In their January 25 issue, Newsweek published a scientifically unsupportable article, claiming that antioxidants “may not be good for your health.” We asked natural biomedical researcher and physician Jonathan Wright, MD, to comment—and he didn’t mince words!
Here we go again. Another one-sided “mainstream media” attack on an aspect of natural healthcare, filled with to-be-expected misinformation, partial information, and—of course—no attempt at all to present both sides of the manufactured controversy. This time it’s Newsweek magazine, with an article entitled “Antioxidants Fall from Grace.”
The article starts with a “blog quote” from someone Newsweek has chosen as an “authority,” an individual identified as “British chemist and science writer David Bradley.” A bit odd that Newsweek couldn’t find a full professor who trashes antioxidants in a professional journal article, but that’s not the main point. The main point is that “science writer, chemist, and blogger” Bradley showed the same incomplete understanding of the function of antioxidants that many healthcare professionals have, writing in his blog: “It’s always struck me as odd that you would want to ingest extra antioxidants anyway, given that oxidizing agents are at the front-line of immune defense against pathogens and cancer cells….Suffice to say that taking antioxidant supplements…may not necessarily be good for your health if you already have health problems.”
Let’s review some basic definitions. As my chemistry professor, Louis Feiser of Harvard, told us, “oxidation” and “reduction” are two inseparable sides of the same coin. When a molecule loses electrons, it has been “oxidized”; when it gains electrons, it has been “reduced.” Since one molecule’s loss is always another molecule’s gain, the oxidation/reduction must always occur simultaneously, and the whole electron-exchange transaction is called a “redox reaction.”
The quote from blogger Bradley gives us the impression that “antioxidants” cancel “oxidizing agents” in a straight-line, one-on-one, hand-to-hand-combat manner. If this were true, his conclusion might make sense. But the truth—as often it is in nature—is more subtle. Dietary components presently termed “antioxidants” can work on both sides of the “redox reaction,” sometimes donating electrons, sometimes gaining them, as needed. To describe their functions more accurately, including both aspects of electron flow, antioxidants might best be termed “redox reaction regulators.”
Newsweek implies (accurately, in this instance) that “antioxidant” supplements are used to combat “free radicals,” molecules which have lost electrons (have been “oxidized”) and—in a manner of speaking—roam around the body stealing electrons back from other molecules in an indiscriminate manner, causing damage as a result. But while the Newsweek reporter writes that “free radicals are generated by normal metabolism, though dietary fat and iron-rich foods such as red meat generate more of them”—which is accurate as far as it goes—he either doesn’t know or simply omits the fact that free radicals are also generated in large excess by many things new to the human environment in just the last century and a half.
Some of these brand new inducers of “free radicals” in humans include very large excesses of sugar and refined carbohydrate, thousands of artificial “food chemicals,” flavorings, colorings, and preservatives, a historically very high dietary omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio (now at 20:1 for many of us, when throughout human history the ratio has been between 4:1 and 1:1), water chlorination and fluoridation, myriad electromagnetic fields never before experienced by human bodies—and those aren’t all. With the sum of these “free radical” inducers never before experienced by human bodies, it’s no wonder that many of us have turned to “redox reaction regulator” (“antioxidant”) supplements to help improve our chances of better long-term health.
This brings us to the next—and somewhat more prestigious—“authority” cited by Newsweek as questioning the use of “antioxidant” supplements, the UK-based Cochrane Collaboration. In a 2008 article, the Cochrane reviewers wrote: “We found no evidence to support antioxidant supplements for primary or secondary prevention, [and] Vitamin A, beta-carotene, and vitamin E may increase mortality.”
But if we review flawed studies, our conclusions are quite likely to be flawed, too. Most of the studies of vitamin E reviewed used alpha-tocopherol only; in nature, alpha-tocopherol is never found alone, but always with varying quantities of beta-, delta-, and gamma-tocopherol. (Remember the media-trumpeted “vitamin E raises your risk of heart disease” study which used alpha-tocopherol only? More savvy researchers pointed out that use of alpha-tocopherol alone ultimately results in lowered levels of gamma-tocopherol, and the gamma form is more important to heart health.) Similarly, using beta-carotene alone in large quantities, without the alpha, gamma, and other carotenoids consistently found together in nature is also likely to cause problems, as is any one of the forms of vitamin A (such as retinal, retinoic acid, and retinol) without the others, and without the other substances such as (whole) vitamin E always found with vitamin A in nature.
With all due respect to the Cochrane Collaboration, which as an organization deliberately free of patent medicine company influence has published “the real scoop” on many patent medicines, their reviewers have not yet learned that—unlike patent medicines—most nutritional substances, including vitamins, were never intended (or created) to behave as individual “magic bullets,” but rather intended as parts of a coordinated natural complex in human bodies.
Newsweek concludes its article by referring to three recently published research articles on relatively obscure animal uses of “antioxidants.” In one done in rats, the researchers are misquoted as writing, “It is time to reevaluate the tumorigenic detrimental effect of ‘antioxidants’” (the Newsweek version), when what they actually wrote was, “It is time to reevaluate the tumorigenic detrimental effect of PAO [phyto-antioxidants], especially those exhibiting prooxidant bioactivity.” The researchers recognized—and apparently Newsweek could or would not—that the plant materials they researched actually functioned as pro-oxidants and antioxidants—as termed above, “redox reaction regulators.”
