The Antioxidant Network

My 13th book, Best Future You, is out!

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be posting excerpts from the book and blogging frequently about the main concept in the book – which is the idea of harnessing your body’s internal cellular biochemistry to achieve true balance in body, mind, and spirit – and in doing so, help you to become your “Best Future You” in terms of how you look, how you feel, and how you perform on every level.

Chapter 2 – Managing Cellular Stress – the Basis for Feeling, Looking, and Performing Your Best

The Antioxidant Network

If you’re overexposed to free radicals or other cellular stressors on a regular basis (i.e. polluted air, cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes, sun exposure, heavy metals, chronic stress, etc) or your diet is less than optimal (low in fruits/veggies or high in processed carbs and sugars), then it is almost certain that you could benefit from some bolstering of your cellular defenses.

The concept of an “antioxidant network” in the body emphasizes the idea that our best defense against free radicals is a collective protection of several antioxidants that is most important, rather than any single “super” antioxidant. This is a large part of the reason for recommending that we all strive to eat 10-12 servings of brightly colored fruits and veggies throughout the day—just like those described in earlier paragraphs. Ideally, you want to try to get a few servings of each color group everyday so you get an ample supply of different types of complementary cellular protectors.

But what if you have difficulty consuming all the fruits and veggies that you need? If you’re like most people, you’ve probably considered supplementing your diet to improve your antioxidant intake. If so, keep in mind two critically important factors. The first is the growing list of large-scale research studies, some of them mentioned earlier, that have revealed health problems associated with high-dose antioxidant supplements. The second is to understand that the body is actually able to increase production of its own internal antioxidant enzymes (glutathione peroxidase, catalase, superoxide dismutase). Remember—these internal antioxidant enzymes are as much as one million times more effective in fighting free radicals than standard antioxidants supplements, meaning that “making” your internal antioxidants may be much safer and more effective than “taking” external antioxidant products.

As stated above—and it is worth stating again, because it is a crucial point—when it comes to antioxidant supplementation, “more” is not “better,” because it is the overall collection of and balance between several antioxidants that is important, rather than any single “super” antioxidant. This concept of balancing supplemental antioxidants is referred to as the “antioxidant network.” This network generally comprises five major classes of dietary antioxidants, as shown below:

• Vitamin C “complex” (ascorbic acid plus flavonoids)

• Vitamin E “complex” (4 tocopherols & 4 tocotrienols)

• Thiols (sulfur-containing compounds, such as lipoic acid and cysteine)

• Carotenoids (including beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein)

• Flavonoids (including polyphenols from citrus, anthocyanins from berries, and catechins from tea)

Small, combined doses of these antioxidant nutrients consumed in one’s diet will help combat free radicals directly. Further, they can also regenerate one another following free radical quenching, thus delivering a more effective and safer antioxidant regimen than one with higher doses of single isolated antioxidant nutrients. This combined approach to antioxidant supplementation is also logical because certain antioxidants will work primarily against certain free radicals and in specific parts of the body (for example, vitamin E against hydroxyl radicals and within cell membranes or vitamin C against hydrogen peroxide and within aqueous spaces).

Thousands of studies have clearly documented the beneficial effects of dozens of antioxidant nutrients when consumed as part of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and thousands of nutrients and phytochemicals possess significant antioxidant activity. Increased dietary intake of antioxidant nutrients—such as vitamins C and E, minerals such as selenium, and various phytonutrients that include extracts from grape seed, pine bark, and green tea—have all been linked to reduced rates of oxidative damage. This intake of antioxidants may also help reduce the incidence of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.

But mega-dose supplementation with isolated synthetic antioxidants can easily become a case of “too much of a good thing” and actually begin to interfere with normal cellular metabolism. This concept of antioxidant network balance—not too few, but also not too many—requires remembering that cells need representatives from each and every one of these categories to mount the strongest antioxidant defense. Think of it in sports terms: Even if you were the best swimmer in the world (say, Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps), you’re not going to win the Ironman triathlon (swim/bike/run) without also being a strong cyclist and runner. The analogy of baseball works as well. If your team included the best home run hitter, but had only poor pitching and fielding,
then your baseball team would probably not win the World Series. The same thing holds true with your antioxidant defenses—green tea, vitamin E, or beta-carotene may all be wonderful antioxidants on their own. But combining them to create a network that performs together in different parts of the body and against different types of free radicals is by far the most effective.

Just as with other aspects of your health and lifestyle, if you keep the concept of “balance” in mind when it comes to your antioxidant nutrition, then your body will be healthier, stronger, and more able to respond to the demands of living, working, and “playing” at the highest level possible.

Thanks for reading – tune in for the next installment about how too many antioxidants (or the wrong balance of antioxidants) might be killing you – by making cellular stress worse.

Shawn M Talbott, PhD, CNS, LDN, FACSM, FAIS, FACN
Nutritional Biochemist and Author


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The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance, and Reclaim Your Natural Energy
Killer at Large – Why Obesity is America’s Greatest Threat – an award-winning documentary film exploring the causes and solutions underlying the American obesity epidemic
The Cortisol Connection – Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health (Hunter House)
The Cortisol Connection Diet – The Breakthrough Program to Control Stress and Lose Weight (Hunter House)
Cortisol Control and the Beauty Connection – The All-Natural Inside-Out Approach to Reversing Wrinkles, Preventing Acne, And Improving Skin Tone (Hunter House)
Natural Solutions for Pain-Free Living – Lasting Relief for Flexible Joints, Strong Bones and Ache-Free Muscles (Chronicle Publishers – Currant Books)
The Immune Miracle – The All-Natural Approach for Better Health, Increased Energy and Improved Mood (GLH Nutrition, 2012)
A Guide to Understanding Dietary Supplements – an Outstanding Academic Text of 2004 (Haworth Press)
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