Are Antioxidants Overrated?

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Scientists often wax lyrical about the virtues of antioxidants as an integral part of our diet, but recent research suggests that there may just be a little more to the story.

Exposure to environmental toxins, energy production, metabolism, exercise and inflammation can cause oxidative molecules called “free radicals” to proliferate in the human body.

Free radicals, by definition, are molecules that are missing at least one electron. As a means of completing their structure, free radicals attack other molecules in the human body.

Taking an electron from another molecule perpetuates the cycle as the attacked molecule itself becomes a free radical. The proliferating free radicals damage the cells and DNA in the human body, causing aging and the onset of diseases.

On the other hand, there are also molecules that inhibit the oxidation of other molecules. They do so by sacrificing their own electrons to the free radicals, without becoming free radicals in their own right. These molecules are called “antioxidants.”

While the body naturally produces some antioxidants, its capacity to circulate them declines with age. That explains why so many scientists believe diets that are high in antioxidants could be the key to longevity.

Antioxidants and Paleo Living

The process of free radical production is nothing new. It was just as much a part of Paleolithic life as it is today, even if cavemen were oblivious to it.

Those who today extol the virtues of antioxidants in controlling free radicals are quick to point to the absence of modern ailments like cancer and heart disease in the Stone Age. What differed, of course, was the type of foods available before farming was introduced.

That’s why many experts support following the Paleo Diet. One of its most beneficial aspects is the inherent abundance of antioxidants. According to scholars such as Dr. Boyd Eaton, Paleolithic man’s diet may have contained 4.5 times more antioxidants than the diet of modern man. That’s primarily because it was made up of 50% fruits and vegetables, while ours contains just 13%.

Not a Magic Bullet

Of course, the excitement over antioxidants had to be challenged by the scientific community. And now there is some compelling evidence that antioxidants may not be as effective in the war against aging and disease as first thought.

A case in point is a 2013 study undertaken by Professor Enrique Amaya and his team at the University of Manchester. In observing the regeneration of tails among tadpoles, Professor Amaya discovered that antioxidants actually had a negative impact on tissue re-growth.

“We are often told that antioxidants should be beneficial to health,” the professor remarked. “Our findings and those of others are leading to a reversal in our thinking about the relative beneficial versus harmful effects that oxidants and antioxidants may have on human health.”

Among those “others” referred to is Nobel Prize winner James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. His recent research has suggested that antioxidants could actually be harmful to people who are in the later stages of cancer.

So it appears that antioxidants are not a magic bullet after all. Instead of being “the answer” for aging and disease, they are just a part of it, and our best course is to consume them in their natural form as our cavemen ancestors did and look for the same benefits.

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