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Your Antioxidant Cocktail

Drink lots of juice? Eat plenty of vegetables? Take a daily multivitamin, plus extra C, E, and beta-carotene? You may think you are getting all the antioxidants you need. But you're probably not taking in the right ones, according to Lester Packer, Ph.D., professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a leading antioxidant researcher.

In his new book The Antioxidant Miracle, Dr. Packer identifies five specific antioxidants he says are key to obtaining maximum protection against cancer, heart disease, cataracts, Alzheimer's, and other ravages of age. Two of them you're probably familiar with: vitamin C and vitamin E. The others, coenzyme Q10, alpha-lipoic acid, and glutathione, are less well known.

Scientists have known for years that hundreds of compounds act as antioxidants. Some are found in foods, others produced by the body. Antioxidants work their magic by counteracting free radicals, naturally occurring molecules that can damage cells and eventually cause disease if left unchecked.

Although research has generally focused on the effects of a single antioxidant, such as vitamin E, Dr. Packer and other scientists believe your body is best served by a blend of antioxidants acting in synergy, what Dr. Packer calls an "antioxidant network." According to this theory, antioxidants are more effective and better able to ward off cell damage when present in a balanced combination. In other words, antioxidants work best as a team. And having one or two star players--even if they're in the same league as Michael Jordan--isn't enough.

Building an antioxidant network
Research by Dr. Packer and others suggests several reasons you need a balanced mix of antioxidants.

First, antioxidants work on different parts of the cell, and a range of them provides all-around protection, like a comprehensive insurance policy. Fat-soluble vitamin E, for instance, exists in two forms, tocopherols (the most common form of the vitamin) and tocotrienols, and each form protects discrete areas of the cell's fatty outer membrane. Vitamin C, on the other hand, protects the watery cell interior, while alpha-lipoic acid uniquely protects both inside and out. Another antioxidant, coenzyme Q10, is concentrated in heart cells.

Second, not everyone reacts to each antioxidant in the same way. Dr. Packer points out that as many as 30% of people taking vitamin E don't respond to its heart-protecting properties. "If you add other antioxidants," he says, "you strengthen the whole antioxidant network and make vitamin E more effective."

Finally, taking one antioxidant to the exclusion of others may even be dangerous. Once an individual antioxidant neutralizes a free radical, it becomes a weak free radical itself. Unless it can be "recycled" by other antioxidants, its beneficial effects are lost, and it may even become harmful. This may be one reason why in two large studies, high doses of beta-carotene increased the risk of lung cancer in smokers. If fresh supplies of vitamins C and E had been present, they might have recycled the beta-carotene and prevented it from becoming a cancer-causing free radical.

Our antioxidant recommendations
Adults can benefit from taking supplements of four of the five key antioxidants: vitamins C and E, coenzyme Q10, and alpha-lipoic acid. Glutathione is the exception: The body makes it from protein-rich foods, but it's not well absorbed as a supplement. We also recommend the mineral selenium to support the key players. If you don't like the idea of taking too many pills, you can probably hold off on coenzyme Q10 and alpha-lipoic acid, at least until your forties or fifties, when the body's production of these substances begins to decline. CoQ10 is particularly useful for anyone with heart disease or for those taking cholesterol-lowering statin drugs or red yeast rice, which can deplete the body's stores of the coenzyme.

Other antioxidants may benefit specific groups of people. Mixed carotenoids are good for those who don't get enough fruits and vegetables. Ginkgo biloba may be especially useful for those concerned about memory or poor circulation. And proanthocyanadins, sold as Pycnogenol or grape-seed extract, are often recommended for those with vascular disorders.

Further reading
Lester Packer, Ph.D., The Antioxidant Miracle (Wiley, 1999); Mitchell Gaynor, M.D., Dr. Gaynor's Cancer Prevention Program (Kensington, 1999)

For additional information
Click here for tips on "Assembling An All-Star Antioxidant Team."

For additional in-depth information on specific antioxidants, see our individual library entries on vitamin C, vitamin E, coenzyme Q10, alpha-lipoic acid, carotenoids, ginkgo biloba, proanthocyanadins, and glutathione.

Date Posted: 03/20/2001

Date Published: 07/10/2005
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