Antioxidants and Disease Prevention

There’s a whole array of health benefits that may be possible from taking certain nutrients. “We used to think of vitamins strictly in terms of what you needed to prevent short-term deficiencies”, says Simon Nikbin Meydani, chief of the Nutritional Immunology Laboratory at the Research Center on Aging. “Now we’re starting to think about what the optimal level of vitamins is for lifelong health and the prevention of age-associated diseases.”

Much of the exiting news is about nutrients that act as antioxidants. In your body you have compounds known as free radicals. These are unstable molecules that can damage your body in much the same way rust attacks metal.

Scientists believe that free radicals contribute to cancers, heart disease and respiratory problems. They’re formed by everyday reactions in your body or from environmental influences such as smog, sunlight and cigarette smoke. Antioxidants, however, can latch onto the free radicals and render them harmless.

Nutrients that act as antioxidants include beta-carotene (which converts to vitamin A in the body), vitamin C and vitamin E.

What exactly can these nutrients do? In a Harvard University study, 165 male doctors with signs of heart disease took beta-carotene supplements every other day for six years. They had half the number of strokes, heart attacks and heart-related deaths compared to a similar group of doctors who didn’t take supplements. And nurses who took daily supplements of vitamin E had less risk of heart attack.

The anti-cancer evidence is also strong. “There is no doubt in my mind that vitamins C and E and beta-carotene are effective in protecting against a whole array of cancers”, says researcher Gladys Block, professor of public health nutrition.

Antioxidants aren’t the only headline-grabbers in the nutrient world. Other nutrients have vital health roles as well. Calcium and vitamin D are crucial in preventing osteoporosis. Zinc may improve wound healing. Folic acid apparently can help prevent serious birth defects. And list goes on.

You may think of all fats as bad for you, so you may be surprised to learn that some fats, in moderation, may help fight diseases such s cancer and heart disease. On supplement shelves you’ll find many types of fats.

A few other common supplements don’t fit into any of the categories above but nonetheless may offer substantial health benefits. Brewer’s yeast, for example, is packed with many valuable nutrients. Fiber supplements may help fight constipation and high cholesterol. Garlic tablets may help battle cancer and improve cardiovascular health. And some enzyme supplements can help your digestion.

If you decide to take any supplement, you should choose it carefully and in consultation with your doctor. Some nutrients can interact with each other, making one less or more available. And you can overdose on certain supplements, with potentially serious consequences. For example, vitamin A, vitamin D, niacin and iron should all be taken with extreme caution.

Consumers sometimes have become ill from taking mislabeled or misformulated supplements. You should select products marketed by manufactures and retailers you trust. If you have specific questions, write or call the company.

Keep in mind that supplements cannot make up for poor nutrition or an unhealthy lifestyle. They may, however, fill in any nutrient gaps in your diet and help ensure your optimal health.

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