Effects of antioxidant supplements
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Are Antioxidant supplements making you weaker?

Effects of antioxidant supplementsThe marketing of antioxidant supplements

We have been marketed to by antioxidant supplements for years, with their health and longevity benefits being touted no end. The theory goes something like this:

1. Free radicals, or reactive oxygen species, create oxidative stress and other cellular damage and accelerate the raging process.

2. Anto-oxidants neutralise free radicals and therefore protect against damage.

3. Therefore, if we consume anti-oxidant supplements it will enhance our disease protection and longevity.

Does the science reflect this theory?

Whilst there is good evidence for points 1 and 2 above, most of the studies in support of number 2 are performed in vitro, i.e., in test tube or petri dishes, and not in free-living humans. As for point 3, it may surprise you to discover that numerous clinical trials and metabolic studies show no benefit, or even harm, from using antioxidant supplements. Here are some examples:

  • A 2004 American Heart Association meta-analysis of 20 clinical trials showed no benefits for the use of Vitamins C, E and beta carotene in the prevention of heart attacks or strokes, and no reduction in mortality.  Importantly, the authors acknowledged that the scientific evidence from observational studies supports the conclusion that “a diet high in food sources of antioxidants and other cardioprotective nutrients” reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease, they found no support for any benefits from the routine use of antioxidant vitamin supplements. 
  • A 2008 Cochrane Institute meta-analysis of 67 randomised clinical trials on antioxidant supplements (beta-carotene, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium) found no evidence that antioxidant supplements prevent mortality in healthy people or patients with various diseases. The authors said that “treatment with betacarotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E may increase mortality” and that “potential roles of vitamin C and selenium on mortality need further study”. 
  • A 2001 University of Washington randomized trial showed evidence of positive harm from taking a cocktail of antioxidants in patients on statin niacin therapy. The supplements reduced levels of HDL and increased levels of coronary blockage . 
  • A study at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute showed that cardiac stem cells cells that were loaded with high doses of antioxidants developed genetic abnormalities that predispose to the development of cancer. 
  • A 2009 study by German and American researchers found that daily supplementation with 1000 mg Vitamin C and 400 IU Vitamin E  during a 4-week exercise program by healthy young men suppressed improvements in insulin sensitivity and suppressed production of other protective genes observed in the non-supplementing control group. 

How is it that administering the same antioxidant chemicals that we are commonly told that make fruits, vegetables and herbs “protective”, actually appears to be ineffective or even harmful when taken as dietary supplements?

A clue comes from the last study quoted above – the 2009 paper that was titled “Anti-oxidants prevent health-promoting effects of physical exercise in humans”. Exercise creates free radicals, which cause metabolic stress, and the body responds by up regulating powerful protective genes – this is a hormetic response (as covered in my last blog post). Researchers such as Edward Calabrese and Mark Mattson call these genes “vitagenes”, because they ramp up our own internal defences against free radicals, which are much more powerful that any pill that we can take.

By taking antioxidant supplements, we suppress the increase in our own internal defences that would otherwise occur in response to the exercise stress.

So, getting back to the antioxidant theory at the start of this post – what is missing in this theory is the role of our body’s own innate defences system for handling toxic chemicals like free radicals. While our immune system handles invading organisms and large proteins, another system is needed to deal with chemical toxins. It’s called the xenobiotic metabolism; and it’s broken into 3 ‘waves’ of protective enzymes – Phase I, Phase II, and Phase III, which act synergistically to protect against damage and disease.  

We must understand that the body is an adaptive system and it will adjusts to maintain a relatively constant state, known as homeostasis. The science of hormesis states that if you provide it with external “help”, it will reduce the effort in building its own internal defences.  Just as being sedentary results in muscle wastage and a decrease in fitness, it turns out that chronic consumption of exogenous antioxidants reduces the “pressure” on your adaptive stress response to ramp up its own endogenous antioxidant defence system.  In biological terms, taking antioxidants leads to homeostatic down regulation of the antioxidant response element.  This actually makes biological sense:  Why should the organism expend precious energy and resources building a defence system if the defence is provided for “free” through diet or supplements?

