There are millions of nutritional products in the West that tout “health-boosting” antioxidant properties, particularly in athletic populations. But two European professors analyzed the evidence behind this assumption in a recent review published in the British Journal of Pharmacology. Their findings have produced a clear warning: do not take these supplements unless a clear deficiency in antioxidants is diagnosed by a healthcare professional.
What Are Antioxidants Anyway?
Science tells us that humans use oxygen to produce energy, and with oxygen comes the potential to generate free radicals in the body which can cause oxidative stress and disease. As athletes tend to have a higher consumption of oxygen in their training, oxidative stress risk is seen of particular significance to fitness enthusiasts and competitors. And for good reason.
Markers of oxidative stress have been correlated with cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and many other serious health conditions. The nutritional market soon recognized this, and the rise of “anti”-oxidising foods and big “High in Antioxidants!” stickers on the front of every punnet of berries known to man began. Antioxidant supplements in particular are taken by millions, though none tested in randomized clinical trials have demonstrated any benefit to human health or performance.
The leaders of this review sought a clear verdict for the role of antioxidants in human health. They could find none, and even noted that existing research provides more evidence that a diet high in antioxidants can cause harm to health levels, rather than boost them. They also point out that free radicals perform many important functions in the body such as immune defence and hormone synthesis, and antioxidants can actually interfere with these process by targeting healthy and disease-triggering oxygen molecules.
This corroborates previous studies done on athletic populations that suggest antioxidants’ negative effect on our bodies’ adaptation to exercise in controlled performance tests. The professors chairing the review finally note that oxidative stress can be of significance in some conditions – but only in a small proportion of patients, and alternative therapies that just target the triggers of disease are available in those cases.
If you’re concerned about free radicals and their effect on your health, oxidative stress tests are available from health professionals. But it seems that for athletes in general, the jury is still out on antioxidants and their role in supporting your training.