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Heart Smart Living

Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.

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Antioxidants and Brain Health: Supplements May Harm, but Berries Protect

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“Antioxidant” is a word that has become part of our daily jargon, but exactly how these nutritional scavengers work is not entirely clear. We know that they block the effects of harmful free radicals, preventing damage to the cells of our bodies and the lining of our arteries. However, nature requires a delicate balance, and we need a certain amount of free radicals to help fight infection and combat cancer cells.

If we follow a typical Western diet, we acquire and produce far more free radicals than we need. Processed meats, such as ham and bacon, are major offenders. So is cigarette smoking. Brightly colored fruits and vegetables are chockfull of natural antioxidants, but many supplement manufacturers would have you believe that the pills they are peddling are even better.

Two new studies, one looking at berries and brain health, and the other examining the effects of vitamin supplements on Alzheimer’s dementia, suggest that food is the smartest and safest way to get the nutrition our bodies crave.

In Dr. Elizabeth Devore’s recent analysis of the long-running Nurses’ Health Study, over 16,000 women ages 70 and up were tested for cognitive function (essentially a measure of memory and reasoning ability).  All filled out detailed dietary questionnaires every 4 years. Sadly, cognitive decline (not including Alzheimer’s dementia) is all too common as we age, affecting about 16% of those age 70-79 and about 30% of those over the age of 80. However, this study found that those women who ate the most berries were able to delay their “cognitive aging” by about 2.5 years

Since antioxidants seem so beneficial, a team of scientists led by Dr. Donald Galasko at the University of California, San Diego, evaluated the effects of an antioxidant supplement cocktail (including vitamin E, vitamin C, and plant-based omega-3 fatty acid); a coenzyme Q10 supplement (also an antioxidant); or a placebo pill. Their subjects were all patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s dementia. The researchers not only evaluated mental status, but they also took samples of brain fluid in order to measure certain chemicals that may be altered in those with Alzheimer’s.

After 16 weeks on the experimental treatments, those who received the antioxidant cocktail were actually more likely to have worsened significantly, even though their brain fluid showed evidence that the antioxidants were taking effect. Conenzyme Q10 did not appear to have an impact.

Although it was not clear exactly what was happening that caused those receiving the supplement cocktail to decline faster than the other research subjects, these results are in line with those of other supplement studies. For optimal health, get your nutrition from fresh, whole foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. When it comes to antioxidants, it doesn’t pay to trick Mother Nature. 

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Tags: Vitamins and Heart Health , Supplements , Diet and Heart Health

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About the Author


MD, FACC

Dr. Samaan is an acclaimed cardiologist, writer, and heart health educator.

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