Health Tips / Antioxidants

What Is It?

Over the last several decades, scientists have discovered that the body’s formation of unstable oxygen molecules called free radicals is unavoidable–every cell produces tens of thousands of them each day. We’re also exposed to free radicals in the environment on a daily basis. Cigarette smoke, for instance, is one of the most concentrated sources of free radicals.

Left unchecked, free radicals can cause extensive cell damage and contribute to a whole list of chronic diseases. Luckily, the body does have a defense system against these rogue “oxidant” compounds: antioxidants. Found in numerous fruits and vegetables, and even produced naturally by the human body, antioxidants literally “mop up” free radicals.

The more familiar antioxidants include vitamins E and C; the carotenoids (such as beta-carotene); selenium; and flavonoids (anthocyanidins, polyphenols, quercetin). All of these are readily supplied by a varied and well-balanced diet. Probably lesser known are the so-called “factory-installed” antioxidants produced by the body itself; these include glutathione, alpha-lipoic acid, and coenzyme Q10.

Antioxidants in the form of dietary supplements have been available for years, and while they can’t substitute for a healthy diet and lifestyle, they can play a role in reinforcing your overall health and resilience. Antioxidant supplements are best taken in the form of combination products because multiple antioxidants appear to work together synergistically far more effectively than a single antioxidant, no matter how high the dose. In addition, some supplements, such as zinc, copper, and selenium, are necessary to actually strengthen the body’s own antioxidant protection system.

Most antioxidant combinations contain a standard ingredient base, namely vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and the mineral selenium. After that, there is a great deal of variation. Some combinations include newly discovered antioxidants, such as proanthocyanidins (flavonoids found in grape seed extract, pine bark, and red wine), N-acetylcysteine (NAC), alpha-lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, and zinc. Others feature potent herbal antioxidants such as ginkgo biloba or green tea.

Health Benefits

When you have too few antioxidants to counteract your free radicals, significant damage can occur, leading to a variety of chronic degenerative diseases, ranging from stroke and fibromyalgia, to sinusitis, arthritis, vision problems, and even Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. A poor diet, cigarette smoking, environmental pollutants, and ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun also increase the free-radical load, creating a situation known as “oxidative stress.”

Ongoing research, however, indicates that a high antioxidant intake really does help stave off some of these illnesses, specifically the risk of various cancers–those of the stomach, prostate, colon, breast, bladder, and pancreas among others–over a person’s lifetime. Antioxidants also appear to boost overall health and resilience.

Specifically, antioxidants may help to:

Prevent heart disease. Antioxidants such as vitamin E halt the oxidation of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. This is beneficial because once LDL is oxidized it can become trapped in the artery walls, damaging the lining of the artery and leading to the accumulation of fatty deposits called plaque. Eventually, plaque can build up so much that it narrows the space within the artery. Blood clots may form on the plaque and completely block the flow of blood. In a coronary artery, this will cause a heart attack. In an artery within the brain, the result is a stroke.

Control high blood pressure. By scouring out the free-radical molecules that can cause oxidative damage (to LDL or “bad” cholesterol, specifically), antioxidants help your blood vessels stay flexible and able to dilate, which in turn helps keep your blood pressure from worsening.

In fact, until recently scientists believed that regular intake of vitamin C, a major antioxidant, could help lower blood pressure by widening blood vessels. Several studies seemed to indicate that this was true. However, a new study has found that vitamin C may actually speed up–not slow down–hardening of the arteries. Until more about this surprising association is understood, it’s probably best to opt for a mixed combination of antioxidants rather than single, high doses of vitamin C.

Protect against diabetes-related damage. One of the reasons that diabetes is so important to monitor closely is that it can affect so many organ systems: eyes, kidneys, blood vessels, heart. It’s thought that the altered metabolic state brought about by diabetes produces free radicals, which in turn are responsible for these types of damage. That’s why it makes so much sense, especially if you have diabetes, to use antioxidants to reinforce your defense system against free-radical damage.

Block the development of certain cancers. Stomach, prostate, colon, breast, bladder, esophageal, and pancreatic–these are just a few of the types of cancer that may be prevented by antioxidants. In a comprehensive review of 130 studies examining the connection between diet and cancer, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that 92% of the studies showed that taking antioxidant supplements or eating antioxidant-rich foods significantly reduced the risk of cancer.

Slow the effects of aging. According to one theory, antioxidants may impede the excessive formation of free radicals that probably play a part in the wrinkling of skin, loss of muscle elasticity, reduced immunity, and memory failures. So although you can’t completely prevent aging, you may be able to minimize some of its effects with antioxidants.

Note: Antioxidants have also been found to be useful for a number of other disorders. For information on these additional ailments, see our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Antioxidants.



Dosage Information

Special tips:

–Take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and a well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of these supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.

–Opt for an antioxidant combination product rather than a single antioxidant supplement. The latest studies indicate that a single antioxidant at high doses will not provide the same degree of protection as a combination of antioxidants. In fact, a single antioxidant used by itself may be harmful, becoming a free radical itself. When other antioxidants are present, they all help recycle each other. Combination products are also more convenient and less expensive than individual antioxidants.

