Antioxidants are Killing You – by Making Cellular Stress Worse

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 3 – Antioxidants are Killing You – by Making Cellular Stress Worse

In the last two chapters, we discussed how excessive exposure to a variety of stressors, such as free radicals, can lead to cellular stress, damage to cell membranes and DNA, and a host of potential health problems. We also learned about the potential for bioactive nutrients to restore biochemical balance and protect us from the damaging effects of cellular stress. So far – so good.

How then, is it possible that certain antioxidant supplements might actually be “bad” for us? How could the vitamin pills that we think are protecting us are actually causing us harm by accelerating the aging process and even increasing disease risk?

Let me make one point very clear. I am a staunch advocate of the regular use of properly balanced dietary supplements. I’ve written two popular and award-winning textbooks about dietary supplements, taught graduate-level university courses about the science behind dietary supplements, and designed and researched several dozen dietary supplement products for many different companies in the nutrition industry. I’m also a frequent and enthusiastic consumer of dietary supplements—both for myself and for my family.

I very much view supplements as one of the most powerful tools— along with proper diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep, balanced stress, and social connection—for maintaining health and improving quality of life. However, when it comes to certain supplements, especially antioxidants, it can be too easy to get too much of a good thing. As alluded to briefly in the preceding sections, a growing number of research studies are showing that high-dose antioxidant supplements, including vitamin E, selenium, and beta-carotene, may have a dark side, upsetting and interfering with our body’s natural protective defenses.

When we consider cellular stress, we need to keep in mind the “Goldilock’s Principle” of biochemical balance – meaning that we want our exposure to cellular stressors to be “just right” – not too high or too low. This also means that while we certainly don’t want to have “a lot” of stress exposure, we also don’t want to have “none” – because optimal health and peak cellular performance is typically found when we have “some” stress as well as ample capacity to adapt to that stress.

It has been estimated that approximately 2 to 4 percent of all oxygen consumed by our body is converted to reactive oxygen species (ROS) with the potential to damage cell membranes, DNA, mitochondria, and other cellular structures. This amount of ROS would be roughly equivalent to an annual creation of nine pounds of free radicals created by the human body. Nine pounds per year is what we might consider to be our “baseline” or “normal” exposure to cellular stress from free radical exposure – but that does not account for the “extra” cellular stress that comes from exposure to free radicals from sunlight, air pollution, secondhand smoke, or stress. If our only source of cellular stress was our normal baseline metabolic production of free radicals, then we could likely adapt just fine on a diet of brightly colored fruits and vegetables. But, if we’re not eating those daily 5-10 servings of fruits/veggies, or if we have “extra” exposure to additional cellular stressors, then we might need the added support and protection from dietary supplements. But, which supplements to choose and which supplements to avoid?

Thanks for reading – tune in for the next installment about – How Antioxidants Can Be Dangerous.

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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