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What are Antioxidants?

Antioxidants are intimately involved in the prevention of cellular damage -- the common pathway for cancer, aging, and a variety of diseases. The scientific community has begun to unveil some of the mysteries surrounding this topic, and the media has begun whetting our thirst for knowledge. Athletes have a keen interest because of health concerns and the prospect of enhanced performance and/or recovery from exercise. The purpose of this article is to serve as a beginners guide to what antioxidants are and to briefly review their role in exercise and general health. What follows is only the tip of the iceberg in this dynamic and interesting subject.

Fight Free Radicals with Antioxidants!

Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms with an odd (unpaired) number of electrons and can be formed when oxygen interacts with certain molecules. Once formed these highly reactive radicals can start a chain reaction, like dominoes. Their chief danger comes from the damage they can do when they react with important cellular components such as DNA, or the cell membrane. Cells may function poorly or die if this occurs. To prevent free radical damage the body has a defense system of antioxidants.

Antioxidants are molecules which can safely interact with free radicals and terminate the chain reaction before vital molecules are damaged. Although there are several enzyme systems within the body that scavenge free radicals, the principle micronutrient (vitamin) antioxidants are vitamin E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C. Additionally, selenium, a trace metal that is required for proper function of one of the body's antioxidant enzyme systems, is sometimes included in this category. The body cannot manufacture these micronutrients so they must be supplied in the diet.

Vitamin E : d-alpha tocopherol. A fat soluble vitamin present in nuts, seeds, vegetable and fish oils, whole grains (esp. wheat germ), fortified cereals, and apricots. Current recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 15 IU per day for men and 12 IU per day for women.

Vitamin C : Ascorbic acid is a water soluble vitamin present in citrus fruits and juices, green peppers, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, kale, cantaloupe, kiwi, and strawberries. The RDA is 60 mg per day. Intake above 2000 mg may be associated with adverse side effects in some individuals.

Beta-Carotene : is a precursor to vitamin A (retinol) and is present in liver, egg yolk, milk, butter, spinach, carrots, squash, broccoli, yams, tomato, cantaloupe, peaches, and grains. Because beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A by the body there is no set requirement. Instead the RDA is expressed as retinol equivalents (RE), to clarify the relationship. (NOTE: Vitamin A has no antioxidant properties and can be quite toxic when taken in excess.)

ALA(Alpha Lipoic Acid) :The Unique Antioxidant in that its not your run of the mill such as Vitamin C. This antioxidant performs many task and actually help other fight free radicals. Alpha Lipoic acid can actually help treat certain medical conditions. And you don’t have to wait forever to find out if it’s working.

Polyphenols (Resveratrol) : You've probably heard people say that a glass of red wine or a piece of dark chocolate isn't all bad for you. They're deemed to be good-for-you indulgences, and that's because they contain an antioxidant called Resveratrol.

What does Resveratrol do? Cell-damaging free radicals are natural by-products of your body’s daily metabolism. Antioxidants like Resveratrol help fight these free radicals in the body.** It also supports sugar metabolism.

Lycopene : Lycopene is a carotenoid - a natural pigment that gives some vegetables and fruits their red color. It is an antioxidant (a substance that protects against cell damage). Tomatoes provide about 80% of the lycopene in the US diet. Tomatoes processed with high heat contain lycopene in a form more usable by the body than in raw tomatoes; however, heat processing can destroy other nutrients such as beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E. These are also antioxidants.

Coenzyme Q10 CoQ10 (Co-enzyme Q10) also called ubiquinone, is an antioxidant which protects tissues - such as the heart and other vital organs - from free radical damage, supports proper cardiovascular function, strengthens the immune system, inhibits the oxidation of LDL cholesterol and nourishes gum tissue

How much is enough?

Although there is little doubt that antioxidants are a necessary component for good health, no one knows if supplements should be taken and, if so, how much. Antioxidants supplements were once thought to be harmless but increasingly we are becoming aware of interactions and potential toxicity. It is interesting to note that, in the normal concentrations found in the body, vitamin C and beta-carotene are antioxidants; but at higher concentrations they are pro-oxidants and, thus, harmful. Also, very little is known about the long term consequences of megadoses of antioxidants. The body's finely tuned mechanisms are carefully balanced to withstand a variety of insults. Taking chemicals without a complete understanding of all of their effects may disrupt this balance.


  • Follow a balanced training program that emphasizes regular exercise and eat 5 servings of fruit or vegetables per day. This will ensure that you are developing your inherent antioxidant systems and that your diet is providing the necessary components.
  • Weekend warriors should strongly consider a more balanced approach to exercise. Failing that, consider supplementation.
  • For extremely demanding races (such as an ultradistance event), or when adapting to high altitude, consider taking a vitamin E supplement (100 to 200 IU, approximately 10 times the RDA) per day for several weeks up to and following the race.
  • Look for upcoming FDA recommendations, but be wary of advertising and media hype.
  • Do not oversupplement.

Selected References

  1. The Effect of Vitamin E and Beta Carotene on the Incidence of Lung Cancer and Other Cancers in Male Smokers New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). vol 330 (15) Apr. 14, 1994. pp 1029-1035.
  2. A Clinical Trial of Antioxidant Vitamins to Prevent Colorectal Adenoma NEJM, vol 331 (3). July 21, 1994. pp 141-147
  3. Antioxidant Vitamins -- Benefits Not Yet Proved (editorial) NEJM vol 330 (15) Apr. 14, 1994. p 1080 - 1081
  4. Antioxidants and Physical Performance (review) Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 35(1&2):131-141 (1995).
  5. Increased blood antioxidant systems of runners in response to training load. Clinical Science (1991). 80, 611-618.
  6. Exercise, Oxidative Damage and Effects of Antioxidant Manipulation (review). Journal of Nutrition 122(3 suppl): 766-73, 1992 Mar.
  7. Antioxidants: role of supplementation to prevent exercise-induced oxidative stress (review). Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 25(2):232-6, 1993 Feb.
  8. Prospects for the use of antioxidant therapies.(Review). Drugs 49(3):345-61, 1995 Mar.

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"DID You Know"
Free Radicals are the #1 cause of premature aging within the body, preventing them will ensure a gradual aging effect within the body!

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