Antioxidants

October 2015….New information regarding the safe use of antioxidants.

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Antioxidants are once again in the news. The use of antioxidant supplements by cancer patients has been a controversial subject for years. Note that I said antioxidant supplements; pills, powders, drinks etc. I did not say antioxidants in the diet. There is an important distinction here. The studies being done are using antioxidant supplements. Antioxidants in your normal balanced diet are safe to consume.

Patients undergoing chemotherapy &/or radiation have routinely been asked to stop all antioxidant supplementation during treatment. Here is a simplified definition of how chemotherapy & radiation therapies work: they destroy cancer cells by inducing free radicals and by promoting oxidation of the cancer cells. Added antioxidants were thought to block the oxidation process, consequently interfering with treatment.

In January of 2013, James Watson, PhD, & Noble Prize winner for discovering the DNA double helix, published a report regarding cancer therapies. In this report he said: “Everyone thought antioxidants were great,” he said. “But I’m saying they can prevent us from killing cancer cells.”  Here is a good article about his stance; which, by the way, caused a huge uproar among researchers & oncologists. DNA pioneer James Watson takes aim at “cancer establishments”  Dr. Watson also said that cancer cells produce their own antioxidants to block oxidation from treatments. Recent research has proven him right.

January 2014 in WebMD  Could Antioxidants Speed Up Cancer Progression?  “Smokers and other people at high risk for lung cancer could make matters worse if they take antioxidant supplements, a new study of rodents suggests. Antioxidants appear to accelerate cancer progression by short-circuiting one of the body’s key immune responses to malignant cells, researchers from Sweden report.” This article goes on to explain the process in the body to detect and repair cellular DNA damage. Antioxidants help with this, but in patients with cancer or precancerous cells this repair work “hides” the cancer cells, making them undetectable. Research done with people suggests the same outcome.

In July of 2014, Medscape published this article: Antioxidants Appear to Be Harmful in Cancer Patients  “While alternative health gurus often encourage increasing antioxidants in the diet and the taking of antioxidant nutritional supplements such as beta-carotene, vitamins A, C, and E, and selenium, new research findings suggest that antioxidants could do more harm than good, especially in cancer patients.” This is an excellent, balanced, look at antioxidant supplementation. Some research has shown that it is dose dependent. Even the FDA recommended dosage of Vitamin E has been shown to cause adverse effects with prostate cancer. The same with selenium. If cancer cells are producing antioxidants to protect themselves from oxidation then adding more antioxidants in the form of supplements upsets the balance & the cancer cells grow & become more aggressive in some cancers. More research needs to be done but this is what newer studies are suggesting.  

October 14, 2015. A study done at the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute UT Southwestern has made the headlines this past weekend. Study shows antioxidant use may promote spread of cancer  “We discovered that metastasizing melanoma cells experience very high levels of oxidative stress, which leads to the death of most metastasizing cells,” said Dr. Sean Morrison, CRI Director and Mary McDermott Cook Chair in Pediatric Genetics at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “Administration of antioxidants to the mice allowed more of the metastasizing melanoma cells to survive, increasing metastatic disease burden. The idea that antioxidants are good for you has been so strong that there have been clinical trials done in which cancer patients were administered antioxidants,” added Dr. Morrison, who is also a CPRIT Scholar in Cancer Research and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. “Some of those trials had to be stopped because the patients getting the antioxidants were dying faster. Our data suggest the reason for this: cancer cells benefit more from antioxidants than normal cells do.” This is the newest published study. 

I think based on the studies so far it is fair to say that cancer patients should avoid taking antioxidant supplements before, during & after treatment. This would include supplement pills; Vitamin E, C, A, Selenium & Beta Carotene, powdered greens, concentrated green tea, & any other product touting the high concentration of antioxidants.

My Plate 1What about having a diet high in antioxidants? Adding more whole foods that are high in antioxidants without looking at the overall balance of your diet can potentially cause problems. If you are eating a plant based, balanced diet such as the Mediterranean or DASH diet then you have nothing to worry about. Whole foods that are high in antioxidants are complex and contain fiber, buffers, vitamins & minerals that all work together synergistically. It would be rare that you would eat enough antioxidants in your food to be considered a “high level”. A serving of blueberries is still beneficial, but packing your smoothie with berries is not; based on what I have been reading.

January 2015

If you haven’t read my recent post titled, Antioxidant Update, you should. Look under Blog at the top of the page or look at recent posts on the side of the page.

Here is a link to an article, January 2014, from the Harvard, School of Public Health. This article, Antioxidants: Beyond the Hype, explains what antioxidants are and how they work at a cellular level. It focuses on recent studies regarding antioxidants & supplements. In my opinion these studies show that we should not rely on supplements to fix our health problems. By thinking this way people tend to take larger dosages because ‘more is better’. Turns out ‘more’ may mean an increase in health risks, not a decrease.

What about taking extra antioxidants during chemotherapy &/or radiation therapy? Do they interfere with the treatments? Past studies are still about 50/50 as to whether added antioxidants interfere or not. I have underlined added antioxidants because that is what we are talking about. Antioxidants in supplement form, powdered greens, concentrated green tea, added antioxidants in drinks and processed food. We are not talking about antioxidants in your normal diet. The blueberries on your cereal or the carrots in your salad, or the 2 cups of green tea you normally have. Antioxidants in your diet are safe and balanced.

Here is a simplified definition of how chemotherapy & radiation therapies work: they destroy cancer cells by inducing free radicals and by promoting oxidation of the cancer cells. Studies were done to see if antioxidants would decrease the risks of cancer and other diseases. From the Harvard article cited above: “Even before the results of these trials were in, the media, and the supplement and food industries began to hype the benefits of “antioxidants.” Frozen berries, green tea, and other foods labeled as being rich in antioxidants began popping up in stores. Supplement makers touted the disease-fighting properties of all sorts of antioxidants.”

The question is will the added antioxidants stop the oxidation of cancer cells during treatment. Until a clinical trial on cancer patients undergoing treatment can definitively prove that extra antioxidants will interfere with therapies my humble opinion is to err on the side of caution and stop all supplements, concentrates, green powders etc. during treatment.

I will conclude with a link to an article in Medscape, July 11, 2014, Antioxidants Appear to be Harmful in Cancer Patient . This is a great read.

I will continue to update this page with current information regarding the antioxidant debate.