So it appears that, by consuming more antioxidants, we become dependent upon them and, perversely, we reduce our innate ability to detoxify.  So, now that we know that our endogenous antioxidant defence system is so potent, what steps can we take to build it up? We get the answers from the science of hormesis, and I will explore how to up regulate these powerful natural defences to disease in the next few blogs.

Sub-lethal poisons in food
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Get Your Daily Dose of Poison – Seriously!

Sub-lethal poisons in foodIn my last post I wrote about the fact that the marketing and hype around taking antioxidant supplements is not supported by the research – and that numerous research studies show that taking anti-oxidant supplements (especially individual supplements) may actually cause us harm – partly by down-regulating our own natural antioxidant defence system.

However, it’s important to differentiate between supplements and real food – fruits and vegetables contain an abundance of anti-oxidants, and they have them in a complex cocktail that is necessary to sustain life.

There are quite a few researchers who question whether the quantity of antioxidants in fruit and vegetables is enough to have a significant physiological effect in humans, and that the antioxidant defence model has been massively oversimplified. I (and many others) feel that we should be talking much less about anti-oxidants and much more about plant botanicals, or phytochemicals, in general.

Polyphenols are a sub-class of phytochemicals and some of them act as antioxidants (improving cell survival through complex mechanisms), whereas some act as pro-oxidants.

As we have over-egged (and over-simplified) the antioxidant story, I want to focus on the pro-oxidant story, which is really a story of hormesis in action. Remember from earlier posts that hormesis is the stress resistance that comes from sub-lethal exposures to toxins that would be lethal at higher doses.

It turns out that sub-lethal exposure to pro-oxidants in fruit & veg up-regulates protectives genes (increases gene expression), which not only increases our powerful anti-oxidant defence systems, but can also prevent tumor growth.

Let’s take the cells of our brain, known as neurons, and investigate how hormetic plant chemicals can protect against Alzheimer’s Disease (AD).

WARNING – geeky science bit inbound!! – It is known that Galantamine (from the snowdrop plant) increases levels of an important neurotransmitter, acetylcholine (which is reduced by AD). Cathechinsfrom Tea, Caffeine from tea & coffee, and Capsaicin from capsicums/peppers help this acetylcholine to release calcium ions in the other neurons (which is how the brain works). Inside the neurons, the plant TOXINS Sulphoraphane (from brocolli), Curcumin(from the spice tumeric), Resveratrol (from grapes – and wine!) and Allumin(from onions and garlic) all help to increase the expression of protective genes, which produce growth factors as well as our endogenous anti-oxidants that combat the cellular stresses that create the damaged proteins that are teh hallmark of Alzheimer’s Disease.

This is not a process that is exclusive to the brain – it happens in all of our cells and it turns out that the vast array of plant phytochemicals in fruit and vegetables play critical roles in cellular metabolism.

There are a long list of phytochemicals that have been broken down into numerous sub-classes (such as Flavenoids, isoflavones, Lignans and Cartenoids) and studies have shown that these plant phytochemicals protect us against Aging, Cardiovascular Diseases, Diabetes, Cancer and Brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases.

The bottom line – eat real foods that we have co-existed with for millions of years, rather than eating a diet with significant processed foods and trying to off-set it with chemically manufactured supplements.

Lastly, remember that hormesis is about a sub-lethal exposure and that although many plant phytochemicals are great for our health, overconsumption of some of these can have both beneficial and harmful effects – soy isoflavines being one example. Eating a varied diet rich in fruit and veg will help keep you healthy –partly by exposing you to small doses of poison!

Benefits Good Fats in your Diet
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Let’s Chew the Fat

Most of us have had it drummed into us that fat is bad and we should only be eating food low in fat to prevent heart disease, obesity, diabetes and a host of other preventative diseases. However, does the evidence reflect the guidelines we have grown up on? To look at this properly, we need to go back in time and look at the story of saturated fat.

