Are antioxidants extending my lifespan or shortening it?

I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that a diet crammed full of antioxidants will inevitably lead to long and healthy life. I mean, the world we live in makes it very easy to think so. But is there another side to antioxidants? Are we being fooled into thinking that we’re lengthening our time on this planet, when really we are jeopardising it?

Let’s just take a look at the theory behind antioxidants:

  • Oxidation of the molecules in our bodies cause them to split
  • This creates free radicals that are missing an electron
  • Unfortunately electrons are compelled to travel in pairs – the free radicals go searching for another electron
  • As they take these electrons they cause degeneration of other molecules in the body
  • Gradual and irreversible effects of aging are enhanced – including sagging, wrinkles, joint pain etc.

This is where antioxidants come in – they bond with the free radicals in our body and therefore prevent their destructive behaviour. The theory is then that conversely to an abundance of free radicals, the effects of aging can be slowed down.

Now if that doesn’t extend the duration of our lives, surely nothing will. Well of course not everyone is completely satisfied with that theory, which has led to the growth of an alternative theory. So if you consider the theory above as saying ‘oxidative stress shortens lifespan’, then the opposing argument says the complete opposite – ‘oxidative stress extends life span’.

This argument is based on the toughening up of the molecules in our body. Think of it like the debate about bullying in schools. Some say it makes life hell for the victims and should be stomped out completely, others argue that an element of bullying in our youth toughens us up and builds character. Now clearly that isn’t an argument I plan to get into, but the underlying theory is the same.

If we let our bodies endure the abuse of free radicals, the argument suggests that they will be stronger then to fight off more harmful diseases in the future, in particular cancer. Therefore if you fill your body with antioxidants, it might prevent frown lines for a few years, but coming face to face with a cancerous cell, you give your body no chance to fight it – or so the theory says.

An alternative view considers the the idea of jumping on the bandwagon. This is a theory for the cynical few out there. Some people believe that because the popularity of antioxidants grew so quickly, that we didn’t really know everything about them before everybody was talking about them. By this time the supplementation of antioxidants had reached a multi-billion pound market and is therefore extremely valuable to the world economy.

If government departments that deal with nutrition came out and said that in fact antioxidants aren’t as beneficial as we thought then the economy could be set to lose millions. Now it’s important to stress this is almost a conspiracy theory, and not one with a great deal of support – still it’s interesting to think about it, right?

Antioxidants are most prevalent in fresh fruit and vegetables, so even if they don’t provide all the benefits you think, it’s not like you could ever cut them out of your life. Fruit and veg is massively important in your diet and shouldn’t be cut out at any cost. But if you are particularly keen on increasing your intake of antioxidants try switching to the use of vegetable oil or olive oil and incorporate eggs, soy and coffee into your diet – all are great sources for antioxidants!

I suppose it all comes down to what you believe. If you want your body to toughen up don’t concern yourself with antioxidants, but if you want to protect yourself from every negative aspect of life there are plenty of foods out there with an abundance of antioxidants, as well as a huge industry for supplementation.

Ollie Lawrence
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