Ask the doctors: antioxidants

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 April, 2013, 10:23am

Q: Antioxidants: what are they and do they really benefit me?

A: The word “antioxidant” is found on many food products these days. An antioxidant is basically a mop that cleans up a vital yet potentially damaging substance – oxygen.

During certain metabolic processes in our body, an unstable form of oxygen is released. This belongs to a class of molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS).

ROS is like fire: useful and even vital in controlled situations, but damages cells in excess. The natural antioxidant mechanisms in our body keep ROS from doing too much harm.

The theory is that certain unhealthy activities are pro-oxidant, such as smoking, an unhealthy diet, exposure to environmental pollutants and even excessive exercise. Antioxidants are said to help counter these effects.

Unfortunately, the truth may not be so simple. It is difficult to prove how much of a particular antioxidant is required to combat a certain condition, and for how long.

For example, a study conducted in India on Western Nepalese smokers who were suffering from lung cancer found that smokers had low total antioxidant activity in their bodies. Each puff of a cigarette contains 10 to the 16th power of ROS, according to the authors.

Adding to this, the smokers had poor diets with low levels of antioxidants. The study said further work was required to determine the relationship between smoking and oxidative stress (pro-oxidant activity).

So will taking a whole lot of supplements actually help reduce the risk of any disease? 

A consensus has not yet been reached, but here’s some good old advice: eating plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables and fish; having a moderate exercise programme; and learning to manage stress are more sensible ways than pills to optimise natural antioxidant levels. Also, don’t smoke and avoid processed foods.

If you must take supplements to treat a serious condition, seek the advice of a nutritional therapies expert and balance with mainstream wisdom.

Dr Durai Raj Subramaniam is a resident physician at the 24-hour walk-in clinic/A&E department of Gleneagles Hospital in Singapore