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Several decades ago, in the 1950s, Denham Harman, M.D., now a retired professor of internal medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, suggested that free radicals harm and even kill body cells, contribute to degenerative diseases such as cardiovascular disorders and arthritis, and contribute to premature aging. For his trouble, years of research, the research establishment laughed at him and his theory. Free radicals? What are you talking about?Further Reading
Of course, we all know now that Dr. Harman was on the right track. Today, any health and nutrition book worth its salt (or should we say low sodium) mentions free radicals with the same confidence it does proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. And forever coupled with free radicals, such as cancer and chemo, hot and cold, fast and slow, and Dagwood and Blondie, are antioxidants. As free radicals contribute to destruction, antioxidants prevent destruction and rebuild.
There are now hundreds of studies documenting the effects of antioxidants such as beta carotene, vitamins C and E, the mineral selenium, and the enzyme superoxide dismutase, and more studies currently under way. Previous studies suggest a link between antioxidants and reduced cellular destruction by free radicals. Antioxidants seem to help prevent free radicals from causing cell membrane damage, DNA mutation, and lipid (fat) oxidation and the resulting clogged arteries.
At the Second International Conference on Antioxidant Vitamins and Beta Carotene in Disease Prevention, held October 10-12, 1994, in Berlin, Germany (and cosponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; the National Cancer Institute; the National Foundation for Cancer Research in the United States; and several European groups), researchers reported that vitamin E, beta carotene, selenium, and other antioxidants may provide protection against heart disease and stroke.
Howard N. Hodis, M.D. (of the University of Southern California School of Medicine in Los Angeles), reported that "The use of antioxidants, namely vitamin E, may be an effective prevention regimen, alone or in conjunction with cholesterol-lowering drugs, for slowing heart disease by retarding the narrowing of the heart's arteries," (as reported in Better Nutrition for Today's Living, March 1995).
Ongoing studies include the Physician's Health Study; preliminary findings on 333 men suggest a protective role for beta carotene. This study, which involves 22,000 men with an average of 12 years of treatment, will conclude in 1996 and is expected to yield important data about the possible protective role of beta carotene against heart disease and cancer. The Women's Health Study, still in pro- gress and involving 40,000 female health professionals, is testing the health benefits of beta carotene and vitamin E.
OPCs In recent years we have been hearing about another form of antioxidant, oligomers of proanthocyanidins, or OPCs. The most well-known OPCs are derived from pine bark and grape seed, and various studies indicate that, as an antioxidant, OPCs are 20 times more powerful than vitamin C and 50 times more powerful than vitamin E.
OPCs are effective antioxidants because they are "sacrificial antioxidants." Upon ingestion, OPCs will sacrifice themselves in order to neutralize harmful free radicals within the body. When OPCs have used themselves up, they are eliminated. This is unlike other antioxidants, which often, after neutralizing a free radical, become free radicals themselves, although they eventually revert back to antioxidants.
Another benefit of OPCs is that they spare other antioxidants. The body must neutralize free radicals. Several substances, including vitamins C and E and the mineral selenium, can stop free radicals before they do their damage. But our bodies also need these vitamins and minerals for other vital functions. Because OPCs are such effective antioxidants, they "spare" vitamins E and C from having to act as antioxidants, allowing these nutrients to perform their other functions in the body.
Research into OPCs suggests they might effect collagen binding (reduce skin sagging and wrinkling), strengthen capillary walls, restore strength of vein walls, ease painful joints, and inhibit bacteria, among other things.
The science behind OPCs points to flavonoids that contain substantial amounts of four chemically similar molecules: epicatechin (EC), epigallocatechin (EGC), epicatechin gallate (ECG), and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Each of these molecules is an increasingly potent antioxidant. EC cannot neutralize as many free radicals as EGC, which, in turn, cannot neutralize as many free radicals as ECG, which cannot neutralize as many free radicals as EGCG.
Tea Leaves of the Future Another substance, however, is edging into the OPC spotlight. This substance boasts a higher EGCG content than other sources, high antioxidant potency, and a long history of "medical" use. This is the humble and inauspicious Camellia sinensis, or tea.
Preliminary research is promising. Studies at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania suggest that both black and green teas are good sources of antioxidants that may keep oxidized LDL-cholesterol, the bad cholesterol, from coating artery walls with "molecular goo," thus narrowing blood vessel width. How? Normally, LDL-cholesterol sheds its antioxidants when it enters the tissue of the aorta. Renegade free radicals bind with the defenseless LDL-cholesterol. With this union, oxidation occurs, and the LDL-cholesterol begins to build up on blood vessel walls. This narrows blood vessels and might eventually result in a number of cardiovascular problems.
