Askanesthetician's Blog

An esthetician explores skincare issues and concerns

Time to Rethink Antioxidants? May 1, 2013

Filed under: Diet and Skin,Ingredients — askanesthetician @ 7:33 am
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More foods are being marketed as high in antioxidants despite their questionable health benefits.

Last week I once again addressed the issue of antioxidants and free radicals as they impact the skin.  Today I thought I would give my readers a little food for thought  (pun intended) when it comes to antioxidants and our health, in general, and not just how it relates to our skin (even though this is a blog about skincare).  This post is a little off topic from the information that my blog usually contains, but I thought the information below was worthwhile to share, nonetheless.

Recently I came across a few articles that explain how consumers are being mislead when buying grocery products that claim to contain antioxidants.  The article Radical Thinking on Antioxidants from The Chicago Tribune explains:

Antioxidant-rich products promise an easy way to stave off disease. Simply swallow two softgels daily or knock back a glass of goji-pomegranate juice and the “supercritical” compounds will neutralize those nasty free radicals that threaten your health.

Such bold claims seem logical. There’s evidence that free radicals, or oxidants, are involved in certain illnesses, including cancer and degenerative brain diseases.

And when oxidants turn up in our bodies — it happens when we turn food into energy or are exposed to infection, smoking and other triggers — we fight back by producing antioxidants that can soak them up like a sponge.

Thus a theory was born: Maybe oxidation and disease can be prevented by eating fortified foods or taking dietary supplements containing plant-based antioxidants, which include vitamins C and E, beta carotene and polyphenols (flavonoids).

But researchers now say antioxidants have been overhyped and widely misunderstood. Scientists haven’t determined how antioxidants work in our bodies; it’s also unclear whether dietary supplements have any beneficial effect. In some cases, studies suggest antioxidants may cause more harm than good.

One recent study found that antioxidant compounds caused fertility problems in mice. Though popular among athletes, antioxidants haven’t been shown to improve performance or speed recovery. To the contrary, supplementing with antioxidants may blunt the beneficial effects of working out. And while some dietary antioxidants may have a role in cancer prevention, excessive doses of some vitamins can aggravate illness or even cause it, researchers say.

“People should be aware that there is little to no data supporting the use of antioxidants to protect against disease,” said cardiologist Toren Finkel, chief of the Center for Molecular Medicine at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Yet “antioxidants” remains one of the hottest buzzwords in the health and wellness industry.

Manufacturers have emblazoned it on everything from water and cereal to alcoholic drinks. Last year hundreds of products with antioxidant claims were launched, and products containing the nutrients continue to be a strong area of development, said Carlotta Mast, editor in chief of newhope360.com, which tracks the market in natural, organic and healthy products.

In the U.S., sales of top antioxidant supplements hit $5 billion last year, up 2.3 percent over 2009, according to Nutrition Business Journal.

“Consumers have made an association between antioxidants and health,” said Mast. “They have a general understanding that antioxidants help with free radicals, and they know free radicals are bad. So they see a functional beverage that’s ‘rich in antioxidants’ and think, ‘This will be healthy for me.'”

A natural byproduct of eating, drinking and breathing, free radicals are an unavoidable hazard of living.

“Oxygen oxidizes our food to produce energy, and the oxygen is reduced, mostly to water,” said biochemist Barry Halliwell, a pioneering researcher in free radicals and disease. But some oxygen winds up as free radicals, unstable molecules that are missing an electron.

Desperate to regain its balance, a free radical will steal an electron from the nearest substance, whether it’s cellular DNA, protein or fat. The theft alters the structure of the nearby victim, creating another unstable compound and triggering a chain reaction.

In response, our bodies naturally produce antioxidants that, like bodyguards, defuse free radicals by donating electrons while staying in balance themselves — a system people can strengthen through regular exercise.

But aging and exposure to environmental stressors from sunburn to pollution make it harder to keep up with antioxidant production, said Amy Howell, an associate research scientist at the Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research at Rutgers University.

For example, X-rays create oxidative stress because “radiation splits the water to make free radicals,” said Halliwell, a deputy president of the National University of Singapore. And “cigarette smoke is already full of free radicals that attack the lungs and other parts of the body.”

Researchers have known for decades that diseases including heart disease, cancer, stroke and neurodegenerative disorders are linked to damage caused by free radicals. They also found that people who eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables have lower rates of disease.

As a result, they hypothesized that taking antioxidants as supplements or fortified foods could decrease oxidative damage. But when antioxidant compounds were tested, the results were largely disappointing.

Beta carotene supplements didn’t just fail to protect people against cancer, they increased the risk of lung cancer in smokers. Trials looking at cardiovascular disease, other cancers and strokes have been mixed, but most haven’t found the hoped-for benefits. When Ironman triathletes supplemented with vitamin E for two months, it exacerbated oxidative stress and inflammation.

