Ryan Hall, DCN-c, MSc, CNS
The role that oxidative stress plays in chronic disease has been made quite clear. In fact, it may be the most agreed upon etiological factor for the generation and progression of chronic disease. Unfortunately, in modern industrial societies it is as if the lifestyles people are encouraged to live, are themselves, oxidative and inflammatory.
Over the course of our species’ evolution our physiology has been shaped via interactions with stressors from our environment. This has included elements such as our diet, movement, community, threats, etc. These inputs encouraged development of adaptive systems and mechanisms within our bodies so that we can skillfully deal with the unavoidable insult of living.
One way in which the human organism adapted to the stressors from its environment was the development of endogenous antioxidant generation. These include the enzymatic pathways of superoxide dismutase, catalase, glutathione peroxidase, and glutathione reductase. Additionally, we have also gotten nutritional antioxidants from our diets. Such as vitamin A, E, & C, along with essential fatty acids, flavonoids, and trace minerals.
We developed the ability to synthesize endogenous antioxidants to deal with cellularly generated oxidative agents generally referred to as reactive oxygen species (ROS). These include superoxide radical, hydroxyl radicals, hydrogen peroxide, singlet oxygen, and peroxynitrite to name a few. These ROS act as stimulatory agents on a family of transcription factors known as nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB). NF-kB in turn acts to stimulate the production of numerous inflammatory cytokines.
Evolutionarily we would have foraged around and consumed high amounts of wild foliage, berries and fruits, nuts and seeds, wild game, and fish which would have contributed a great deal of the nutrients necessary for the maintenance of our endogenous antioxidant systems, as well as nutritional antioxidants. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Industrialized society’s people now consume high amounts of nutrient deficient refined grain products, pro inflammatory seed oils, and high amounts of refined sugars. This contributes to high levels of oxidative stress which can exhaust our endogenous antioxidant systems while not having enough nutritional antioxidants to make a difference. It has been thought that supraphysiological dosages of dietary antioxidants would be supportive of reducing oxidative stress and overall be a good thing. However, this assumption has been brought into question as results of studies have been overall inconclusive.
Nothing that happens within the body is for no reason. That stands for the generation of ROS as well. ROS serve multiple purposes, some of them beneficial via triggering signaling cascades, genetic expression, regulation of immune function, stimulating endogenous antioxidant function, or through induction of cell division. Therefore, it becomes important to balance the generation of ROS with endogenous and exogenous antioxidants. Thus, the devil may be in the dose.
Our physiology developed to function optimally with adequate nutrition that would have been found in the diet of our ancestors. Recent examinations of the evidence regarding supraphysiological doses of antioxidants compared to amounts that can be supplied via the diet provide a new, and ancient, way of understanding the proper balance of oxidative stress and antioxidants. It has been well known and understood that nutrients provided at dietary levels have one action, at supraphysiological levels can have the opposite action and be harmful. For example, vitamin C at nutritional levels acts as an antioxidant, but at supraphysiological levels acts in an oxidative fashion as it can contribute to the possibility for iron and copper to undergo oxidation. Similar findings have been reported for -carotene, vitamin E, and various polyphenols. In contrary antioxidant nutrients, and needed enzymatic cofactors, supplied at levels that can be found within the diet may be more effective at reducing markers of oxidative stress without the possibility of harmfully impacting the positive roles that ROS play.
These findings encourage a “food first” approach. This especially holds true in regard to prevention. It is as clear cut when a disease process is at work. It makes the greatest sense to provide “up-stream” support for redox balance, rather than simply overwhelming the system with “antioxidants.”
In conclusion, redox balance and antioxidant supplementation is complex. The premise that nutrients provided from the diet and in dietary amounts makes sense to be most supportive of maintaining homeostatic balance within the body regarding redox balance and antioxidant capacity. However, I think we will still find situations where the use of supplemental doses are useful. It is important to consider someone’s nutritional status, presence or absence of disease, financial resources, access to cooking equipment, and access to whole foods in order to make appropriate recommendations. At Resilient Roots we have found that context is key. Increasing the nutrient density of the diet and phytonutrients diversity are always end goals, but the appropriate use of supplemental antioxidants can be helpful.