Dr. Winni Loesch: Realizing the value of antioxidants
Most everyone who reads newspapers and magazines or tunes in to the radio and TV these days has heard something about antioxidants and how important they are for health.
There are an abundance of cosmetics, supplements and processed foods claiming to provide extra antioxidants to reduce the effects of aging on our bodies.
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association attacked the value of antioxidants including vitamins A, C, E and selenium. This seemed, to me, very off-center from a large body of other published scientific literature, which supports the benefits of antioxidants.
Subsequently, a critique of that study was published by Life Extension Foundation and pointed out shortcomings of the prior study. The hard work of critical review of published studies is something most of us don’t do, nor do we often have the expertise to do it. We leave it to the experts to banter back and forth and hope we are patterning our lives after what is truly best for us.
What are antioxidants?
Sometimes it is hard to understand exactly just what antioxidants are all about. Think of what happens to an apple when it is cut and exposed to the air. It turns brown – a consequence of free radical activity or oxidation. A much slower process also occurs with metal exposed to oxygen in the air; it rusts.
Take a good look at the face, neck and arms of old sailors or farmers and you can see the effects of free radical damage. There is deep wrinkling, decreased elasticity and dryness of the skin. When our skin is exposed to sunlight, increased oxidative stress (free radical buildup) occurs in the skin cells. Free radicals are “charged” molecules capable of causing cells to lose their normal structure and function.
Skin is what you can see. Similar damage from free radicals or unstable charged molecules occurs inside our bodies. Cell membranes and the genetic structure of DNA (which is the blueprint for the structure and function of all cells in our bodies) are traumatized. Proteins that are made by cells to do certain chemical reactions in our bodies may also be damaged by free radicals. When that happens, important and often delicate chemical processes can be altered – sometimes not enough to stop production but perhaps to slow it down.
How do they work?
Each cell has tiny powerhouse factories called Mitochondria. When we eat food, there is a long process of digestion that begins with chewing & swallowing. Food is mixed with acid in your stomach and further digested by enzymes from your pancreas and bile from the gallbladder. The good bacteria in our intestines have a vital role in digestion. From the intestines, nutrients are absorbed into the blood stream. Once digested food gets into the cells, it is further broken down into molecules, which are taken up by mitochondria and converted into energy!
We have to put gasoline (or electricity now) in our cars to make them run. All cells need ATP energy (adenosine triphosphate) to “run” and do the jobs they do. However, manufacturing ATP molecules is a dirty business that, in the long and short of it, also makes a lot of free radicals. So, mitochondria need lots of antioxidants to neutralize the free radicals so the energy factory can keep running smoothly.
We actually have many different kinds of antioxidants, also known as “the good guys,” that manage to stabilize free radicals that wreak havoc in mitochondrial factories (and elsewhere). Fatigue, especially chronic fatigue, can indicate that you might be running low on your antioxidant supply.
Is eating fresh produce enough?
Eating enough fresh produce antioxidants to stem the tide of free radicals can be challenging for folks with busy lives. Also, many of the fruits and vegetables that we eat have traveled far in time and space from when they were harvested, losing some nutrient value along the way. That’s why it can make sense to select high quality nutrient supplements (vitamins, minerals, etc.) that have been manufactured according to rigorous quality control standards, to complement a healthy diet.
You might not be getting enough antioxidants in your diet or supplements. Or you might have taxed your antioxidant supply dealing with free radicals from sunlight exposure or marathon training (exercise generates increased free radicals). If you smoke cigarettes – you are inhaling huge amounts of free radicals that attack your lungs, the lining of your blood vessels, your brain, eyes, skin, etc. You simply cannot eat enough antioxidants in your diet or as supplements to neutralize the vast number of free radicals that you choose to inhale every day. Air pollution is nothing next to that!
How can you know your antioxidant status? Like checking for anemia, certain blood tests can measure antioxidants. There is a non-invasive blue laser hand-scanning device that can provide a reading of your overall antioxidant score as part of your overall health assessment.
After all that is said and done, the old truths prevail… Eat your fruits and vegetables and don’t smoke.
Winni Loesch M. D., FASFP may be reached at Amethyst Medical Group, an integrative/ functional family medical group, at 123 Margaret Lane, Suite C2 in Grass Valley by calling ( 530) 2712331 or by fax ( 530) 271-2338.
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