We are often being told – especially by sellers of food supplements and skin cremes- that antioxidants slow down the aging process. Antioxidants would delay aging by mopping up reactive free radicals that otherwise damage our DNA. These dreadful free radicals are produced as a side effect by our metabolism.

But mounting evidence shows that antioxidants don’t slow down aging. And the free radicals aren’t always the bad guys. Free radicals can even function as a benign warning sign, revving up the cell’s defense mechanisms, like detoxification enzymes and repair proteins, protecting our cells against age-related damage.

Studies have shown that genetically modified worms that produce more free radicals, live 32% longer. Giving worms a weed-controlling herbicide that creates a surge in free radical production makes these worms even live 58% longer.

While free radicals aren’t always bad, antioxidants can be damaging. A large meta-analysis of 230 000 patients has shown that people who take antioxidants have an increased rate of death.

In conclusion, taking antioxidants isn’t always a good thing. Of course, when you are deficient of certain antioxidants, you do have to take them to replenish the ranks. But taking extra antioxidants to slow down the aging process doesn’t seem to work unfortunately. Meanwhile, aging seems much more complex than just free radicals damaging our cellular machinery.

Author: Kris Verburgh, MD

References:

A Mitochondrial Superoxide Signal Triggers Increased Longevity in Caenorhabditis elegans. Wen Yang, Siegfried Hekimi. PLoS Biology, 2013.
Is the oxidative stress theory of ageing dead? Pérez VI et al. Biochim Biophys Acta, 2009. Mortality in randomized trials of antioxidant supplements for primary and secondary prevention: systematic review and meta-analysis. Bjelakovic, G. et al. JAMA, 2007. Picture: cc Wikicommons