The truth about antioxidants supplements

  • 13 Mar 2009
  • Reading time 18 mins
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One minute you hear they are good for you, then bad for you. Find out the truth, about antioxidants and why smokers need to be careful.

For years the evidence was coming in showing that extra antioxidants worked very well. One group who seemed to be benefiting were smokers, who have a very high exposure to oxidants, which are also created when anything, from bacon to tobacco, is burnt. Beta-carotene, the stuff in carrots, was coming up trumps in thousands of studies linking a high intake, or high blood levels to low disease risk, particularly of cancer. For example, a ten-year study of several thousand elderly people in Europe, conducted by the Centre for Nutrition and Health at the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands, found that the higher the beta-carotene level, the lower the overall risk of death, especially from cancer. Eating probably the equivalent of a carrot a day (raising blood level by 0.39mcmol/l) meant cutting cancer risk by a third.[1]

Heart disease, the biggest western killer, was being linked to oxidative damage to cholesterol and the arteries and vitamin E, a fat-based antioxidant, was the best contender for protecting your arteries. The signs were good. The New England Journal of Medicine published two studies the first of which involved 87,200 nurses. Those taking in 67mg or more of vitamin E for more than two years had 40 per cent less fatal and non-fatal heart attacks compared to those not taking vitamin E supplements.[2]

In another study, 39,000 male health professionals taking 67mg of vitamin E for the same length of time had a 39 per cent reduction in heart attacks.[3] Then, the first placebo-controlled trial, carried out by researchers at the UK’s Cambridge University Medical School in 1996, gave some 2,000 people vitamin E or a placebo. Those given vitamin E had a 75 per cent reduced risk of a non-fatal heart attack. The research showed vitamin E to be almost four times as effective as aspirin in reducing heart attacks. But then in the mid-nineties this positive picture began to change when the results began to come in from a number of studies that had been set up to test the effects of giving smokers, and people with heart disease, antioxidants, especially beta-carotene and vitamin E respectively. The first to rock the antioxidant boat, the CARET trial by the National Cancer Institute, was published in 1996. It found a small, non-significant increased incidence of lung cancer in smokers given beta-carotene, and an equivalent decreased incidence in non-smokers ......

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