For general good health: Look for an antioxidant complex that contains at least the nutrients listed here in the recommended dosage. Combination products vary considerably. In general, look for a product that will increase the number of different antioxidants you take each day rather than simply duplicating those already found in your daily multiple vitamin.

Basic antioxidant vitamins:

800-1,000 mg vitamin C 400 IU vitamin E 100-200 mcg selenium 10,000-50,000 IU mixed carotenes 15-30 mg zinc 1-2 mg copper “Enriching” antioxidants:

50-100 mg proanthocyanidins (including flavonoids, such as grape seed extract, pine bark, and red wine) 50-150 mg NAC (N-acetylcysteine) 50-100 mg alpha-lipoic acid 10-30 mg coenzyme Q10 30 mg ginkgo biloba 25-100 mg green tea extract Different dosages or other antioxidants may be recommended for specific health conditions. See the individual entries in the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for more information.

Guidelines for Use

Take antioxidant supplements with meals. Foods that contain a little bit of fat enhance the absorption of vitamin E and carotenoids.

It’s best to take antioxidant supplements in two doses during the day. That way, you are constantly providing your body with a fresh supply.

Opt for natural vitamin E supplements. Studies show that E derived from natural sources is better absorbed than synthetic forms of the vitamin. But don’t rely simply on the word ”natural” on the label. Check the ingredient list for d-alpha tocopherol (a natural form of vitamin E). Don’t buy those that contain dl-alpha tocopherol.

In addition to antioxidant supplements, it is important to include plenty of vegetables, fruits, and other plant foods in your diet. Many of the flavonoids are not available in supplement form, and there are probably many undiscovered beneficial compounds in plant foods. A number of important antioxidants are found in foods:

Vitamin C is plentiful in fruits and vegetables, especially dark leafy greens, citrus fruits, strawberries, red peppers, kiwi, papaya, broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. If you eat six servings or more of fruits and vegetables each day, you may not need a vitamin C supplement.

Carotenoids are found in orange fruits and vegetables and in red and dark green vegetables. Apricots, carrots, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, and winter squash are good sources of beta-carotene. Lycopene is found in tomatoes. Lutein is found in dark green leafy vegetables and red peppers. Alpha-carotene is found in pumpkin, carrots, yellow peppers, and winter squash.

Vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, wheat germ, and dark leafy greens all contain vitamin E. But it’s impossible to get therapeutic amounts of the vitamin from diet alone. For example, you’d need to eat 25 pounds of almonds or consume nearly 9 cups of canola oil to get 400 IU of vitamin E.

Flavonoids are found in a wide array of fruits and vegetables. In particular, beets contain anthocyanidins, green tea contains polyphenols, and apples and onions contain quercetin. Other good flavonoid sources include citrus fruits, berries, and red wine.

General Interaction

People on anticoagulant drugs should talk to their doctor before taking antioxidant complexes containing more than 400 IU of vitamin E. This popular antioxidant can have an anticoagulant effect of its own when taken in higher doses.

Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy should talk to their oncologists about antioxidant supplementation.


Antioxidant combinations are extremely safe and virtually free from side effects. Some people with sensitive digestive systems get mild nausea or upset stomach with virtually any nutritional supplement, so your best bet is to take supplements with food and avoid taking them on an empty stomach.

Antioxidant combinations are safe to use during pregnancy and when breast-feeding. Ailments Dosage Diabetes 1,000 mg vitamin C, 400 IU vitamin E, and 150 mg alpha-lipoic acid each morning Fibromyalgia 1 capsule twice a day High Blood Pressure 1 or 2 capsules twice a day Sinusitis 1 or 2 pills twice a day as a convenient combination pill, usually including vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene as well as selenium, alpha-lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, flavonoids, and more

Doctor Recommendations

Most antioxidant combinations generally contain a standard ingredient base, namely vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and the mineral selenium. After that, there is a great deal of variation. Some combinations will include some or all of the newer “industrial strength” ingredients, such as proanthocyanidins (including flavonoids such as grape seed extract, pine bark, and red wine), N-acetylcysteine (NAC), alpha-lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10 and zinc. Others feature herbal antioxidants such as ginkgo biloba or green tea.


In my view, the data now emerging on the long-term health benefits of antioxidants is so compelling that you should buy the best complex that you can afford.

Combination Products

Combination products vary considerably. In general, you should look for a product that in combination with your multivitamin supplies dosages in the ranges listed below. Be prepared to look at lots of labels: There’s great diversity from brand to brand. Begin with the basic vitamins:

800-1,000 mg vitamin C

400 IU vitamin E

10,000-50,000 IU mixed carotenes

100-200 mcg selenium Then look for one or more of the following “enriching” ingredients:

50-100 mg proanthocyanidins

50-150 mg NAC (N-acetylcysteine)

50-100 mg alpha-lipoic acid

10-30 mg coenzyme Q10

30 mg ginkgo biloba

25-100 mg green tea extract

7.5-15 mg zinc While it may be a little tricky to find exactly the right formulation, in the end combination products are a real convenience. However expensive the combo seems to be, just remember that buying all these antioxidants separately would be even more costly.

For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700, ext. 2001.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD