Okay seriously- Should you be taking antioxidants, and if so which ones? How much? The easier (and funnier) way to answer this question is a simple "yes!" and "the more the merrier!" but let's take a minute to look at this objectively, shall we?
Antioxidants prevent oxidative damage (aka "free radicals" or inflammation). This is becoming increasingly important in today's world where we are exposed to a high amount of stress and inflammatory stimuli. Skeptics argue that people have lived for millennia without supplements, so they must be unnecessary. This sounds like a logical argument until you account for the incredibly different world we live in and the completely different diet our species eats now. Our ancestors ate foods that were rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants... meanwhile, we rejoiced as a country at the return of the Twinky.
The tricky thing about antioxidants is that it's hard to really figure out what is the ideal amount to have. You and I could have the same levels of glutathione, for example, but if I am exposed to more inflammation than you are I will have a greater need for antioxidants than you. This is why I generally don't test for antioxidants in my office, but I tend to supplement based off symptoms and apparent need. The exception to this is Omega-3 fatty acids, which I do test for in my office. One lab I run looks at the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 in the blood, as well as the types of omega-3s present in the blood. This gives us a better idea of how much omega-3 you should be taking (quantity), as well as the type (EPA, DHA, ALA) and dietary modifications we need to make to decrease omega-6s.
Let's look at two different scenarios that can effect one's need for antioxidants.
Two patients come in with the exact same medical history- the same health as a child, same diet and exercise habits, same stressors and illnesses throughout life. However, Person A has a lesser ability to cope with inflammation than Person B. This means that Person A will experience symptoms and get inflammatory diseases sooner than Person B despite having all the same stressors and inflammatory events. This may be due to genetics, epigenetics, or both.
Two patients come in with the same health history- they had the same illnesses and inflammatory stimuli at the same points in their life AND they have a similar capacity to handle inflammation. However, Person A started life with less inflammatory load than Person B. This may be due to the health of the parents (or even grandparents!) prior to conception or the mother and baby's health during pregnancy and birth. In this case, Person B is likely to experience symptoms and acquire disease before Person A and it may very well be through no fault of their own!
General rules of thumb:
1. For the most part, the dose you need to feel a benefit is related to your symptoms or disease severity. If you have diabetes, fibromyalgia, Crohn's disease or cancer and you take one fish oil pill a day it's likely not going to make a very profound change in your symptoms. For example, it is not uncommon for people with chronic diseases to need up to 10 grams* of omega-3s per day to get their levels to where they need to be. I, on the other hand, tend to do well on just 3 grams per day. You can be the judge of how much antioxidants you need.
*Be careful taking high doses of omega-3s without a physician's supervision. Omega-3s thin the blood, so patients on blood thinners such as coumadin may need to work with their doctor and lower the dose of their medication.
2. Pay close attention to the type of antioxidants you get- many fish oil supplements from drug stores sit on the shelf for a long time and are rancid (and ineffective) before you even get them home. Additionally, supplements may contain things that are not on the label (yikes!). I carefully screen any supplements I carry in my office, but if you must buy supplements elsewhere Consumerlab.com is a great resource.
3. Finding the most effective type of antioxidant for you is a little trickier of a subject, and is best handled by a supplement-savvy doctor such as myself. However, two antioxidants that I think most people could benefit from are omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA, not ALA) and glutathione.
If you or somebody you know is interested in working with a functional medicine doctor please call my office at (919) 238-4094 and see if we are the right fit for you. Infinity Holistic Healthcare is located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, part of the Raleigh-Durham "triangle" area.