The Way of the Antioxidant

It always seemed so irresistibly simple. Oxidation = bad, therefore antioxidants = good. Free radicals(any atom or molecule that has a single unpaired electron in an outer shell, making it highly reactive and unstable) have long been seen as the “bad guys” going around our body and causing oxidative damage, by “stealing” electrons from other atoms, leading to aging and disease. This in turn can lead to a chain reaction with the atoms and molecules that had their electrons “stolen” from them becoming free radicals themselves, trying to steal electrons from other atoms.

In comes the police, uh, I mean the antioxidants to put a stop to this mayhem. Antioxidants protect the body’s tissues by donating their own electrons to the free radicals, neutralizing the threat. We actually produce our own antioxidants: glutathione peroxidase, and superoxide dismutase, among others. We also get antioxidants through our diet, such as vitamin C(ascorbic acid), vitamin E(actually a family of chemically similar fat-soluble vitamins), and beta-carotine(and other carotenoids), among so many others. Even the non-vitamin phytochemicals in many plant foods often have antioxidant effects(by definition, vitamins are absolutely essential for the body to function properly, while phytochemicals are not, though at least some of them are beneficial for health).

So taking large amounts of antioxidant supplements would obviously protect the body even more than getting smaller amounts from food, right? Wrong! Indeed, let’s look at the results of a study done on athletes who took antioxidant supplements, people whose muscles are under a great deal of oxidative stress during exercise.

Does antioxidant vitamin supplementation protect against muscle damage?
McGinley C, Shafat A, Donnelly AE.

Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland.


The high forces undergone during repetitive eccentric, or lengthening, contractions place skeletal muscle under considerable stress, in particular if unaccustomed. Although muscle is highly adaptive, the responses to stress may not be optimally regulated by the body. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are one component of the stress response that may contribute to muscle damage after eccentric exercise. Antioxidants may in turn scavenge ROS, thereby preventing or attenuating muscle damage. The antioxidant vitamins C (ascorbic acid) and E (tocopherol) are among the most commonly used sport supplements, and are often taken in large doses by athletes and other sportspersons because of their potential protective effect against muscle damage. This review assesses studies that have investigated the effects of these two antioxidants, alone or in combination, on muscle damage and oxidative stress. Studies have used a variety of supplementation strategies, with variations in dosage, timing and duration of supplementation. Although there is some evidence to show that both antioxidants can reduce indices of oxidative stress, there is little evidence to support a role for vitamin C and/or vitamin E in protecting against muscle damage. Indeed, antioxidant supplementation may actually interfere with the cellular signalling functions of ROS, thereby adversely affecting muscle performance. Furthermore, recent studies have cast doubt on the benign effects of long-term, high-dosage antioxidant supplementation. High doses of vitamin E, in particular, may increase all-cause mortality. Although some equivocation remains in the extant literature regarding the beneficial effects of antioxidant vitamin supplementation on muscle damage, there is little evidence to support such a role. Since the potential for long-term harm does exist, the casual use of high doses of antioxidants by athletes and others should perhaps be curtailed.

Okay, so they don’t prevent oxidative damage to muscles, but can vitamin C at least improve athletic performance?

Effect of vitamin C supplements on physical performance.

Braakhuis AJ.

US Olympic Committee, Sport Performance, Olympic Training Center, Chula Vista, CA 91915, USA.


Vitamin C is an essential component of the diet and may reduce the adverse effects of exercise-induced reactive oxygen species, including muscle damage, immune dysfunction, and fatigue. However, reactive oxygen species may mediate beneficial training adaptations that vitamin C attenuates; indeed, from a total of 12 studies, vitamin C in doses >1 g·d(-1) impaired sport performance substantially in four of four studies, possibly by reducing mitochondrial biogenesis, while a further four studies demonstrated impairments that were not statistically significant. Doses of ∼0.2 g·d(-1) of vitamin C consumed through five or more servings of fruit and vegetables may be sufficient to reduce oxidative stress and provide other health benefits without impairing training adaptations.

It appears that supplemental vitamin C impaired performance. The general idea here for why mega-doses of vitamin C and other antioxidant supplements are not protecting tissues or enhancing performance is that not all oxidation reactions are harmful; they are used in many metabolic reactions, for cell communications and are important for the immune system. So if you effectively shut down oxidation with a flood of antioxidants, you may be interfering with some important chemical reactions in your body, and doing more harm than good. Vitamin C isn’t just an antioxidant – it is needed for collagen production and immunity and not getting enough results in a serious deficiency disease called scurvy. Scurvy is very rare in the developed world, and only a small daily dose(60mg) of vitamin C is necessary to prevent it.

The best way to get antioxidants. Source: Wikipedia

The best way to get antioxidants. Source: Wikipedia

Okay, then maybe, just maybe a powerful antioxidant like beta-carotine can protect smokers, who are exposing themselves to a lot of oxidative damage through the act of smoking:

Beta-carotene in multivitamins and the possible risk of lung cancer among smokers versus former smokers: a meta-analysis and evaluation of national brands.


High-dose beta-carotene supplementation appears to increase the risk of lung cancer among current smokers. Although beta-carotene was prevalent in multivitamins, high-dose beta-carotene was observed among multivitamin formulas sold to promote visual health.

So far, it doesn’t look like antioxidant supplements are beneficial for anyone’s health. Beta-carotine, in particular, may even increase lung cancer risk in smokers.

This doesn’t mean that antioxidants are themselves bad for you. It just means you are better off getting them from food, where they may interact with other chemicals in the fruits and vegetables they naturally coincide with in a manner that makes them relatively harmless and likely beneficial.

Antioxidants do provide some protection, but that’s not the whole story. It’s long been thought that fruits and vegetables are beneficial largely due to their antioxidant content. This may still be true in part, but the phytochemicals in them may have other ways of protecting our health in ways science is still trying to figure out. Antioxidant content may be a proxy measure of protective phytochemical content, since many if not most phytochemicals tend to have antioxidant effects. Blueberries, with a very high antioxidant content and some possible brain-protecting effects, are a good example of this.

Good health means having a good balance between antioxidants and oxidation reactions, which taking large doses of antioxidant supplements interferes with.


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