Educational Article

The Role of Antioxidants in Exercise and Disease Prevention

By Dr. Robert Martin

With the aging of the baby boomer generation has come an increased emphasis on healthy living and preventative medicine. Considerable research has been devoted to determining what factors can be enhanced to prolong our health and reduce the effects of aging. One group of chemicals that have been noted to play a key role in disease prevention is antioxidants.

Antioxidant supplements such as vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene have been touted as beneficial for enhancing exercise performance and preventing certain diseases by reducing the formation of free radicals in the body. Free radical formation has been hypothesized to lead to cancer, arteriosclerosis, aging and even exercise-associated tissue damage. Free radicals are generated from normal oxidative processes in the body and can damage DNA and inactivate enzymes and other proteins. Free radicals also facilitate damage to cell membranes that lead to cell death.

Aerobic organisms – which include us humans – would not survive without mechanisms that counteract the detrimental effects of free radicals. One protective mechanism includes fat-soluble antioxidants such as vitamin E and beta-carotene; the major water-soluble antioxidant, vitamin C; antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT), and selenium-dependant glutathione peroxidase (GPX). These components preserve homeostasis during most normal cell function and mild oxidative stress. When free-radical production is excessive, however, or when the antioxidant system is overwhelmed, such as during nutritional deficiencies or exhaustive exercise, such imbalances may cause tissue damage.

Given that is has been established that maintaining proper supplies of antioxidants in your body is essential, how is this best accomplished? For many decades a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables was thought to be sufficient to provide all the antioxidants necessary but in the last two decades a growing body of research has shown diet may not be adequate for maintaining optimal levels. Optimal levels are therefore best maintained through proper diet along with vitamin and enzyme supplementation.

Supplementation can help in two main areas, reducing free-radical production related to exercise and disease prevention.

Disease prevention most strongly correlates in the areas of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer. Many studies have shown a relationship between intakes of vitamins E, beat-carotene, and vitamin C and CVD. The Health Professionals Study (41,910 male physicians) noted a 40% risk reduction for coronary heart disease among individuals taking 400 IU/day of vitamin E verses those taking only 6 IU/day. Similar effects were noted for beta-carotene.

In another study of supplement use in 11,178 elderly vitamin E consumption reduced the overall risk of mortality by 34% and heart disease by 47%. Vitamins E and C together caused a reduction in total mortality by 42% and coronary mortality by 53%.

Although multiple studies have shown a strong effect of fruit and vegetable consumption in reducing all cancer risk, only prostate cancer is reduced by vitamin E consumption.

In conclusion the most effective strategy for reducing free radical production is a diet high is fruits and vegetables. In addition supplementation with a comprehensive one-a-day vitamin may be needed to enhance the amount of your antioxidants to optimal levels.

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