In the last twenty-something years, there has been a great deal of scientific speculation about the role of oxidative stress and antioxidants in degenerative disorders and even aging. Many scientists wondered if antioxidants might treat or cure everything from Alzheimer’s to the ravages of old age. However, before any legitimate research could even be done, an industry popped up out of nowhere, marketing antioxidant products much like traveling salesmen used to market snake oil: as if they were a panacea, or cure for everything. Today, vitamins and supplements are sold to us by an unregulated industry, floating upon a sea of anecdotes and disingenuous marketing, and under no legal obligation to prove claims or admit risks. And it is all marketed using a term that has weapons-grade sales impact, a term that is right up there with other effective yet vacuous buzzwords like “natural” or “organic”:antioxidant. Billions are made capitalizing on the overly simplistic and dangerous false dichotomy stating that antioxidants are good and oxidants are bad. However, obscured by the public fervor for antioxidants, the truth has emerged, and it is more complicated. Oxidation is essential for life. One of its important roles is facilitating immune responses to bacteria and cancer. Yes, having too many oxidants is bad. “Reactive oxygen species” have the potential to do damage to cell membranes and other components. But having too many antioxidants is also bad. There is a strong association between supplementation of antioxidants and a higher mortality rate. What we require is equilibrium between the two, which can be accomplished through a normal, reasonably healthy diet.
Admittedly, no one person can get a grasp on every nuance of a subject this complicated, and many scientists think it is still reasonable to continue to conduct clinical research on possible therapeutic uses for anti-oxidants. There may be hope yet for an antioxidant to prove efficacious for some obscure degenerative disorder, but until then, the antioxidant craze seems pretty bunk to me.


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