Attempting to Address the Popular Myth of Antioxidants

The industry that provides antioxidant supplements to the world has tremendous inertia: enormous income and a very loud voice, and thus little incentive to react to advances in scientific knowledge that might reduce that revenue stream if acted upon. So despite the scientific consensus that ingested antioxidants are not in fact wonderful for your health, and may even be modestly harmful over the long term, the larger players in the industry continue onward as though it's still 1992 outside their offices.

On the other side of the fence, the public at large keeps buying the products as though it's still 1992, just as blithely ignoring what the scientific community has to say on the matter. Everyone wants that silver bullet to be available now rather than tomorrow, and wants it badly enough to buy lead painted up to a nice sheen if that's all there is. All in all it's a good reminder that any institutional knowledge or common wisdom is likely to be a decade or two out of date - it takes time for information to percolate, even in this age of instant electronic overcommunication. There is seemingly so much that everyone has to say, day in and day out, and yet the important data still takes years to get from point A to point B.

Here is a good open access paper on antioxidants and just how far removed from reality the common wisdom is these days. I imagine it will take a few more years of authoring similar review papers for the point to start to sink in:

Antioxidants are assumed to provide numerous benefits, including better health, a reduced rate of aging, and improved exercise performance. Specifically, antioxidants are commonly "prescribed" by the media, supplement industry, and "fitness experts" for individuals prior to training and performance, with assumed benefits of improved fatigue resistance and recovery. This has provoked expansion of the supplement industry which responded by creation of a plethora of products aimed at facilitating the needs of the active individual. However, what does the experimental evidence say about the efficacy of antioxidants on skeletal muscle function? Are antioxidants actually as beneficial as the general populous believes? Or, could they in fact lead to deleterious effects on skeletal muscle function and performance?


Experimental evidence does not support the "common knowledge" that antioxidant treatment greatly improves exercise performance and recovery. On the contrary, studies with antioxidant supplementations generally show no effect on muscle function during and after exercise.


This is probably true for the young but maybe for older individuals antioxidants like vitamin e and c could be beneficial per this study by ncbi below. Any thoughts on this?

Posted by: Mike at March 16th, 2012 7:05 PM

Unfortunately, rather than leveling with their customers and folding up shop, or sticking their old promotional rhetoric with such obstinant transparency in the face of mounting contrary evidence as to lose credibility, supplement shysters have altered their pitch to a significant degree, hyping up antioxidant properties per se less in favor of other putative mechanistic bases for asserted benefit (without, of course, almost ever producing any actual evidence of benefit in normal, healthy organisms in vivo). This shift has been most powerfully in evidence with resveratrol, but has also been present for a variety of other phytochemicals and many mineral salts and chelates.

Posted by: Michael at March 18th, 2012 6:00 PM

There seems a rather broad brush at work here. Just because anti-oxidants don't improve or affect muscle performance doesn't mean there is proof that they aren't beneficial in other ways. If there is evidence that anti-oxidants don't help or correct free-radical damage, I would like to see that. The open review you offer isn't very broad or impressive - except with regard to skeletal muscle performance enhancement - certainly not proof of anything on more than and if that.

Posted by: Durwood M. Dugger at March 18th, 2012 6:52 PM

The referenced article on antioxidants and muscle is vague. It refers to hormesis, but ignores known data showing modest doses of certain antioxidants, not mega doses, will activate via the NRF2 transcription factor an array of endogenous enzymatic antioxidants such as glutathione, catalase and superoxide dismutase as well as adenosine, heme oxygenase and nitric oxide. This is the most powerful health force known and is activated by mild biological stressors such as a) high altitude (shortage of oxygen), b) exposure to low-dose radiation (example: radium water springs), or (c) mild food deprivation (calorie restriction or fasting), or d) molecular mimics of the above (resveratrol, other polyphenols). Actually, polyphenols like those found in grapes, spices and some fruits are antioxidants at low dose and pro-oxidant at high dose. Wine provides a concentrate of polyphenols by virtue of fermentation; 3-5 glasses of aged red wine, providing 60 mg polyphenols per glass or 180-300 mg total, is the range that has been shown to reduce coronary artery disease mortality in population studies and the same approximate range turns a mortal heart attack into a non-mortal event in the animal lab. Therefore, we do know something about dosage range despite what the referenced articles say. Of interest, red wine of old was unfiltered and would provide 25 times more polyphenols. Thus just one glass was very medicinal and likely produced the hormesis effect. Resveratrol and other polyphenols need to be re-classified as not just antioxidants, but in the proper dose, they are mimics of biological stress that activate profound internal defenses. -Bill Sardi, Knowledge of Health, Inc.

Posted by: Bill Sardi at March 18th, 2012 6:54 PM
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