Meanwhile, free radicals aren’t always bad. The oxidant hydrogen peroxide, for example, can help open blood vessels; removing it with antioxidant therapy can impair the body’s ability to get oxygen to muscles.

There’s also some evidence that what doesn’t kill you can make you stronger: A little short-term free radical damage may activate pathways in the body that are protective in the long run, Finkel said.

“The real debate is whether we should let the radicals do their thing and not get in the way,” said David Neiman, director of the Human Performance Lab at Appalachian State University. “Probably 90 percent of all people who exercise will do fine with a fruit- and vegetable-based diet. But those who engage in more stressful exercise — marathoners, ultrarunners and Ironman triathletes — may need extra help.”

Consumer Reports goes into further detail about how antioxidant foods can be over-hyped to the detrement of the consumer (from the article Antioxidants: More Is Not Always Better).  The article busts several myths about foods and antioxidants such as:

MYTH: Packaged food with labels touting antioxidants will boost your health.

Antioxidant claims on packaged food don’t always mean a health benefit. “Unfortunately, ‘antioxidant’ is a very loosely used term,” says Joy Dubost, Ph.D., a nutritionist and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Outside the lab, it has become more of a marketing term than a scientific term.”

Some food manufacturers add an antioxidant, such as vitamin C or E, and then label the product as containing antioxidants, presumably in hopes of boosting sales. Kellogg’s FiberPlus Antioxidants Dark Chocolate Almond bars, for example, have 20 percent of the daily value of vitamin E and zinc. But they also contain 7 grams of sugar and 5 grams of fat. You can avoid processed food and eat an ounce of dry-roasted almonds, which provides more vitamin E, and 3 ounces of lean beef, which has more zinc.

Some food manufacturers even advertise antioxidant “power,” represented by ORAC, or oxygen radical absorbance capacity values. But ORAC measures antioxidant activity in a test tube, not in the human body. So if you’re tempted by Mystic Harvest Purple Corn Tortilla Chips, which are supposed to have an ORAC score of 6,000, don’t be. “We don’t know what these values mean biologically,” Dubost says, but they don’t guarantee better health.

A class-action lawsuit filed in November 2012 against the makers of 7Up Cherry Antioxidant Soda claimed that the packaging and marketing could lead consumers to think that the antioxidants in the soft drink come from fruit, when they really come from added vitamin E, and a 12-ounce can provides only 15 percent of the daily value.

Another class-action lawsuit, filed in April 2012 against Hershey, alleges that the chocolate giant makes “misleading” and “unlawful” claims regarding antioxidants. For example, certain packages of Hershey Special Dark Kisses state that “Cocoa is a natural source of flavanol antioxidants.” While cocoa is a reasonable source of antioxidants, the suit alleges that many—if not all—of Hershey’s cocoa or chocolate products undergo alkalization, a process that reduces or virtually eliminates the flavanol content.

Both companies have publicly denied any wrongdoing. The maker of 7Up Cherry Antioxidant said that in a decision unrelated to the lawsuit it has produced a new version of 7Up Cherry without antioxidants.

After reading the above articles I began to wonder if the same findings might eventually come out in regards to topically applied antioxidants in skincare products and the fight against free radicals when it comes to skincare.  As I write this I haven’t seen anything that would contradict the advice that estheticians and dermatologists continue to give – that using a sunscreen with antioxidants or a serum with antioxidants is a must in order to keep your skin healthy and to stave off free radical damage.  It will be interesting to see in the future if this advice changes just as advice about consuming antioxidants in our food has changed.

Further Reading:

Image from The Chicago Tribune

 

What Are Free Radicals? April 23, 2013

I’ve written about the importance of incorporating a cream or serum with antioxidants into your daily skincare routine in this blog before (see the list below of my related posts), but when I came across the following information about free radicals I thought I should address the subject of antioxidants from a different angle.  That angle, of course, would be to address the issue of free radicals more in-depth.

In their book Physiology of the Skin Drs. Draelos and Pugliese devote an entire chapter (chapter 8) to the subject of free radicals and the skin (those words also happen to be the title of the chapter).  I want to highlight some of the more accessible parts of the chapter (page 163):

A free radical is any atom or molecule that has one or more unpaired electrons and is capable of independent existence.  Oxygen, then, is a free radical.  In fact, oxygen is a diradical, which means it has two unpaired electrons.

Here, simplified, is the secret of the free radical – one or more unpaired electrons in a molecule or atom that can exist independently, and can react actively with other nearby molecules to alter or destroy them.  An example will make this concept more graphic and easier to remember.