The thinking that saturated fat is bad for you originated from one man in the US – Ancel Keys. He had a hypothesis that high cholesterol caused heart disease, and that because fat (especially saturated fat) increases cholesterol, it must be the driver of heart disease. I will write much more about that story in another blog, but suffice it to say that he got a large amount of Cardiologists and Government agencies on board by publishing studies from 6 countries (and later a 7tth), showing a strong association between fat intake and heart disease.

However, there are 2 major flaws with this:

  1. Association does not mean causation – we now know that cholesterol does not cause heart disease per se, and that cholesterol is raised if you are chronically stressed or have systemic inflammation – both more direct contributors to heart disease.
  2. Most importantly, his research was fraudulent! He actually studied 22 countries, but because the data did not fit his theories, he cherry-picked the 6 countries whose data best fit his theory. This is the complete opposite of good science.

There are also a lot of flaws with subsequent studies that came out to show a link between saturated fat and heart disease, such as researcher bias, publication bias, poor study design, the possible inclusion of harmful trans fats under the saturated fat umbrella, and a poor understanding of the metabolic drivers of heart disease.

Now that we have a better understanding of the metabolic drivers behind heart disease, and having completed some better designed studies, lots of researchers are now saying that the current government guidelines on fat intake do not reflect the evidence. We now understand much better that total cholesterol does not cause heart disease and even LDL is not a good measure; and that HDL is even more protective than we once thought.

What is emerging are the dangers of oxidised LDL, small dense LDL particles, high triglycerides as well as low HDL and other factors like inflammation, high blood pressure, central obesity and diabetes. These are all independent risk factors, and when you get combinations of them it points towards metabolic dysregulation at a cellular level.

From a cholesterol perspective, what we now know is you should strive to have as high a level of HDL as possible and minimise your oxidised LDL and small, dense LDL – big fluffy LDL are not pathogenic and shouldn’t be of any concern. You should also keep your triglycerides and blood sugar under control.

Your diet has a big impact on all of these, so let’s discuss the interactions between fat, carbohydrate and these risk factors.

The Fat Story

When we’re talking about fats, we know that monosaturated fats are actually very good for heart and brain health. Recommended examples are extra virgin olive oil, avocado, avocado oil, any nut oils (except peanut) and unsalted, raw nuts.

Saturated (SFA) fats have been unfairly demonised. As I mentioned above, they increase your level of protective HDL and encourage big, fluffy LDL and do not induce damaging, small sense LDL . So, a moderate amount of saturated fats is perfectively fine. Don’t worry about the fat in dairy either – eat a moderate amount of full fat dairy, eat fat on meat (as long as it’s grass fed) and coconut. Avoid processed fats, trans fats and vegetables oils – stick to stuff low on the human interference factor and you’ll be ok.

With this in mind, here is a list of great cooking fats, which we cook with regularly in our family. If you’re going to fry foods, especially at high temperatures, you should be using saturated fats, as they don’t become oxidised. So this list is good, not just because they’re safe to cook with, but also because they taste so good!

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)

This should be your go to fat for sautéing and medium temperature cooking. Whilst normal olive oil has a smoke point of 140 degrees, extra virgin is 210 degrees – and it also maintains most of it’s polyphenol content after frying, so is the healthiest fat to use. As well as this, when you sautee vegetables in EVOO, there is a chemical reaction that creates a class of fatty acids known as nitric fats, which are protective for your heart and brain. Make sure it is cold-pressed, as heat-pressed oils can already be oxidised. But be aware some of the polyphenols will deteriorate at temperatures of around 150-160 degrees celsius, so for higher temperatures, you should use saturated fats.

