There are many different supplements that claim to be able to either turn back the clock or at least in some cases stop the clock. These all work through a variety of different methods and are met with mixed success – some are mostly hype while others have a little more to them and can help you to protect your body from the harmful effects of aging as well as some other problems.
The difficulty then can be in selecting which supplements and wonder drugs you should take, and which are worth your hard earned cash. However it's probably worth saying now that if you're hoping for the elixir of life then you'll have to wait a few years for science to catch up – no matter what the marketing says.
Of these myriad options there is a particular type you might have heard a lot about which is 'antioxidants'. These are talked about a lot and they're included in a vast range of products, supplements and natural foods. The reason they're so popular is that they are proven to work, and that they are relatively easy for pharmaceutical companies and food manufacturers to incorporate into their recipes. Antioxidants are no new discovery and have existed in our food for years and have often been found to correlate with more youthful looks, increased lifespans and reduced risk of cancer. Because they're found naturally in their diet, this also means that more people can feel comfortable taking them and not worry about putting synthetic chemicals or compounds into their bodies.
However while we know that they work, the question is whether or not they work well enough to warrant being marketed as a great anti-aging or anti-cancer supplement. Likewise, if they are already in our diet, why do we need to supplement with expensive tablets?
How Do Antioxidants Work? Understanding Cells
First you need to understand how antioxidants work and to understand this you also need to know about free radicals and about how our cells work. As you probably already know, our cells are what make up our body and every last part of us is made from a selection of cells which perform different tasks – skin cells, brain cells, blood cells etc. There are millions of these in our body but they have a finite lifespan and die over time (apoptosis being programmed cell death and necrosis which is cell death in response to injury etc) and need to be replaced by new cells. These new cells are formed via mitosis – which occurs when your 'old' cells split in half creating two identical cells. Over the course of around ten years every single cell in your body will be replaced by new cells, which creates some interesting questions about identify... but that's for another time.
Every single cell has a nucleus in its centre which contains our DNA. This DNA is the 'blueprint' that the body has for instructing our cells where to go and for ensuring that each cell functions correctly and accurately. When these cells split you are in theory left with two identical cells with identical DNA and that means that you could live on endlessly by recycling old cells. However this isn't precisely what happens, and instead you end up with imperfect copies that are a result of many different factors and which cause the cells to function not quite optimally and often to be visibly different from the way they were intended.
Free radicals are one of the reasons that these imperfections exist and also that cells die in the first place. Free radicals are reactive chemicals in the body which can damage the cells and are a result of oxidisation of the very air we breathe in in order to keep us alive. These free radicals are lose in our bodies and will travel around colliding with our cell walls causing visible damage. For the skin cells this can become visibly obvious when enough damage has been done and result in the appearance of wrinkles and lines. As our mitosis slows down as we get older and eventually stops (due to the shortening of the telomeres at the end of DNA strands after each mitosis), this results in more visible lines and wrinkles in our faces as a result of free radicals causing the damage.
However where the real problem lies is when the free radicals manage to breach the cell walls and to affect the actual DNA. When this happens the free radicals can damage the actual genetic code which determines the placement and behavior of our cells (mutation) and this results in those cells being cancerous. If the cancerous cells are detected by the body's natural immune systems then they will be destroyed, but if they are not then they can continue to spread through body causing widespread damage and resulting ultimately in death.
Thus the role of antioxidants is to block free radicals from occurring by preventing the oxidisation of other molecules, thus meaning that there are fewer in the body and thus meaning that they are less likely to cause so much damage to the individual cells and DNA. This of course then result in less visible cumulative cell damage in the skin (meaning fewer wrinkles) and can also protect against cancer.
Should You Use Them?
So the question is are antioxidant supplements a good idea? Are there any side effects? And should you get the antioxidants from your diet or from tablets?
As it goes there are not really any health warnings involved with antioxidants, although if you are taking anti-cancer medications then some unwanted interactions can render this less effective. Although oxidisation is actually an important function in the body this is unlikely to be affected to a negative degree by supplementation.
Of course antioxidants are not going to completely prevent damage to your cells and there will always be free radical damage occurring in your body. However they can certainly helps and getting them in your diet one way or another is a good idea – and particularly if you are an athlete of some sort as during athletic activity oxidisation is multiplied around ten times.
There are many great natural sources of antioxidants and they include fruits (particularly tomatoes and grapes), vegetables, tuna and oily fish (containing essential fatty acids) and even wine. Getting your antioxidants from a natural source is preferable to supplementing your diet as you will this way be more likely to absorb the antioxidants, and at the same time it will mean you can benefit from many other positive attributes in these foods – such as protein in fish or other vitamins and fibre in fruits and vegetables.
However if you are not getting as many antioxidants as you would like from your diet then supplementing is certainly a good way to make sure you do get them. While many supplements will do a good job (including a good old fashioned multi-vitamin as vitamin C is an antioxidant), a particularly good option is supplementing with 'resveratrol'. This substance is not only an antioxidant but is also responsible for increasing the function of the mitochondria – which directly surround the cell and convert glucose into ATP. Because the mitochondria surround the cells these can further protect the cells from damage by free radicals and so prevent damage and mutation.