Antioxidant Balance

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.

Antioxidant Balance


A few days ago, I received this question via email from Dagmar in Germany…


“I am looking for the best antioxidants produkt. Hope, you can help me?”


Here is my reply…


Guten tag Dagmar,


Thanks for your question about antioxidants – When it comes to antioxidant nutrients, it is hard to define a “best” antioxidant because different antioxidants are most effective against different free radicals (the reactive molecules that cause cellular damage).


Before I get into a discussion of specific antioxidant nutrients, let me give you a brief overview of what antioxidants are and why our bodies need them in the right amounts and in the right balance.


What are Antioxidants and Free Radicals?

The term “antioxidant” refers to the activity possessed by numerous vitamins, minerals and other phytochemicals to serve as protection against the damaging effects of highly reactive molecules known as free radicals. Free radicals have the ability to chemically react with, and damage, many structures in the body. Particularly susceptible to oxidative damage are the cell membranes of virtually all cells, especially the skin because of its high lipid content and its proximity to ultraviolet rays from the sun.


The free radical theory of aging (and disease) holds that through a gradual accumulation of microscopic damage to our cell membranes, DNA, tissue structures and enzyme systems, we begin to lose function and are predisposed to disease. In certain cases – such as athletes, people who are outside a lot, smokers, and people who live in areas with high air pollution – oxidative damage may be elevated due to increased production of free radicals during intense activity. Although the body increases its production of its own internal (endogenous) antioxidant enzymes (glutathione peroxidase, catalase, superoxide dismutase), it may be theorized that supplemental levels of dietary (exogenous) antioxidants may be warranted to prevent excessive oxidative damage to muscles, mitochondria and other tissues.



Thousands of studies have clearly documented the beneficial effects of dozens of antioxidant nutrients. Increased dietary intake of antioxidant nutrients, such as vitamins C and E, minerals such as selenium and various phytonutrients such as acai, grape seed, pine bark and green tea have all been linked to reduced rates of oxidative damage as well as reduced incidence of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. There is certainly no shortage of nutrients and phytochemicals that possess significant antioxidant activity in the test tube. These test tube measurements of antioxidant potential are often termed “ORAC” measures, which refers to the oxygen radical absorbance capacity. ORAC assays measure the ability of an isolated nutrient to slow the degeneration of a synthetic fluorescent molecule in a test tube – it has no bearing whatsoever on the actual antioxidant benefits of the nutrient in a living system. For example, you could have a compound with very high ORAC values (in the test tube) and very low antioxidant benefits in a human body – likewise, a nutrient with a “moderate” ORAC score could have profound protective abilities in the body. These differences between the test tube and the human body can be due to a range of factors including the stability of the nutrient, to it’s digestibility and absorbability, to it’s transport and delivery to target tissues in the body, and to a host of related factors. Your body is not a test tube, and because no health benefit has ever been associated with ORAC, basing your choice of foods or supplements using claims of ORAC scores is misguided to say the least. As a nutritionist, I prefer to base my recommendations about antioxidant nutrition on actual health benefits observed in human feeding trials – rather than on spurious test tube results that have little bearing on actual human experiences.


At the typically recommended levels, the majority of antioxidants appear to be quite safe. For example, vitamin E, one of the most powerful membrane bound antioxidants also has one of the best safety profiles. Doses of 30-100IU of natural vitamin E have been linked to significant cardiovascular benefits with no side effects – BUT studies have also linked higher doses of isolated synthetic vitamin E (400-1,000IU) to worse cardiovascular health – indicating a potential for mega-doses of certain antioxidants to cause oxidation by displacing other beneficial nutrients (vitamin E is actually a “family” of 8 different isomers or types – and our body needs them all). Vitamin C, another powerful antioxidant, can help to protect and restore the antioxidant activity of vitamin E, and is considered safe up to doses of 500-1,000mg. Like vitamin E, higher doses of vitamin C are not recommended because of concerns that such levels may cause an “unbalancing” of the oxidative systems and actually promote oxidative damage instead of preventing it. Another popular antioxidant, beta-carotene, is somewhat controversial as a dietary supplement. Although diets high in fruits and vegetables might deliver approximately 10mg of carotenes daily, these would be a mixture of beta-carotene and other naturally occurring carotenoids. Concern was raised several years ago by studies in which high dose beta-carotene supplements appeared to promote lung cancer in heavy smokers. Those studies provided unbalanced synthetic beta-carotene supplements of 30-60mg – about 5-10 times the levels that could reasonably be expected in the diet. The moral of the story when it comes to antioxidant nutrition is what I like to call the “Goldilocks” scenario – where both “too little” and “too much” can be unhealthy, but “just right” in terms of amount and balance is associated with optimal health and well-being.


What to Look for in an Antioxidant Supplement?

Keep in mind from above, that antioxidant nutrients are important for controlling the activity of the highly-reactive oxygen molecules known as free radicals because unchecked free radical activity is what leads to the cellular damage known as “oxidation” and the cycle of glycation and inflammation that follows with additional damage and dysfunction. When it comes to antioxidant supplementation, however, it is the overall collection of several antioxidants that is important , rather than any single “super” antioxidant. This is what scientists call the “Antioxidant Network” – that network being made up of 5 major classes of antioxidants: Vitamin E (family), Vitamin C (family), Carotenoids, Bioflavonoids, and Thiols – and your cells need representatives from each and every one of these categories in order to mount the strongest antioxidant defense.


Think of it this way – if your baseball team had the best home run hitter in the world, but poor pitching and fielding, then your baseball team would not be the best team. The same thing applies when it comes to your antioxidant defenses – green tea, or acai, or vitamin E, or pine bark, or beta-carotene, and lots of other nutrients are all wonderful antioxidants on their own – but combining them to create a network that works together in different parts of the body and against different types of free radicals is the most effective way to go. Some of the top picks are: acai, beta-carotene (natural), lycopene, lutein, vitamin E (natural), vitamin C, alpha-lipoic acid, green tea, selenium, zinc, grape seed extract, and pine bark extract – but there are many many other choices of nutrients and herbal extracts and plant extracts that possess wonderful antioxidant properties.


We see many marketing claims about certain antioxidant nutrients as the “best” or “most powerful” antioxidant (usually based on ORAC test tube measures) – BUT I prefer to see antioxidant products include at least one member of each of the main categories within the Antioxidant Network.


The Antioxidant Network is the “family” of antioxidant nutrients that are found inside, outside, and between cells. It is important to get a wide variety of different types antioxidants in the diet because different antioxidants counteract damage by different types of free radicals – and within different cellular compartments.


There are 5 main components of the Antioxidant Network:


Vitamin C = from citrus fruits and strawberries are your best food source – supplements should bring intake up to 100-250mg/dose and up to 500mg/day.


Vitamin E = from almonds and other nuts are your best food source – but these are very high calorie, so a daily supplement 30-100IU/day of natural E (d-alpha tocopherol) may be warranted (preferably containing all 8 isomers of the Vitamin E family).


Flavonoids = from dark purple and blue fruits such as acai, grapes, red wine, grape juice, pomegranate juice, dark chocolate, most berries, and green tea are the best food sources. A diet with 5-10 servings of fruits/veggies contains approximately 100-200mg/day of flavonoids – and supplements of acai, pine bark, grape seed extract or green tea extract can be added as a good source of flavonoids.


Carotenoids = from yellow and orange fruits and veggies such as sweet potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, and tomato sauce/ ketchup are your best food sources. A diet with 5-10 servings of fruits/veggies will provide about 10-20mg of carotenoids – supplements can be added, but avoid high dose and unbalanced supplements of synthetic carotenoids (such as taking beta-carotene alone at high dose).


Thiols = aside from protein foods (which contain cysteine, an antioxidant amino acid), thiols are rare in the food supply – but we know that supplements of alpha-lipoic acid and cysteine help the body to produce more of its own antioxidant enzymes (such as glutathione peroxidase – one of the cell’s most potent free radical fighters).


Another way to think about getting lots of “high antioxidant” foods into your diet would be to do so by “color” because Red, Orange, & Yellow foods tend to be high in carotenoids; Blue, Indigo, & Violet foods tend to be high in flavonoids; and Green foods can be high in either/both flavonoids and carotenoids – but they are certainly high in chlorophyll (the green pigment that protects the plant from the oxidizing rays of the sun – but also hides the other colors).


If you use the twin rules of “natural and balanced” when it comes to creating your Antioxidant Network (and forget about the single isolated “super-duper ORAC” measures), you’ll be giving your body a much more effective health benefit to slow free radical damage throughout your entire body (not just in your test tubes – ha ha).


I hope some of that helps to answer your questions and provide some guidance for you in choosing an antioxidant supplement.


About the Author: Dr. Shawn Talbott holds a MS in Exercise Science (UMass – Amherst) and a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry (Rutgers). He is an avid ultramarathoner whose exercise creates a lot of damaging free radicals. He fights them with an ample intake of acai, pine bark, green tea and a full rainbow of Antioxidant Network nutrients.

About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

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