Are Antioxidants Always Good For You?

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Can antioxidants actually be bad for you? Is there a downside to antioxidant supplementation? There are probably millions of articles, news items, blog posts etc.
, about consuming antioxidants, either in foods or in supplements.
Plus for a large number of products the sales pitch is that they are high in antioxidants, and will make you healthier and age more slowly.
It seems that if we just consume enough antioxidants that we will be super healthy plus aging will stop, or even reverse.
There is plenty of evidence that antioxidants are necessary.
Oxygen is both good and bad for us.
We need it to live, but due to its high level of reactivity, it can be quite damaging.
Antioxidants are involved in trying to keep the balance.
Reactive oxygen species, usually abbreviated to ROS, are highly reactive small molecules.
Often the term ROS is used for generically for all the compounds that can potentially cause oxidative damage.
There is overwhelming evidence that high levels of ROS are damaging.
ROS are involved in inflammatory responses and play a role in the development of a number of diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
They also are a major cause of the damage that occurs after a heart attack and stroke.
There is no doubt that a shortage of antioxidants leads to increased damage accumulating in the body and a higher likelihood of a shorter life.
Can antioxidants be too much of a good thing? Is there a negative consequence of having too much antioxidant power in the body? The answer is maybe.
Recently, there has been increasing evidence that some ROS under circumstances actually have several different positive roles in the body.
ROS are not always bad.
The cells and tissues of our body need to communicate with each other.
The body has evolved a wide range of signaling systems to be able to carry out all the processes of life and respond to whatever comes up.
In the last few years, it has been shown that ROS are involved in a number of cell signaling pathways.
For instance recent research (Nature 461:486-7, 2009) suggests that ROS may be important for certain precursor immune cells to mature and become fully functional immune cells.
Not enough ROS and our immune system may not function as well.
Could too much antioxidant power actually reduce the effectiveness of our immune systems? As another example, a study (Exp Eye Res in press; online July 25, 2009) showed that ROS play a role in healing of wounds in the cornea of the eye.
This is in agreement with other research that indicates that ROS may be involved in the control of increasing the number of some types of cells, such as occurs in healing a wound.
These studies, and others, suggest that the body uses ROS in certain circumstances and needs to have ROS at certain levels.
This leads to the theory that we also have an optimal level of antioxidants too.
This would keep the levels ROS in the right range, so they do as little as possible damage, as well as there being the right level to work in the signaling pathways.
Can you consume too many antioxidants? Eating a healthy varied diet, almost certainly not.
Taking large quantities of high strength antioxidant supplements, perhaps.
Be moderate.
Too high an intake of antioxidants may not be healthy.
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