Anti-Oxidants - Modern Answer to Modern Disease?
Anti-oxidants could one day be regarded as the wonder drugs' of the nineties. This is partly because they may offer the best hope around for the prevention and treatment of many diseases that afflict modern man. But secondly, and even more wonderful, they are not drugs at all: anti-oxidants are micro-nutrients which occur naturally in the body or are ingested as part of a healthy diet.
Free Radicals and Anti-oxidants.
The two go together like bacteria and antibiotics. The words have become familiar to anyone even vaguely interested in health or beauty, as they are just as likely to be seen on a jar of face cream as they are on a box of supplements. But what exactly are free radicals and anti-oxidants?
Simply put, free radicals are unwanted oxygen molecules which cannot find a home. But, like all radicals, they are also highly reactive, destructive and toxic, with nothing better to do than cause mischief. Antioxidants are free radical scavengers the posse that rounds up and neutralises the troublemakers.
Although free radicals are present in our environment - from atmospheric pollution, cigarette smoke etc. - they originate almost exclusively from sources within our bodies. They are a normal by-product of the normal oxygen-burning process that creates cellular energy, without which the body's cells could not function.
In ideal circumstances, only small numbers of free radicals would be produced and they would be mopped up by the body's in-built supply of antioxidants. However, the circumstances of modem living have upset this natural balance. A poor diet that reduces the body's anti-oxidant supply, coupled with excessive exposure to numerous chemicals, heavy metals, sunlight and atmospheric pollutants; inhalation of cigarette smoke; intensive physical exercise; severe or prolonged stress; acute and chronic viral and bacterial infections; severe allergic diseases and common degenerative diseases such as arthritis and diabetes - all lead to a dramatic increase in the internal production of free radicals (FR).
Their favourite targets are the master blueprint molecules of RNA/ DNA, and the fat cells in the cell wall. The free radicals bind these molecules together, thus preventing them from carrying out their normal work. In the case of P,1NA/DNA, this means the cells cannot reproduce properly, resulting in mutant or cancer cells.
Among the long list of diseases thought to be caused by free radicals are:
- Premature ageing, of the skin
- Cardiovascular disease
- Age-related pulmonary function impairment
- Cancers of many kinds, including lung and cervical cancer
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Pulmonary emphysema
- Chronic bronchitis
- Kidney disease
- M.E. (yuppie flu)
In other words, researchers think they have found the culprit responsible for many diseases which, until now, have had no identifiable root cause. And proof of this 'Free Radical Theory of Disease' is constantly growing as results of experiments and clinical trials come in from research centres around the world.
Fighting the FRS
Lifestyle factors that increase free radicals - cigarette smoking, prolonged exposure to sunlight, stress and prolonged intense exercise - should be limited as much as possible.
But, because the vast majority of free radicals are generated internally, the whole problem of how to deal with them comes down to nutrition and supplementation.
The two defence mechanisms naturally present in the body to combat free radical build-up are:
antioxidant enzymes - powerful hitmen, the best known of which is
- SOD: superoxide dismutase.
- Anti-oxidant nutrients - vitamins C and E, the vitamin A precursor betacarotene, and the mineral selenium. These four have been identified as critical components of the antioxidant defence system. Working sometimes alone but usually interactively and co-operatively, they neutralise free radicals all over the body.
In addition to these, other nutrients have been identified as playing important anti-oxidant roles. Coenzvme Q10 and germanium help to keep down production of FR, the omega-3 or -6 fatty acids, as found in fish, primrose and starflower oils, enable rapid repair of the cell walls.
Professor Harry Seftel, respected physician and well-known to many South Africans through his media presentations on cholesterol and heart disease, has dubbed our way of living the "Western Deathstyle". Fifty percent of deaths in westernised peoples are from cardiovascular disease; 30% from cancers, with lung, breast and colon cancers being the main culprits. A poor diet, together with cigarette smoking and a lack of exercise, has been conclusively shown to be a major causative factor in these diseases.
The healthy diet reduces the formation of FR because it contains tittle or no chemicals and is therefore more fully biodegradable, leaving few errant oxygen molecules to stir things up. The healthy diet also greatly boosts the body's own supply of anti-oxidant enzymes and nutrients.
However, many nutritionists and researchers feel that diet alone can no longer provide us with all the antioxidants we need. We have to help ourselves to a healthier state by supplementing. Many studies, well documented in the medical literature in the last 5~10 years, have shown that dietary- intake of the anti-oxidant nutrients - vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and selenium - is inversely related to the development of several types of cancer, cardiovascular disease, cataracts, and many other diseases.
But there are also medical practitioners who feel that this is is all a big con, that the end result of supplementation is no more than a hole in the pocket and some very expensive urine! Is supplementation, especially anti-oxidant supplementation, a big rip-off?
I asked this question recently of Dr Petrovic, a physician in Edenvale who has spent many years working on just this aspect of treating heart disease and, especially, ME. He has had some quite remarkable successes with his regime of special diet and antioxidant supplementation and is now and is now concentrating his practice solely on these aspects of treatment.
Like many of the specialists in the nutritional field of medicine, Dr Petrovic bristles when doubt is expressed about its benefits. "Why are people so unwilling to believe that nutrition holds the key to our health. It's an insult to the human race not to believe what has been proved by many researchers, on large numbers of patients: supplementing with antioxidant nutrients has an enormously beneficial impact on many diseases." It is interesting to note, from the abundant research material available, that the antioxidant vitamins appear to take it in turn to play leading roles. While the combined group is needed for the overall 'production', only one group member will have its name in lights. So, for example, vitamin C is the main star in cataract prevention; beta-carotene takes the lead against lung cancer; vitamin E shines in the battle with cardiovascular disease.
In the nutritional approach to the treatment of the immune-deficiency diseases, like AIDS and ME, a cocktail of nutrients is made up for each patient. As well as a combination of the antioxidants' nutrients, it could also contain anti-oxidant enzymes as well as those vitamins and minerals that boost the immune system.
The whole philosophy of using nutrition to prevent or treat disease is a fascinating one. Not because it is so radical but precisely because it is so commonplace. That old saying "You are what you eat" must, after all, have come from somewhere. Why are we all surprised when it turns out to be true?
Professor Anderson, Director of the Inflammation and Immunity Research Unit of the Medical Research Council, has done a great deal of research into antioxidants. Together with a group of highly respected specialists, he suggests that present recommended daily allowances (RDAS) of the anti-oxidant vitamins are inadequate to provide protection from free radicals. Below is a table showing current RDAs and those proposed by several distinguished scientists:
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A healthy diet is:
- Composed of:
- 30% fat - at least half should be from
- 10% protein - vegetables sources
- 60% carbohydrates - complex carbohydrate and starches
- High in dietary fibre
- High in unrefined and unprocessed foods
- Low in highly refined foods and chemical additives of all kinds
- One that sees you eating 5-8 servings of fresh fruit/vegetables each day
Not many of us manage to achieve this ideally healthy diet, but hopefully, we're all aiming for it. Just think: if our mothers had only started us on this way of eating when we were young, we'd be rivalling the old people of Tibet in longevity and health!