The idea “free radicals bad, antioxidants good” is everywhere.
But according to the latest research in sports science, it’s not that simple.
According to Dr. Rhonda Patrick, a PhD in biomedical science: “Taking antioxidants pales in comparison to the power of the antioxidant system your body has on board to handle the effects of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS).”
Your body has its own anti-oxidant pathway, floating around in your cells, blood, and in enzymes. This network of enzymes includes glutathione, CoQ10, and superoxide dismutase, and is triggered by exercise.
In 1956 the Free Radical Theory of Aging was proposed by Denham Harman and it proposed that aging is a progress of damaged cells and oxidative damage was bad.
Exercise is a major source of oxidative stress. But enzymes like superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase scan the body for reactive oxygen species (ROS) and extinguish the pro-inflammatory sparks caused by exercise.
So if you exercise on a consistent basis, you are also giving yourself a dose of antioxidants. The more you train, the more your body adapts by ramping up its own internal antioxidant production. That’s according to Dr. Marc Bubbs, an expert in sports science and author of Peak: the New Science of Athletic Performance.
Studies demonstrate that antioxidant supplementation may interfere with exercise‐induced cell signaling in skeletal muscle fibers (Ristow & Zarse, 2010; Hawley et al . 2011). In turn, changes in cell signaling may potentially blunt or block adaptations to training (Peternelj & Coombes, 2011; Gliemann et al . 2013; Morales‐Alamo & Calbet, 2014).
“Reactive oxygen species (ROS) happens in all the cells of the body, and the body is equipped to handle it,” explains Scott K. Powers, Ph.D., a physiologist at the University of Florida who specializes in investigating the effects of muscular exercise.
Free radical damage, created by a workout will damage muscles. But after the damage, the body’s antioxidant system moves in and produces mitochondria in your muscles via mitochondria biogenesis.
Here’s a brief timeline of the free radical theory of aging to explain:
1956 – Free Radical Theory of Aging proposed by Denham Harman, proposing the early hypothesis that aging is a progress of oxidative damage.
1960s – Mitochondrial biogenesis, the process by which cells increase mitochondrial mass is discovered. It was first described by John Holloszy in the 1960s, when it was discovered that physical endurance training induced higher mitochondrial content levels, leading to greater glucose uptake by muscles.
1969 – Antioxidant enzymes are first discovered and science learns cells are designed to deal with radicals. Free radical damage in cells is a part of normal biology.
1978 – First evidence that exercise-inducted oxidative stress if supplemented with vitamin E, blunts mitochondrial biogenesis in muscle tissue.
1990 – Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) is discovered.
1990s – Sports science discovers that radicals aren’t just damaging but important signaling molecules, in the context of exercise.
2014 – A randomized control study finds vitamin C and E supplements blunted increase in mitochondrial production and interfered with positive adaptations to exercise in humans. This controversial study says high dosages of Vitamins C and E should be used with caution by elite athletes.
2019 – Professor Gomez-Cabrera, an expert in physiology is invited to speak on a panel on exercise and oxidative stress and clinical trails involving athletes. Her presentation: “Antioxidants in Exercise. Worse Than Useless?”.
According to Gomez-Cabrera, both aerobic and anaerobic training causes an enhancement in the antioxidant enzyme activity in various tissues. This is an adaptation process that happens because the free radicals, produced during muscle contraction, act as signaling molecules. This stimulates the gene expression and, increases production of antioxidant enzymes and modulates other oxidative stress protection pathways, such as enhancing the activity of DNA repair enzymes in skeletal muscles.
Exercise strengthens the body’s antioxidant network system which, consequently, minimizes the oxidative stress process.
Antioxidant protection occurs not only in the muscles but vital organs like the liver and brain, also make beneficial adjustment.
The bottom line is that while YouTube videos everywhere talk up megadose antioxidants, scientists in the field aren’t so sure. Timing matters, and taking supplements close to a workout may do more harm than good.