The benefits of antioxidants are amazing. There is seemingly no part of your health that antioxidants can’t improve, from reducing cancerous cells to reducing risk of heart disease. Antioxidants do this by inhibiting oxidation and protecting the body from damage that occurs from oxidative stress. Yet a controversy seems to be brewing. While there are many experts who see antioxidants as superheroes, and feel that we should all be taking them, others believe that antioxidants are overrated. The truth lies somewhere in the middle where getting the right amount to experience the benefits of antioxidants is both more complicated and much simpler than we think.
Free Radicals And Oxidative Stress
First we have to understand free radicals. When an atom or molecule has all its electrons in pairs it’s considered stable. That means it’s “happy” and not causing any “trouble.” Free radicals are atoms or molecules that are missing an electron. When a molecule is missing one electron it becomes reactive and wants to steal an electron to become “happy” and stable again.
The body produces free radicals from normal biological processes and also acquires them from the environment (e.g., pollution). Antioxidants such as vitamin C, glutathione, and vitamin E, produced by the body or derived from food or supplements, help neutralize these free radicals.
Oxidative stress occurs when the body has too many free radicals and the body can’t counteract their damage. This is a common finding with people dealing with chronic illness. The free radicals start stealing electrons from healthy cells, leading to oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is associated with a number of ailments, including neurodegenerative diseases, heart disease, gene mutations, and cancer.
Free radicals are not always the “bad guys” though. Sometimes free radicals have an important role, like when the body uses them to steal electrons from harmful microbes, killing them. So it’s normal to have free radicals in our bodies, we just don’t want the excess that accumulates due to things like pollution and a nutrient deficient diet.
Benefits of Antioxidants: The Inner Workings Of Antioxidants
Antioxidants counteract the damage of free radicals by donating an electron to make the free radical stable and therefore stop causing trouble. There are many studies that show the benefits of antioxidants such as being an incredible tool against diseases such as cancer.
Here’s where things get complicated: some studies also show that antioxidant supplements don’t help treat cancer and can even increase cancer and other disease risk. How can that be? It’s possible that in those instances, antioxidants are actually acting as oxidants.
Antioxidants become unstable when they lose or receive electrons in the presence of free radicals, turning them into free radicals themselves. So your body needs another antioxidant to donate an electron in order to neutralize the new free radical, and the cycle continues. Additionally, many antioxidants are particular about which free radicals they will give their electron to. That means you must have a variety of antioxidants to neutralize the variety of free radicals you have in your body. This is fine when you’re getting a continuous supply of a variety of antioxidants in your diet or antioxidant supplements. However, when you take large doses of antioxidants, especially if your diet is not very good, you could potentially be causing more free radical damage.
“Once an antioxidant has done its job and donated an electron to a free radical, it is now missing an electron and needs to get an electron from somewhere else,” explains Stephanie Dunne, Registered Dietitian and Integrative & Functional Nutrition Certified Practitioner.
Usually this comes from another antioxidant, but it can come from anywhere. If you have too many of a certain kind of antioxidant or an imbalance between all the antioxidants, you can end up with oxidative stress from the thing that was supposed to be protecting you.
So, we should refrain from taking antioxidants? Well, not necessarily.
Another possibility as to why some studies show antioxidants cause harm is that most studies are using using synthetic forms of antioxidants. “Except two studies that used artificial non-natural forms of vitamin E (dl-tocopherol, a petroleum derived product) and Vitamin A (retinol), I know of no studies that have demonstrated natural antioxidant side effects,” adds Dr. Dimitris Tsoukalas, a medical doctor, researcher, educator, author, and leading expert in the application of Metabolomic Medicine in chronic and autoimmune diseases.
Common sense tells us that a synthesized version of an antioxidant may not work the same way the natural version does and perhaps the benefits of antioxidants exist only for the natural ones. According to News Media Explorer, synthetic antioxidants can’t be “recycled” the way natural antioxidants can by acquiring an electron from another antioxidant. So perhaps the reason some studies find antioxidants to be harmful is that they turn into oxidants and can’t be neutralized by other antioxidants.
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To Antioxidant Or Not To Antioxidant?
Here’s where things get simpler again. The answer to the confusion surrounding antioxidants is to focus on getting antioxidants first from a whole foods diet. Without a healthy diet, you will not make the most of the supplements. However, in our modern society where many of us are nutrient depleted to begin with, and our food is also lower in nutrition than it should be (even real, non-packaged food), antioxidant supplements are helpful.
To get the most benefits of antioxidants you want to get a variety of antioxidants in your diet. To do this make sure you eat at least 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables (in particular). Other foods that are high in antioxidants include clove, cinnamon, cocoa, basil, ginger, turmeric, garlic, cayenne, and most organic herbal teas like hibiscus, red raspberry leaf, elderflower, or lemon balm.
Variety is the key here. Each of these foods has different amounts of different antioxidants. Eating chocolate every day is not enough to protect your body from oxidative stress. Whole foods contain not just antioxidants but phytochemicals and cofactors that scientists are still learning about. The bottom line is that there is no replacement for a healthy, varied diet.
Safe Supplements For Almost Anyone: Molecular Hydrogen
That being said, our modern world throws a lot of extra free radicals at us through pollution and low nutrient diets among other things. The benefits of antioxidants outweigh any risks in this situation. An antioxidant supplement should not be a replacement for a healthy diet, but may help alleviate symptoms of oxidative stress while you change your diet. One antioxidant supplement that cannot turn into a free radical is molecular hydrogen. Molecular hydrogen is exactly what it sounds like — Hydrogen gas (H2) which is tasteless and odorless. Molecular hydrogen is special in that it doesn’t become unstable (a free radical) when it neutralizes free radicals the way many other antioxidants supplements do.
“Hydrogen donates an electron to the free radical (such as the hydroxyl radical or peroxynitrite) and forms water (H2O) in the process,” adds Ed Wunder, researcher with the Molecular Hydrogen Foundation. “It does not become unstable when it forms that bond.” Molecular hydrogen is therefore a great antioxidant supplement which has no upper limit and won’t cause any of the potential side effects that some studies have found antioxidants to cause.
Molecular hydrogen is also unique in that it can work at the cellular level. Researchers say:
Hydrogen is qualified to cross the blood brain barrier, to enter the mitochondria, and even has the ability to translocate to the nucleus under certain conditions. Once in these ideal locations of the cell, previous studies have shown that hydrogen exerts antioxidant, anti-apoptotic, anti-inflammatory, and cytoprotective properties that are beneficial to the cell.
Though the fact that we can use molecular hydrogen to combat oxidative stress without fear of causing more harm than good is amazing, molecular hydrogen has many other health benefits as well.
- Helps reduce the signs of aging and rejuvenates the skin
- Helps the body hydrate down to the cellular level
- May help prevent diabetes
- May help battle cancerous tumors
- May help fight autoimmune disease
- Reduces pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis
- Fights allergies
- Helps maintain a healthy weight
- Improves cognitive function
- Helps boost injury recovery
- Keeps gut microbiome healthy
- Helps combat PTSD
Mindy Wood is a writer, wife, mother, and homesteader-in-the-making, living in the beautiful mountains of New Hampshire. She writes at Purposefully Simple about her choice to embrace a more intentional and sustainable life and encourages others to pursue their best life too.
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