Are antioxidants killing you?

Experts now think your daily vitamins may actually be shortening your life, and that a safer alternative is to turn on your body’s own antioxidant factory

Half of all Americans report taking at least one dietary supplement regularly. But could everything we know about antioxidants be wrong? The vitamin pills that we think are protecting us could actually be accelerating the aging process and even increasing cancer risk. “A growing number of research studies are showing that high-dose antioxidant supplements, including vitamin E, selenium and beta-carotene may have a dark side, upsetting our body’s natural protective defenses,” says Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, LDN, CNS, FACSM, FAIS, FACN.

“The take-away message from the studies is not that antioxidant vitamins are always bad, but rather that synthetic, isolated, high-dose antioxidant supplements are bad because they interfere with your body’s own natural protective mechanisms,” he explains.

What are antioxidants and how can they be dangerous?

For more than 50 years, scientists have known that the aging process is linked to highly reactive oxygen molecules produced during normal metabolism. These oxygen molecules, often called “free radicals” or “reactive oxygen species” (ROS) can react with and cause damage to cellular structures throughout the body.

“It can be scary to think that our own body is producing these damaging molecules as a normal part of living and breathing, but it’s even scarier when you realize that ROS are all around us in the form of sunlight, car exhaust, air pollution, cigarette smoke, poor diet and many other sources,” Talbott explains.

Antioxidants are compounds that can inactivate a free radical so it cannot cause cellular damage. Too many free radicals – or too few antioxidants – can wreak havoc on cell membranes and DNA, leading to tissue damage and a wide range of chronic diseases including cancer, arthritis, and heart disease.

But high doses of isolated nutrients can actually cause more problems than they prevent. Recent examples are beta-carotene in smokers leading to more lung cancer, and vitamin C in cancer patients (which protects cancer cells more effectively than it does healthy cells).

How to combat oxidative stress

“It’s smart to consume small amounts of several different antioxidants, rather than high doses of any single “super” antioxidant. Recent research clearly shows us that supplementing with too many isolated or unbalanced antioxidants may be just as bad for long-term health as getting too few antioxidants,” says Talbott. “Your best approach is to eat 10-12 servings of brightly colored fruits and veggies throughout the day.”

He adds, “Surprisingly, the body is actually able to increase its production of its own antioxidant enzymes that are known to be as much as one million time more effective in fighting free radicals, meaning that “making” your internal antioxidants may be much safer and more effective than “taking” external antioxidant supplements.”

Nrf2 activation is the future of cellular protection

New research shows how we can encourage our body to protect itself, by turning on its own internal antioxidant defense systems which are about one million times more protective than typical antioxidant supplements.

“This idea of making antioxidants naturally within our cells compared to “taking antioxidants” is a fundamentally different approach to protecting the body from oxidative stress,” says Talbott. “At the very center of this cellular protective pathway is a protein called “Nrf2” that serves as a “master regulator” of the body’s antioxidant response. Think of Nrf2 as a “thermostat” within our cells that senses the level of oxidative stress and other stressors, and turns on internal protective mechanisms.”

Many Nrf2 activators are naturally plant-derived, such as sulforaphane from broccoli and curcumin from turmeric. The specific patented blend of ingredients found in a formula called Protandim (milk thistle, bacopa, ashwagandha, green tea and turmeric) has even been shown to modulate gene expression in hundreds of genes associated with superior health of the heart, colon and brain. “Our cells possess all the genetic resources required to maintain proper oxidative balance, promote health and slow the aging process at the genetic level (provided those cells can adequately activate the Nrf2 pathway as needed).”

In addition to eating brightly colored fruits and vegetables daily (particularly blueberries, tea, coffee, broccoli, cabbage and wasabi), Talbott says effective ways to naturally activate the Nrf2 pathway include exercise, intermittent fasting and Protandim supplementation.

Many scientists, including Talbott, believe that Nrf2 activation is the future of cellular protection and health promotion. “This foundation of naturally activating Nrf2 to solve the problem of oxidative stress is a fundamentally different way of restoring balance in the body – and one that establishes a solid foundation for healthy living and helping us all to feel better, look better and perform better.”

For more about natural approaches to protecting your body from oxidative stress, visit

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