Water contains hydrogen and oxygen.  It is a very simple molecule, and is written in chemical notation as either H2O or HOH.  The hydrogen atoms exactly balance the electronic charges in the oxygen atom to give us one molecule of water.  If only one molecule of hydrogen would react with the oxygen molecule, a free radical would exist, the deadly hydroxyl radical ·OH.  The little dot to the left of the “OH” formula means it is a free radical.  This ·OH is called the hydroxyl radical and is a very nasty free radical because it reacts immediately with any molecule adjacent to it to alter or destroy it.  It is a blessing that oxygen does not react with hydrogen in this manner to form hydroxyl radicals because life would be impossible if it did.

The chapter goes into great detail about oxygen – its chemistry, the molecule itself, the process and repercussions of oxidation, and oxidative stress.  On page 171 there is a graph that clearly shows how free radicals affect cells by damaging DNA, nerves, and all body tissues.  According to the book “it is the oxygen that you breathe which ultimately destroys your body”.

At the end of chapter eight in their book the doctors discuss a few specific ways free radicals specifically impact the skin and how to combat these subsequent skin problems.  The skin issues discussed are: skin inflammation, photo-damaged skin (sun damage), and aging skin.  For example when it comes to skin inflammation the doctors explain (page 177):

Any inflammatory response will involve free radical formation – no ifs, ands or buts.  If you see a red area that is tender and hot, it is inflamed and seething with free radical activity.  Superoxide radical, hydrogen peroxide, and hydroxyl radical will be there.  Iron will react with the superoxide and peroxide to form hydroxyl radicals, and produce great tissue destruction.

In her book Simple Skin Beauty Dr. Ellen Marmur explains, in easier to understand terms, how the sun damages our DNA and how the sun produces free radicals (page 138 in the hardcover copy):

Free radicals may sound like some kind of rock band, but they are toxic by-products in the body.  To make a very long and complex scientific phenomenon short, this is how they are produced through UV damage to cell’s DNA.

A photon (the sun’s laser beam) zaps through the cell membrane and cytoplasm, through the nuclear membrane (the safe, womb-like center of the cell), and hits the DNA.  Imagine DNA as being like two pieces of spaghetti laid parallel, with crosshatches all the way along like a ladder, then rolled up and twisted like an intricately knotted cuff link.  When a photon burns a hole into the DNA knot, it starts to unravel and the two sides of the ladder begin opening up.  The immune system immediately sends out enzymes to fix the problem.  (Enzymes are proteins that act as workers in the body, fixing damage by causing chemical reactions.)  One enzyme comes in and gobbles up the damaged portion; then it creates a new DNA rung to fix that ladder.  Another enzyme double-checks it, another seals it together, and another wraps it up into a nice, perfect knot again.  All these chemical reactions done to reconstruct damaged DNA give off toxic oxygen by-products, or free radicals.  Oxygen can be stable, with two electrons in its orbit, or, if it has only one electron (as free radicals do), it’s on fire – trying to steal an electron from another molecule in order to become stable.  An unstable oxygen molecule races around like a toddler with a pair of scissors or a Tasmanian devil, causing destruction to anything it its path until it runs out of energy.  Antioxidants quench and destroy that toxic free radical.

Suggestions for combating these free radical induced skin problems include the use of sunscreens with antioxidants in them, taking multiple vitamins daily, using Retin-A, getting regular exercise, and avoiding stress.  Of course all those tips not only will help your skin stay healthy but your body as well.  Just keep the following in mind when it comes to skincare products, antioxidants, and combating free radical damage:

Any client with aging skin should be approached with the fact that treatment is a lifelong reality.  There are no easy fixes and no miracle products.  It takes time to age, and time to restore the skin to normal.  Good and effective anti-aging products address the free radical problem by containing antioxidants at levels that prove they work.  Do not buy a product that has not been tested for antioxidant activity.  Beware of products that have antioxidants listed at the end of the ingredients; they are low in concentration and are useless.  …

In addition, do not smoke cigarettes; they produce an alarming amount of free oxygen radicals that damage both the lungs and the skin.  Avoid sun exposure as much as is practical.  Use sunscreens that provide both UVA and UVB photoprotection whether working indoors or outdoors.  Increase dietary intake of fruits and vegetables at each meal, remembering to eat them freshly picked and raw to optimize nutritional content.  Unripened and preserved fruits and vegetables do not have the antioxidant levels found in fresh vine ripened varieties.

(Physiology of the Skin, pages 178 – 179)

My Related Posts:

I haven’t read this book yet, but it turns out that there is a whole book devoted to the subject of antioxidants and skin aptly titled Antioxidants and the Skin.

Image from docstoc.com

 

 
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