Tea may be the guy in the white hat. The OPCs in tea might find their way into the bloodstream and hook up with the defenseless LDL-cholesterol. The OPCs fight off the free radicals and save the vessel walls from damage.
Conclusive Conclusion? So does this mean we should stock up on antioxidants and buy stock in green tea? Accept studies as conclusive? Believe those who say "antioxidants will cure __________ (fill in the blank)? Not necessarily. Not everyone agrees. The FDA flat-out does not accept many of the suggested links between antioxidants and disease, and in October 1993 disallowed health claims of antioxidant vitamins for lack of evidence.
Reports in "mainstream" medical journals suggest researchers are undecided. The authors of a 1995 article in the Archives of Internal Medicine start by stating Data from these prospective studies provide support for the hypothesis that antioxidant supplementation reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. First, the inverse association between antioxidant consumption and cardiovascular disease is strong. Further, the prospective design established a temporal relationship between exposure and outcome and minimizes recall bias. Finally, the protective benefit of antioxidants is biologically plausible, based on research linking oxidation of LDL and atherosclerosis. And finish with, how should physicians counsel patients about antioxidant supplementation? Since the positives tend to be emphasized in the lay press, a reasonable approach may be to discuss the lack of strong evidence supporting antioxidant supplementation.
Finally, there are hundreds of positive antioxidant studies and the willingness of many professionals to "listen" to the current results and not wait umpteen years for the completion of clinical trials. Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D., writing in the Journal of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine, says, "There is acceptance among the scientific and medical communities that enhanced antioxidant intake in the diet and specific application of antioxidants in certain states of oxidative stress may provide both preventive and therapeutic advantage." So what should the consumer do? Educate yourself on antioxidants, on health, and on nutrition and make your own decision. In knowledge lies the power to decide.
Free radicals are atoms or molecules that are missing an electron, and they are a natural part of our metabolic system. Our bodies create energy by using oxygen and food nutrients in a process called oxygenation. When this happens, oxygen molecules are released with missing electrons, a free radical is created. Free radicals also occur as a necessary result of lipid oxygenation, fatty tissue, radiation, food additives, and detoxifying chemicals such as petrochemicals in smog.
Unfortunately, the abundance of toxins in our lives, coupled with our natural metabolism, causes our bodies to create too many free radicals, and in the wrong place. The free radicals bounce around our bodies, looking for an electron to make themselves whole. Think of free radicals as a fire in the right place and in the right size, this free radical fire is beneficial to us. However, if the fire grows too large and out of control, or moves to the wrong place, it can hurt us. And just as a fire can burn down a home or business, too many free radicals can "burn" our bodies. When this is the case, they may contribute to destroying cellular membranes and genetic material (DNA) and generally, to the injury, destruction, and death of our cells. These cellular changes may contribute to arthritis, hardening of the arteries, strokes, cataracts, heart disease. Many experts say free radicals are linked to many of the diseases that we commonly call "degenerative" or shrug off as "getting older."
Antioxidants are the fire brigade. They arrive to quench the free radical fire, preserving the body, and, some say, slowing the aging process. They do this by giving an electron to the free radicals, which prevents the free radicals from attacking our cells. Our bodies contain some natural firefighters, antioxidants such as the enzyme superoxide dismutase, but more important perhaps, are those we can get through our diets. These include beta carotene; vitamins C and E; the mineral selenium; and OPCs.
Scheer, James F. "Beta Carotene: Colorful antioxidant with black and white results." Better Nutrition for Today's Living, December 1995.
Scheer, James F. "Antioxidants free radicals' worst enemy.
" Better Nutrition for Today's Living, October 1995.
"Pycnogenol is an active fighter against disease." Better Nutrition for Today's Living, July 1995.
Murray, Frank. "The A B C & Es of letter-perfect nutrition (antioxidants)." Better Nutrition for Today's Living, March 1995.
Bowles, Willa Vae. "Pycnogenol: a source for wellness." Total Health, Feb. 1995.
Bland, Jeffrey. "Oxidants and antioxidants in clinical medicine: Past, present, and future potential." Journal of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1995.
Hoffman, Richard M., and Harinder S. Garewal. "Antioxidants and the prevention of coronary heart disease." Archives of Internal Medicine, v155, Feb 13 '95.
Passwater, Richard A., Ph.D., and Chilthan Kandaswami, Ph.D. Pycnogenol: The Super Protector Nutrient. New Canaan, Conn.: Keats Publishing, Inc., 1994.
Schwitters, Bert (with Jack Masquelier). 1993. OPC in Practice. Rome: Alfa Omega.
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