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All That Kale—For Nothing

Antioxidants are the latest health craze to get a reality check

Blueberries are a notorious superfood chock full of antioxidants.

Eggs were once terrible for your cholesterol, now they’re good in moderation. Fat was bad, but low fat can apparently be worse. Now nutrient-rich superfoods—which have no legal definition, but are celebrated for their high doses of vitamins, minerals, and especially antioxidants—may be the latest health craze to get a reality check, thanks to new research published in the British Journal of Pharmacology.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]So much of this common wisdom that antioxidants will make things better is based on [weak] methodologies.[/quote]

In short, antioxidants, long thought of as an anti-aging wonder nutrient found in everything from pomegranates to blueberries (not to mention Vitamin E and other supplements), might actually be harmful to your health. But what is an antioxidant, really? And does this research mean we need to give up our go-to health foods, our copies of 50 Shades of Kale, or those purple, wine-based pills?

For an answer, it helps to look back to 1956, when doctor Denham Harman came up with the “free radical theory of aging,” in which he wrote that “the inborn process of aging is caused by cumulative oxidative damage to cells by free radicals produced during aerobic respiration.” This has since become known as oxidative stress, proven to be a factor in the cause of some diseases like Alzheimer’s or cancer—but, perhaps due to its role in inflammation, is often blamed as a root cause for all kinds of illnesses, though there is no conclusive evidence of this.

Running with this theory, however, has led to the wide perception that combating oxidative stress requires the consumption of antioxidants—which we’ve been told go in to “mop up” so-called free radicals (a.k.a. radical oxygen species or ROS). Study lead author Pietro Ghezzi of the University of Brighton and Sussex Medical School says this is a problem because “so much of this common wisdom that antioxidants will make things better is based on methodologies that are not as good as in other diseases.”

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Free radicals have a half life of a millisecond, so you cannot measure them.[/quote]

Science, Ghezzi explains, has clearly determined that HIV causes AIDS, and cholesterol causes atherosclerosis. But the same link simply can’t be made between oxidative stress and most diseases—thus no research necessitates the use of antioxidants. Part of the problem, he says, is that “ROS have a half life of a millisecond, so you cannot measure them,” he says. And there are so many antioxidants in existence that to test them all would take extensive time, leaving many of them unproven.

Ghezzi’s study was an extensive review of existing literature. He partially blames his fellow scientists for their own publication bias in creating these overblown ideas about antioxidants. “If I don’t get an effect in a study, we will not publish the data because scientific journals won’t accept it because it’s not very interesting.” In other words, studies that show antioxidants having no effect on oxidative stress don’t get published, so there’s a false balance that leans toward those few studies where an antioxidant added into the mix seems to have had a positive effect—when maybe it just didn’t have a negative effect.

Ghezzi is pushing for the Cochrane Center, a global organization of independent researchers who summarize health information to determine the best results, to set up an online repository where study results can be deposited “independent of whether they are positive or negative,” which he feels will lead to more honest results.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The mantra of the 21st century, is get comfortable with discomfort.[/quote]

There are good reasons for this, Ghezzi feels, as he says his research has proved that simply adding in antioxidants to your life could actually do you harm. Up to 20 metabolic pathways produce ROS for a variety of functions, so “if you flood the body with an antioxidant to mop up all those reactive species, you will not only mop up the ones that are toxic, but also block all the metabolic pathways that need them.” Ghezzi also points out several studies that have found antioxidants have a negative effect on mortality, and can even increase risk of cancer in those who smoke.

Image via 50 Shades of Kale

However, if such information makes you feel frustrated or unsure about your health routine, wellness consultant Dr. Gretchan Pisano suggests you try not to panic or get too frustrated. “The mantra of the 21st century is, get comfortable with discomfort,” she says. “Learning how to hold contradictory ideas at the same time will strengthen your ability to flex and adapt and keep the cognitive doors open for a creative problem.”

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Just because something is now found to be bad may not mean … it should be entirely eliminated.[/quote]

Bart Rossi, a Florida-based clinical psychologist, reminds us that “just because something is now found to be bad may not mean … it should be entirely eliminated.” He cites how not so long ago many doctors were pushing drugs known as “statins” to lower cholesterol when “a wiser decision would have been to get advice from other physicians and perhaps avoid drugs by simply working on a better diet.”

As in all things related to health, the best answer may be the simplest one: All things in moderation. Eat a well-balanced diet, try to exercise, and reduce your stress. So drink that red wine (or green juice) if you love it—science isn’t everything.

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