Free radicals, free them all. A good line back in the turbulent 60’s, it has taken on a new meaning in the millennium. An article in the New York Times Magazine last saturday by Gretchen Reynolds, covers the latest research on free radical production and the body’s reaction to it.

Free radicals are molecules created by the breakdown of oxygen during metabolism. If you think about it, we create free radicals (FR) all day long, just by living, breathing and moving. These FR’s have been linked to a number of different diseases and with the aging process. Exercise, since it requires increased oxygen consumption, also increases FR production. Several years ago, some experts in the field began suggesting that fitness-minded people begin taking anti-oxidants such as vitamins C and E, to counteract the presumed damaging effects of the FR’s. Food alone would not suffice, especially in highly trained athletes. It was advice that was not questioned-until recently.

Five years ago, researchers set out to study what would happen if you tried to prevent exercising muscles from creating FR’s. They had rats run on a treadmill until exhausted. Some of the rats were treated with a powerful pharmaceutical-grade antioxidant that works in the body to halt production of most FR’s. After the run, the scientists measured the levels of a number of substances in the rats legs. Not surprisingly, the injected rats had almost no FR activity, virtually immune to what scientists had considered bodily damage.

What surprised them didn’t really surprise me. In the legs of the   untreated rats, free radicals were abundant. What surprised the researchers was the other substances they found; genes being expressed that activated growth factors, that, in turn, increased important enzymes associated with cell defense and “adaptation to exercise.” There was next to none of these substances in the treated rats. Exercise had jump-started a process that would allow the rats muscle to adapt to exercise. Suppressing the production of FR’s prevented the activation of important signaling pathways, and altered the muscles’ ability to adapt to exercise. In conclusion, the authors wrote that the taking of antioxidants to ward off the presumed FR damage caused by exercise should be re-evaluated.

Since that study, numerous studies have been done regarding the matter of ingesting antioxidants before exercise to prevent FR damage. All have resulted in the same conclusion, summed up by Dr. Li LI Ji, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison: “The evidence suggests that antioxidants are not needed” by most athletes, even those training strenuously. “The body adapts.”

Another lesson: “Eat well,” he said. Although not proven, it seems likely that the antioxidants from foods, like blueberries, green tea, and carrots, may work in tandem with the body’s natural antioxidant defenses better than those from supplements-something I’ve always thought true. Supplements supplement your diet, not substitute for it. The human body is a very smart machine.

Stay well, John R Blilie, M.S.