Another study—a real stretch—reported that NF-E2-Related Factor 2 might promote atherosclerosis. While possibly of future research interest, NF-E2-Related Factor 2 is produced by animal and human vascular cells, not generally a component of past or present human diets, and is very unlikely to go on sale as an “antioxidant” in our natural food or grocery stores!
But Newsweek outdoes itself with their third example of the “dangers of antioxidants.” The implications of the excited introductory sentence are clear: “A paper to appear in an upcoming issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that antioxidants might impair fertility.” Why, antioxidants might make you sterile! Now let’s read what the researchers wrote: “Our experiments show that administration of broad-range scavengers of oxidative species into the ovarian bursa of mice, hormonally induced to ovulate, significantly reduced the rate of ovulation.”
Are any of you ladies likely to inject broad-range scavengers of reactive oxygen species into your ovaries? And, tell us, which broad-range scavengers? One of the two “antioxidants” injected into the mouse ovaries is actually natural, and even found in natural food stores. [It’s also mentioned in the Physician’s Desk Reference (PDR), an unlikely target for Newsweek.] It’s N-acetylcysteine, which the PDR accurately reports will raise glutathione levels, not at all a bad thing, but of course injecting it into one’s ovaries isn’t usually the way it’s taken as a supplement. N-acetylcysteine also has other entirely non-antioxidant actions, such as binding zinc—essential, along with folate and vitamin B12 to DNA replication, and fertility—and copper, so not using N-acetylcysteine if you’re trying to get pregnant is a actually a good idea. Low levels of zinc have been linked—just as are low levels of folate and vitamin B12—with spina bifida and birth defects, too. But these effects have nothing at all to do with any “antioxidant” effect.
Perhaps the second antioxidant injected into the mouse ovaries is a better example. What was it? Why, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) a waxy solid used as a food additive, which according to a National Institutes of Health report is “reasonably anticipated” to be a human carcinogen based on evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. When administered as part of their diet, BHA causes papillomas and squamous cell carcinomas of the forestomach in rats and Syrian golden hamsters. In this case, I agree with Newsweek: don’t go buy BHA to inject into your ovaries! This particular “antioxidant” is likely dangerous!
So much for the attempted—but clearly failed—Newsweek “hatchet job” against “antioxidants.” In addition to the quote by the British scientist, chemist, and blogger David Bradley, who appears to have limited understanding of “antioxidants,” there is the admirable—but doomed to failure—attempt by the Cochrane Collaboration reviewers to make good science out of bad, and the three rather ludicrous references to studies of possibly “pro-oxidative antioxidants,” NF-E2-Related factor 2, butylated hydroxyanisole, and N-acetylcysteine. That’s the sum of Newsweek’s “evidence.”
But there is something to be learned about “antioxidant” supplementation, in addition to the possibility that a more accurate name for them would be “redox reaction regulators,” since they help regulate both the subtraction (“oxidation”) and addition (“reduction”) of electrons. But that’s for the technically inclined. The very practical thing for all of us to learn is that like most other nutrients, so-called antioxidants occur in groups in nature, and very rarely “all by themselves.” (Vitamin C is an exception, and very likely vitamin D, but that’s a discussion for another time.) So as our bodies are also (meant to be) natural, the antioxidants we put into our bodies should be in nature’s groupings. Whole foods are the best places to get them, and if in addition we use supplements, there are any number of “mixed greens” powders and capsules (for carotenoids), as well as “mixed berry” powders (for flavonoids).
If we’re taking individual vitamins, use all forms of each vitamin in its natural pattern—mixed tocopherols, mixed carotenoids, B-complex, and so on. If you’re not sure of the safety of a particular supplement—even though the Association of American Poison Control Centers 2008 report  noted that not even one death from use of vitamins, minerals, or botanical supplements for that entire year—check with a physician skilled and knowledgeable in nutritional and natural medicine. And lastly, for likely the next decade at least, be very skeptical of “health advice” offered by Newsweek or any of the “mainstream” media, particularly if it’s about the natural approach to healthcare.
—Jonathan Wright, MD
Jonathan V. Wright, MD, is the founder and medical director of Tahoma Clinic in Renton, Washington. With degrees from Harvard and the University of Michigan, Dr. Wright has been at the forefront of natural biomedical research and treatment since 1973 and has written many best-selling books including Your Stomach, published by Praktikos Books. Dr. Wright’s newsletter, Nutrition & Healing, is published monthly by Healthier News, L.L.C., 702 Cathedral St., Baltimore, MD 21201. To subscribe, go to www.tahomaclinic.com.
 Hsieh CL, Peng CC, et al. “Quercetin and Ferulic Acid Aggravate Renal Carcinoma in Long-Term Diabetic Victims.” J Agric Food Chem, July 29, 2010 [Epub ahead of print]
 Berenice Barajas, Nam Che, et al. “NF-E2–Related Factor 2 Promotes Atherosclerosis by Effects on Plasma Lipoproteins and Cholesterol Transport That Overshadow Antioxidant Protection.” Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 31:58-66
 Shkolnik K, Tadmor A, et al. “Reactive oxygen species are indispensable in ovulation.” Published online before print, January 10, 2011, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1017213108 PNAS January 10, 2011
 Bronstein AC, Spyker DA, Cantilena LR Jr, et al. “2008 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System (NPDS): 26th Annual Report.” Clinical Toxicology 47:911-1,084.
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