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.
Heavy Exercise produces them, antioxidants combat them, health problems are caused by them. Or maybe not?
The argument goes like this: Free radicals are molecules containing oxygen atoms that attack cells in our bodies, we produce more of these “bad guys” when we exercise. Research has linked free radicals with cell death, aging, cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and other conditions that you haven’t penciled into your appointment book. Antioxidants such as beta-carotene and vitamins C and E are said to offset the effect of free radicals, and there are “experts” who advise that we should therefore consume tons of supplements to fight the free radicals. and to prevent cellular damage.
If exercise-produced free radicals are so bad, so deadly, why do longevity studies show that the more you exercise, the longer you’ll live?
One of the world’s leading experts on exercise and immunology, David Nieman, examined the exercise-and-free-radical question in his column “You Asked for It: Question Authority,” in the July/August 2006 issue of ACSM Health & Fitness Journal. “The body is equipped with a sophisticated defense system that is quite efficient in eliminating most of the radicals,” he wrote. “The more you exercise, the more your body turns into a strong fortress against the onslaught of free radicals.” “You have to remember that every good thing can be overdone,” he says. “Ultrarunners are facing a tremendous amount of oxidative stress and immune dysfunction. My guess is that we’re going to find that, for some, the oxidative stress goes beyond what their bodies can cope with.” About 25 percent of competitors in the Western States, for example, suffer post race colds and infections, compared with 15 percent of marathon finishers.
Since antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and others are supposed to neutralize free radicals, should you take them? “In theory, it’s a no brainer,” says physiologist Scott Powers, Ph.D., a free-radical researcher at the University of Florida and author of the 2004 article “Dietary antioxidants and exercise” in the Journal of Sport Sciences. “The problem is, in reality, we have no evidence that these supplements benefit exercisers.” Fifteen years ago Powers used to take a variety of supplements. Now he limits himself to a daily multivitamin. “It only takes five workouts for the body to increase its production of protective antioxidant enzymes,” he says. “Besides, free radicals aren’t all bad, the way we used to think they were.”
A word of caution: 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. Consult with a trained and experienced nutritional expert before undertaking any mega-doses of any supplements.
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