factors.
For example, we know that fiber in fresh fruits and vegetables is important.
Also, people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables may also be less likely to smoke or drink alcohol on a regular basis, and more likely to engage in moderate exercise and adopt mental habits that keep stress away.
So in summary: YES, definitely, pile up on the fruits and vegetables! It’s one of the most important things you can do for your health, and your body will love you for it.
At the same time, while you should be sure to include antioxidant-rich foods in your diet, resist the temptation to binge on any one “superfood”.
To give your body the full spectrum of nutrients it needs, it’s best to eat a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
And more broadly, it’s important to also align other aspects of your lifestyle with your health goals.
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So, you’ve learned what antioxidant supplements really do.
Don’t forget to share this post with the regular multivitamin users out there. Most people have never heard of the studies described here, and we need to spread the word.
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And if you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy reading about what the science says about how much water you really should be drinking for a healthy body and whether it really makes you look younger (you’ll be surprised).
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