Grocery shelves are full of products with labels bragging that they contain antioxidants and implying that you’re just a few bites (and a few bucks) away from better health. But it’s not that simple. More is not necessarily better when it comes to antioxidants. And research has found that how you consume them can make a big difference in your health. To help distinguish the myths from the truth, here’s a close look at the latest on antioxidants.
MYTH: Antioxidants are all vitamins.
TRUTH: There are thousands of antioxidants, but relatively few of them are vitamins. Some are minerals and others are enzymes, which are protein molecules that facilitate chemical reactions necessary for cells to function properly.
What antioxidants have in common is their ability to block the action of free radicals, those unstable chemical fragments that can wreak havoc on healthy components in your body’s cells. This damage can cause cells to grow and reproduce abnormally, part of a dangerous chain reaction. In time, that process is thought to play a role in chronic conditions including cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and eye diseases such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
Your body produces free radicals during exercise and when converting food into energy. And your body generates antioxidants to help stabilize them. Other factors — cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption and exposure to sunlight and such environmental contaminants as pesticides — trigger the production of more free radicals, which can potentially overwhelm your body’s natural defenses. Antioxidants in foods, especially fruits, vegetables and whole grains, can come to the rescue.
MYTH: All antioxidants are created equal.
TRUTH: Different antioxidants fight different free radicals, and they work well together. For example, Vitamin C recycles Vitamin E. Once a molecule of Vitamin E neutralizes a free radical, Vitamin C converts that molecule of E back to its antioxidant form, allowing it to combat more free radicals.
The synergistic effect among thousands of antioxidants is a major reason doctors, dietitians and other experts advise people to eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Even though scientists have yet to pinpoint all the ways those compounds protect against disease, many observational studies suggest that people who consume a greater amount of antioxidant-rich foods have a lower risk of certain diseases than people who don’t.
MYTH: Be sure to eat pomegranates, berries and other “super fruits.”
TRUTH: All fruits are “super.” Each type of fruit or vegetable has a unique combination of healthful compounds, including antioxidants. By eating only those billed as “super,” you shortchange your health by skipping those combinations of nutrients in other produce.
MYTH: You should amp up your intake with supplements.
TRUTH: Focus on food instead. Overall, clinical trials that have examined the disease-fighting capability of specific antioxidant nutrients in supplement form haven’t shown very promising results.
Talk with your physician about supplement use, because some studies have suggested that some can cause harm. Selenium supplements of 200 micrograms a day have been linked to a higher incidence of recurrence of non-melanoma skin cancers in people who previously suffered such a cancer.
MYTH: If some antioxidants are good, more are better.
TRUTH: Too much can be problematic, so beware of multi- and single-antioxidant capsules labeled “megadoses,” which contain more than the recommended daily values for antioxidants. Some evidence suggests that when taken in megadoses, antioxidants can become pro-oxidants, which increase the production of free radicals, especially in people who drink alcohol or smoke.
It’s much less likely that you’ll consume too many antioxidants from food. But eating one type of fruit or vegetable in excessive amounts can result in some odd, if harmless, effects. For example, consuming extremely large amounts of carrots or other vegetables rich in beta-carotene can result in orange-tinted skin.
MYTH: Packaged food with labels that promise antioxidant benefits will boost your health.
TRUTH: Antioxidant claims on packaged food don’t always mean a health benefit. Some food manufacturers add an antioxidant, such as Vitamin C or E, and then label the product as containing antioxidants, presumably in hopes of boosting sales.
Kellogg’s FiberPlus Antioxidants Dark Chocolate Almond bars, for example, have 20 percent of the daily value of Vitamin E and zinc. But they also contain seven grams of sugar and five grams of fat. You can avoid processed food and eat an ounce of dry-roasted almonds, which provides more Vitamin E, and three ounces of lean beef, which has more zinc.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin that can slow aging and help grow hair. Research has shown that vitamin E can soften the red blood cells, which increases circulation by improving blood flow. Vitamin E comes in eight forms. Four are tocopherols and four are tocotrienoils. Most Americans’ diet is rich in gamma-tocopherols while the Europeans’ is high in alpha tocopherols. Adding nuts to the diet is a great way to get more vitamin E, as nuts contain high amounts of this valuable nutrient.
Vitamin E for increasing blood flow
Cell membranes become less flexible as we get older. When the red blood cells become stiff, they have a difficulty time getting through the small capillaries. The smallest capillaries are usually too small for the red blood cells to pass through without flexing, so when they become stiff, they can’t get through at all. This causes a decrease in circulation to the extremities, and into the organs.
Within five days of adding vitamin E as gamma-tocopherols, the cell lining of the blood vessels improved as reported in the Journal of Nutrtitional Biochemistry. The study also demonstrated that vitamin E reduced a marker of oxidative stress called or MDA. In the study, men were given 500 mg of gamma-tocopherol, 60 mg of alpha-tocopherol, 170 mg of delta tocopherol, and nine mg of beta-tocopherol.
Vitamin E increases brain function
Those with Alzheimer’s disease had lower levers of vitamin E and also showed damage from lack of vitamin E. This was noted by tracing the markers alph-tocopherylquinone, and 5-nitro-gamma-tocopherol. The research concluded that a low level of vitamin E in the blood was a precursor to Alzheimer’s and dementia. This study used only alpha-tocopherol, while noting that using only this form of vitamin E could lead to increased stroke risk. Supplements with only this type of alph-tocopherol may prevent absorption or bioavailability of other forms of the nutrient. The authors of the study suggest a balance of vitamin E forms to protect the nervous system.
Regrow hair with vitamin E
Vitamin E can also help regrow hair after hair loss. The nutrient stimulates the growth of capillaries on the scalp. Vitamin E capsules can be applied to the scalp or taken as supplements. To grow hair, it’s best to apply topically and take vitamin E internally. Good effects will also be seen on the skin from adding this fat soluble nutrient.
Vitamin E helps treat diabetes
Using 1,800 IE of vitamin E per day, diabetic patients showed improvement in both their kidney function and retinal blood flow. The use of vitamin E prevented diabetic neuropathy in those with Type I diabetes. The nutrient has no effect on blood sugar level, making it a good treatment for hyperglycemia.
Food sources of vitamin E
Vitamin E can be found in many foods. Eggs raised naturally are a good source, as are nuts. Sunflower seeds are a great source of vitamin E, containing over 36 mg per 100 grams. Almonds contain 26 mg per 100 grams, and pine nuts have nine grams. Olives add 3.8 grams per 1,000 grams, which is about the same as spinach. Add a little bit of paprika or red chili powder to increase the vitamin E content. Both spices have 30 mg per 100 gram serving, which is a bit more than two milligrams per teaspoon.
About the author:
Talya Dagan is a health advocate and health coach, trained in nutrition and gourmet health food cuisine, writing about natural remedies for disease and nutrition and herbal medicine.