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Antioxidants – Health Promoting & Disease Preventing

By Dr. Victor Gong, Medical Director of 75th St. & 126th St. Medical, Ocean Pines Medical & Doctors Weight Control & Wellness centers, Ocean City, MD.

Scientists all over the world are studying them. Millions of dollars are being spent on dozens of research projects to study their possible beneficial effects on the health of Americans. What are they? They are the buzzword of the 90's – antioxidant.

Compelling scientific evidence indicates that the three major antioxidant nutrients – Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Beta-carotene (as well as other carotenoids) play crucial roles in preventing or delaying the onset of major degenerative diseases of aging including heart disease, cataracts, and some forms of cancer. It has also been demonstrated that antioxidants may be beneficial in enhancing the immune system as well as aiding in the prevention and treatment of pulmonary as well as inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.

How Do Antioxidants Work?

The normal functions of the body result in cell damaging – molecules called "free radicals." Ultraviolet radiation from the sun, pesticides, tobacco smoke, car exhaust fumes, and other air pollutants can also lead to "free radical" formation. Free radicals can damage cells and tissues. Such damage may be one factor in the development of cancer and other chronic diseases. This is where antioxidants come in What Nutrients are Considered Antioxidants in the body and those from food and/or vitamin and mineral supplements, prevent some of this damage by squelching free radicals and rendering them inactive.

What Nutrients Are Considered Antioxidants?

Although Vitamins C and E and beta-carotene are the most well-known antioxidants, several minerals such as zinc, copper, selenium, and manganese have been referred to as the "antioxidant minerals" because of their presence in enzyme systems which protect against free radicals and oxygen damage. Researchers are also identifying an array of other promising nutrients they believe may also rid your body of the cell-damaging "free radicals." Among them are bioflavonoids and carotenoids (beta-carotene-like compounds) such as lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Synthetic antioxidants such as BHT, propylgallate, and potassium sorbate have also been shown to have antioxidant properties.

What's the Evidence?

Antioxidant Benefits in Cardiovascular Disease

There is considerable evidence that antioxidants may play protective roles in heart disease.

Two large-scale, well-publicized studies conducted by the Harvard Medical School have found a correlation between intakes of antioxidants and cardiovascular events. A group of approximately 350 male physicians with previously diagnosed heart disease who consumed beta-carotene supplements (25mg daily) reduced by about 50% the incidence of stroke, heart attack, or cardiovascular death.

In a study of female nurses, researchers found that women whose intake of Vitamin E was 100 I>U> or greater had a significantly lower rise of coronary heart disease. Additionally, those women who consumed at least 15-20 mgs of beta-carotene daily had a 22% lower risk of heart attack and a 40% lower risk of stroke. Overall, the risk went down with higher intakes of beta-c carotene and Vitamin E.

A more recent study of 46,000 men with no previous history of heart disease shows very similar findings. The men on long-term Vitamin E supplementation (two or more years) had a lower risk of coronary heart disease.

Antioxidants and Cataracts

On a daily basis, the human eye is exposed to ultraviolet light and other damaging influences. As a result, harmful free radicals form in the lens of the eye, and the actions of these free radicals is believed to play an important role in the development of cataracts – the third leading cause of blindness in the world.

Recent research links antioxidants to reduced risk of cataracts. Researchers at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tuft's University found the highest incidence of cataracts among people with the lowest Vitamin C intakes and lowest plasma Vitamin C levels. Increased incidence of cataracts was also correlated with low dietary intakes of beta-carotene and other carotenoids. In a Canadian study, cataract risk was compared between people taking Vitamin E and Vitamin C supplements and people taking no supplements. For Vitamin E, non-supplement users had a 2.5-fold greater risk of cataracts than supplement users. For Vitamin C, the unsupplemented group had a 4-fold greater risk.

Antioxidant Protection in Cancer

The role antioxidant vitamins play in the prevention of cancer has been researched throughout the world for well over a decade. Diets high in fruit and vegetables, and hence high in Vitamin C, beta-carotene, and other carotenoids, have been found to be associated with lower risk for cancers of the oral cavity, esophagus, stomach, colon, and lung. Studies, such as the recent large trial in Linxian, China, showed prevention of esophageal, stomach, and overall cancer rates with a daily supplement of beta-carotene, Vitamin E, and selenium. In an antioxidant-cancer prevention study done by the National Cancer Institute, Vitamin E supplements (50 I.U.) were shown to lower the incidence of prostate cancer by 34% and colorectal cancer by 16%.

Thus far, the evidence for Vitamin C, beta-carotene and other carotenoids in the prevention of cancer is quite strong. In contrast, the current evidence for Vitamin E, although promising, still requires further studies.

Conclusions

After reviewing the evidence on cancer, heart disease, and cataracts, most people would find it difficult not to come away with the impression that the evidence for a protective effect from antioxidant nutrients is considerable. Significant health benefits could be achieved simply by ensuring that all Americans consume ample amounts of the antioxidant nutrients and the fruits and vegetables that contain them. Unfortunately, most Americans don't eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables or antioxidants. According to a national survey:

  • 90% of Americans don't eat the recommended guideline of 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
  • 73% don't meet the recommended guideline for vegetables (3-5); 70% don't meet the recommended guideline for fruit (2-4).
  • 69% of men and 80% of women consume less than the U.S. RDA of Vitamin E.

Although promoting better eating habits among all Americans is essential, for those who may be unwilling or unable to make major changes in their diets, it is not possible to achieve optimal levels of antioxidants without the use of supplements. Supplements can narrow the nutritional gap between the amount of antioxidants found in the typical American diet and the higher levels needed for optimum protection against chronic diseases.

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