I get lots of letters. Mostly they’re honest questions from folks trying to resolve health issues and get back on track with taking care of their bodies, getting off prescription drugs, and getting on a good nutritional supplement program. Sometimes I get positive feedback or kudos encouraging me to carry on with my efforts to wake people up to the power of nutrition. And sometimes (not too often fortunately) I get letters criticizing my work or the positions I take on health care, prescription drugs, or vitamin and mineral supplementation. Yesterday, I received a note that falls into that last category from a gentleman in Texas that referenced a story that appeared in the mainstream media questioning the health benefits of anti-oxidant type supplements.
The article threw cold water on the importance of these highly regarded nutritional substances and attempted to debunk the idea that they could have beneficial effects on health on longevity. Even worse, it was headlined “We Spend Millions on Anti-oxidants, But Now Researchers Say They Make Our Bodies Age Faster” and implied that anti-oxidants may even have a harmful pro-aging effects.
Needless to say, as a longtime advocate for the use of these types of supplements, the letter and the title both grabbed my attention. However, after reading the study itself which was published online in the May 8, 2014 edition of the prestigious journal ”Cell”, I discovered that despite the compelling and somewhat incendiary newspaper headline, that’s not what the researchers from McGill University in Canada actually concluded. Rather than stating that anti-oxidant nutrients were harmful (the study actually never even mentioned the word “anti-oxidant”), the researchers were simply making the point that some toxic free radical effects, that would ordinarily be neutralized by protective nutrients, can potentially have longevity inducing effects.
This idea that substances that are toxic or poisonous may actually provide health benefits is based on the science of “hormesis”, a tried and true theory that says that small amounts of ordinarily harmful material may actually promote health. In other words, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Clearly there’s lots of evidence to support this theory which, for example, explains the body building benefits associated with the stresses of exercise-induced muscle trauma, as well as homeopathic practices which involve giving infinitesimally small doses of poisons to activate healing mechanisms.
But this idea of stresses and toxins supporting health should not be misconstrued to mean that the use of protective nutrients like anti-oxidants are somehow hurtful and can have an anti-health and anti-longevity effects. If that were the case, then the next logical next step would be to immerse ourselves in toxicity, and keep ourselves deprived of essential and protective nutrients lest we interfere with the hormetic, health promoting effects of toxins.
Clearly that’s nonsensical. While no one disputes that some stresses (whether they’re in the form of exercise, homeopathic medicines OR free radicals) can be beneficial and can stimulate growth as well as health and longevity; to make that obvious truth mean that anti-oxidants, by virtue of their protective effects against cell damage, can somehow accelerate the aging process is an inaccurate conclusion. At best it is a stretch and at worst a misleading unwarranted conclusion that flies in the face of logic and common sense.