Ghee

Ghee is clarified butter, and it’s popular in Indian cooking. Because the milk solids have been removed, it’s very low in lactose and is almost entirely fat – mostly saturated. Use ghee to brown meat, top a few teaspoons on a roast and add to roast pumpkin or sweet potato. A tablespoon of ghee contains 8g SFA, 3.7g MFA fat and 0.5g PUFA.

Coconut oil

Along with ghee, coconut oil is one of the best fats to cook with because it’s almost entirely saturated. In fact, coconut oil is more than 90% saturated fat. While this makes it the devil according to the government guidelines, this is not the case. Coconut oil has some unique properties. It is a special type of saturated fat called medium chain triglyceride (MCT). Unlike other fats, MCTs do not require bile acids for digestion. This means they are easily absorbed in the upper part of the small intestine. Coconut oil is also rich in lauric acid, a fatty acid found in breast milk that is anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-viral. We are known to eat it my the spoonful! Mix it with almond or macadamia nut butter for some added goodness. Coconut oil has 4g of SFA, 0.3g of MFA

Lard

Lard is very popular in cooking and baking because it has little flavour. It’s an incredibly versatile fat and can be used to brown meat and roast vegetables. Unlike olive oil, vegetables roasted in lard do not get soggy or greasy, but stay crisp with a wonderful flavour. A tablespoon of lard has about 6g MFA, 5g SFA and 1.6g PUFA.

Duck fat

Potatoes roasted or fried in duck fat…. divine! Before rancid, industrial oils appeared, the French cooked their fries in duck fat!. Roast your veggies or home made chips in duck fat and you’ll discover why the French love it so much. A tablespoon of duck fat has 6 g MFA, 4 g LCSFA and 1.6 g PUFA.

Butter

Good quality, grass fed butter has an amazing taste and despite it being demonised, it’s very good for you. It is full is vitamin A, E and K2 (the latter involved in calcium metabolism). It is a great fat to put on fish, low heat scramble eggs in or slow cooked stews. Butter has a lower smoke point than the other fats, which makes it less suitable for high temperature cooking and it burns easily. A tablespoon of butter contains 7.2g of SFA, 2.9g of MFA and 0.4g of PUFA.

A Word on Commercial Vegetable Oils

In our house we avoid these like the plague as they are high in Omega 6 fats. Whilst some Omega 6 fats are necessary for good health, at higher amounts they start to trigger dangerous inflammation at a cellular level. We get sufficient Omega 6 fats from eating vegetables, but using vegetable oil for cooking is, in my opinion, one of the worst health recommendations we have made. Commercial food processing destroys a significant amount of essential fatty acids, and polyunsaturated oils (Omega 3 and 6) are unstable and very quickly become rancid. Oxidized fatty acids are dangerous to our health, and unless you buy cold-pressed oils, the actual process of expelling the oils using heat (to get it out of the plant in the first place) will cause oxidisation.

The bottom line is to eat food that is real and cut right down on processed foods. This includes your fats. The best thing you can do today is throw away your margarine and your vegetable oils and replace with the fats listed above. You are doing this for your health and your tastebuds!

Importance of Gut Bacteria in Your Diet
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Love your guts…

There is more and more research coming out on the importance of gut bacteria on our health and well being.  The bacteria in our intestines outnumber our cells by 10 to 1, which means we are more bug than human!  The gut is now being described as a second brain, with more than 100 million neurons.  Even happiness can stem from your gut.  In fact, 95% of serotonin is produced in the gut, so if you’re bugs aren’t happy, then neither will you be!  Gut bacteria is negatively affected through poor lifestyle choices, such as processed foods, many vegetable and seed oils, alcohol and stress to name a few.

Working towards a healthy gut is about making healthy choices.  Fermented vegetables (found at many health food shops, or homemade) are full of good bacteria to help populate your gut.  You can feed your bugs on what’s called resistance starch from things like beans, cooled cooked potatoes and certain forms of fibre.  Vinegar is also great for your gut bacteria, so make your salad dressings from extra virgin olive oil and balsamic or apple cider vinegar.