Antioxidants evolved when
the atmosphere became “polluted” with oxygen a millennia ago forcing plants to synthesize them in order to survive. Our energy production apparatus uses oxygen both to our advantage and disadvantage. We produce significant amounts of energy through the effective use of oxygen. However, a small amount of oxygen (5%) is lost during that process to produce free radicals (oxidative stress), which can cause serious damage to the cellular structures in the body if left unchecked. Antioxidants provide service by sacrificing themselves to render the free radicals harmless. This function is essential to healthful and high performance living.
The presence of free radicals is a common thread in any discussion about muscular endurance, fatigue, aging, and serious diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimers and Lou Gehrigs disease. Although we do make some, the majority of our antioxidants are provided by our food, particularly green and colored vegetables. Studies clearly show that the consumption of 5-7 vegetables and fruits per day provides enough antioxidant support for the average person; one who is not under any stress or exercising to a significant degree. Studies also clearly show that the vast majority of Americans do not consume anywhere near this amount, with a troublesome number struggling to consume just one or two servings.
So, what must a person under stress or exercising consume in order stay healthy, productive and energized? The oxidative stress of routine exercise stimulates the body to develop proteins that protect us from future stress. The effect of that stress is experienced as fatigue or heaviness which makes us want to rest. Many times, we do not or can not respond to this need.
What about the inconsistent exercise of the weekend warrior, or the athlete with the stress of family life, work or illness? The RDAs are not adequate to meet these needs and studies have shown that higher amounts of these well known antioxidants are needed for healthy active adults vitamin C (800-3000mg), vitamin E (200-800iu), and beta carotene (20,000-50,000iu). Even higher amounts have been suggested for the endurance athlete.
Lesser known antioxidants, amino acids, and minerals also play key roles in protecting the body such as Coenzyme Q10, lipoate, N-acetylcysteine (precursor to glutathione which is not well absorbed and considered the master antioxidant), magnesium and carnitine. Except for carnitine, dietary sources do not provide significant amounts of these factors. Also, for endurance athletes or active individuals during periods of higher stress, it would be extremely challenging, if not impossible, to consume adequate quantities from our diet.
Recent studies have questioned the safety of vitamin E in sick, elderly individuals with heart disease. However, many good scientific studies have demonstrated how antioxidants, like vitamin E, actually improve performance, protect the body from aging and DNA damage, as well as support the safe production of energy at higher intensities in healthy individuals.
For mature athletes, it is not just about performing this week, or this season. It is about being active as a lifestyle choice for a lifetime. When you add the value of fast recovery, disease prevention, and slowed aging, its clear that the educated use of diet, exercise and supplementation can be the best wellness choice for living fully in the 21st century.