Do you take antioxidants or a regular multivitamin? Turns out you might not need to, according to new research in the Cochrane Review that refutes the long-held belief that antioxidants prevent disease or cancer.
Researchers conducted a meta-analysis of existing studies, pertaining to more than 200,000 people, and found that antioxidant supplements--vitamins A, C, and E; beta-carotene; and selenium--do not prevent heart disease or cancer, do not forestall death, and may even increase mortality risk slightly.
But the phrase "may increase mortality risk slightly" is important to put any risk in context. Given the large pool of people analyzed, researchers would have noticed right away if there was any significant risk of death associated with the supplements. So if all we have is a hint of modest harm, the risk is clearly quite small.
This finding is disappointing and counter-intuitive. How can antioxidant supplements fail to help us and maybe even harm us slightly?
There are several likely answers. First, we may have the doses wrong. Just because some of a thing is good does not mean more is better. Second, maybe we have the wrong combinations. Antioxidants in foods come packaged with many other nutrients, and they all work together. When we separate that harmony, we may wind up with sour notes. Third, the participants in most of these trials were already ill. Perhaps antioxidants have different effects before chronic disease begins. They might even help prevent disease if taken earlier.
In general, my advice about a supplement is to remember it's not a substitute for a healthy diet and lifestyle. Use supplements thoughtfully. Talk to your doctor to be sure there is a sound reason, tailored to your health, for each one you take. Don’t assume that just because a clever ad makes a supplement sound good that it truly is.
I take an Omega-3 fish oil supplement every day, and recommend the same for most of my patients. I believe a multivitamin or mineral supplement is a good idea for many of us, despite a lack of research that shows a clear benefit. (I also like a supplement called Juice Plus, which compresses the nutrients from fruits and vegetables into capsule form, while preserving their native proportions.)
Based on the science we have at present, there is no reason to fear any antioxidant supplements you may have been taking--the potential for harm is minimal. But remember: No pill bottle holds an alternative for a healthy, active lifestyle.
by David Katz, MD, PREVENTION, on Thu Apr 17, 2008 11:40am PDT
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