How can it be that the multivitamins we for decades were told do us good are now called dangerous? Because the bad guys sometimes are good and bad.
The Tale Of The Free Radicals
Back in the 1950s, biogerontologist Denham Harman formulated a theory: our bodies produce highly reactive substances called “free radicals” that damage the DNA sitting in the cell cores.
Those free radicals, he told us, make us age faster and increase the risk of cancer (PDF), because the cells accumulate the damage over time. To combat them, we supposedly needed the free radicals’ biological neutralizers found in vitamins: antioxidants.
Unfortunately Harman didn’t think about why our bodies produce free radicals in the first place. If, beside doing damage, they could also being doing something useful. And, especially, what happens when you squeeze your free radicals within a nanometer of extinction.
No matter, the free radicals were branded “bad” and the logical conclusion was that the more antioxidants you got, the better. Harman’s assumptions lived on until now and the supplement industry rejoiced.
But nature doesn’t favor mechanisms that hinder a species’ survival rate, so there must be a reason for free radicals.
What Free Radicals Do
And there is. Free radicals are a very old biological process inside our bodies, involved in aiding the immune system and taking part in cell and growth processes. White blood cells, for example, use free radicals to destroy cells infected with viruses and bacteria.
Equally important, when your immune system detects cells whose growth rates have gone out of control (that’s cancer cells for you), it’s again the free radicals it sends out to kill them.
That sounds like they are the good guys that for 60 years got a lot of bad rep without any reason at all, doesn’t it? But it isn’t all roses.
A Question Of Balance
When you got too many free radicals they go on a rampage and declare cells as trash that are perfectly serviceable. That does damage and can contribute to anything from cancer and vision loss to heart problems and atherosclerosis.
Free radicals therefore can do both, prevent cancer and cause it. As long as they are controlled, they do the former. When they are out of control, they cause mindless destruction.
This is where the antioxidants and their ability to control the free radicals come in: as long as you have a balance between these two groups, the free radicals will do their job without damaging perfectly fine cell real estate.
When Vitamins Supps Kill The Free Radicals
Now imagine what happens when you take a megadose multivitamin: within minutes you flood your body with more antioxidants than nature thought possible to eat in a day. It’s a nutritional state as unnatural as it can get.
When that antioxidant armada is finished, they will hardly be a free radical left standing. Pop a multivitamin every day and you continuously suppress their force.
Who then will do the fight against cancer cells? Only the last few that made it through the shock & awe, which explains the increases in cancer due to multivitamin pills.
How To Keep The Balance
Get your antioxidants from fruits, whole grains and vegetables and you’ll keep them and your free radicals in as close to perfect balance as possible. Those antioxidants will even work better, because the fruits etc. also come with their little “helper molecules.”
What you should under no circumstances do is believing that activities like smoking and sunbathing, that both produce many free radicals, can be made up for by popping a vitamin pill. You can’t turn up one dial (many free radicals from smoking), then the other (many antioxidants from a multivitamin) and then think that’ll work just fine.
Picture courtesy of Scott Feldstein.