The benefits of exercise are widely known and understood, but unfortunately, the potential negative effects have only recently been addressed in the athletic community. Could exercise actually be causing damage to your body? It’s ironic, but it’s true. Exercise causes elevated aerobic metabolism, which in turn increases the production of killer molecules known as free radicals.
A free radical is a molecule that’s missing at least one electron in its outermost orbit, which causes it to be negatively charged. Like most things in nature, free radicals seek to remain neutral, and in an effort to achieve this balance, they bump up against healthy cells in your body and steal electrons from them. This process is similar to an electric shock that leaves the once healthy cell, damaged and mutated.
Unfortunately, the process doesn’t stop after damaging the first cell. This newly damaged molecule is now also missing an electron and becomes a free radical. Each free radical that is created zaps electrons from healthy molecules to form new free radicals, which generate a chain reaction that damages thousands of cells along its path.
Scared? I hope so, because scientists now believe that free radical damage increases cellular deterioration, which is associated with accelerated aging, cancer, diabetes, and coronary artery disease. This is ironic because the human body is designed to regenerate most of its cells. Our bones, skin, and blood cells all regenerate over time to slow the aging process. Free radicals, however, replace cellular regeneration with cellular degeneration, which ultimately speeds up the aging process.
Your body can defend against normal levels of free radicals, but if you exercise, live in a polluted area, or have a stressful life, as most of us do, then supplementing your diet with antioxidants may be of great value.
Free radical damage has become more prevalent in our society as witnessed by the increase in cancer victims in recent years. Environmental pollutants like smog, cigarette smoke, and car exhaust all contain free radical molecules, and as our exposure to these increase, so does our chance of degenerative diseases. Worse yet, research illustrates that mental stress is one of the highest causes of free radicals.
The good news is that under normal conditions your body has the natural ability to defend against free radicals by producing three substances: glutathione, catalase, and superoxide dismutase. These substances are known as antioxidants, which work as free radical scavengers by seeking them out and donating the electrons needed to neutralize them, thereby quenching their need to search out and destroy healthy cells. Antioxidants reduce muscle fatigue and post-exercise muscle soreness. They also have an alkalinizing effect on the body, making it less acidic, which promotes muscle mass maintenance.
The problem occurs when free radical production exceeds the body’s ability to produce antioxidants. This can happen during intense exercise when athletes use 10 to 20 times the amount of oxygen than that of a sedentary person. During exercise, the conversion of fat and sugar into energy occurs through a process known as oxidation. During this process, most of the oxygen combines with hydrogen to produce water. However, about 5% of the oxygen forms free radicals.
Imagine that every time you breathe, free radicals are formed. This process of oxidation is similar to what you see when metal rusts or an apple slice turns brown from exposure to air. Your body can defend against normal levels of free radicals, but if you exercise, live in a polluted area, or have a stressful life, as most of us do, then supplementing your diet with antioxidants may be of great value.
A well balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables is important and will help, but alone it’s just not enough. Factory processing, additives and pesticides all work to destroy antioxidants within our foods and nutrient depleted soils no longer provide us with the nutrient rich foods that our grandparents enjoyed.
Eating a well balanced diet and taking a strong Multi-Vitamin/Mineral/Antioxidant Supplement each day should be considered for adequate antioxidant protection and to promote optimum performance and long-term health. There’s a saying, “Take care of your body for the first 50 years of your life, and it will take care of you for the next 50.” Antioxidant protection and good diet are a great way to start.
Most athletes need more vitamins and minerals than sedentary people and vitamin deficiencies can create difficulties in training and recovery. Most of the data suggest that increased intake of vitamin E is protective against exercise induced oxidative damage. It is hypothesized that vitamin E is also involved in the recovery process following exercise.
You have the capability of lessening the harm caused from free radical destruction on muscle tissue and the immune system. It means better recovery from your intense workouts, which results in more frequent exercise sessions, by decreasing time needed to facilitate muscular repair and cardiovascular conditioning. It also means you’re less likely to become ill from the flu or cold, which can sideline your progress.
With antioxidant support, your immune system is more resilient and you have more energy because you free up otherwise burdened cellular activity, therefore increasing your metabolism, enabling energy producing cellular processes. The cellular membranes are better protected, and are better able to hold on to nutrients, water, proteins, and glycogen stores vital for growth, repair and energy. I believe antioxidants to be more important to the athletic person than any ergogenic (metabolic generating) sports supplement on the market today!
The main antioxidant in the human body is glutathione. Glutathione is a tri-peptide amino acid formed from glutamic acid, cysteine, and glycine. Glutathione is produced in the liver and is a major defender against this free radical attack. It detoxifies harmful compounds, aids immune function, strengthens red and white blood cell count, and functions as a neurotransmitter. Glutathione also protects cell membranes including the mitochondria (fat-burning furnace) from harmful oxidative stress.
Glutathione also protects the surface of the cell membrane and supports other antioxidants that in turn help glutathione. For example, one intense bout of exercise to exhaustion can reduce muscle glutathione levels by 40% and liver glutathione by 80% and it continues to decline thereafter. You cannot prevent muscle damage and maintain training intensity without sufficient supplies of this vital component.
There are several antioxidants that have a positive effect on the amount of glutathione in our liver and cells. Some work by directly increasing glutathione production and others protect glutathione activity. The following antioxidants help to defend against free radical formation, with some supporting glutathione production as well.
Vitamin C: Ascorbic acid is a water soluble vitamin present in citrus fruits, green peppers, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, kale, cantaloupe, and strawberries. The RDA is 60 mg per day. Intake above 2000 mg may be associated with adverse side effects in some individuals. Aids in the formation of collagen (glue that holds the body together), hormone and neurotransmitter synthesis, enhances immune function including assisting white blood cell activity. Promotes healing, and aids in recovery from illness and physical exertion.
Vitamin E: A fat soluble vitamin present in nuts, seeds, vegetable and fish oils, whole grains, wheat germ, and eggs. Current recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 15 IU per day for men and 12 IU per day for women. It actually hides in the cell membrane waiting for free radicals in which to neutralize. It improves circulation, prevents and repairs tissue cells, and helps protect other fat-soluble antioxidants. Like vitamin C, it has been proven effective in many degenerative illness and conditions.
Beta-carotene: A precursor to vitamin A, or retinol, and is present in liver, egg yolk, milk, butter, spinach, carrots, squash, broccoli, yams, tomato, cantaloupe, peaches, and grains. Because beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A by the body there is no set requirement. Instead the RDA is expressed as retinol equivalents (RE), to clarify the relationship. They enhance immune function and maintain and repair cellular processes. It is important to note that vitamin A has no antioxidant properties and can be quite toxic when taken in excess.
Melatonin: Besides aiding in good quality sleep, this hormone, produced by the pineal gland, enhances immune function, protects against cancer, aids in stress reduction, and boosts glutathione production. Due to its size, melatonin has the ability to saturate just about every cell in the human body. It’s also one of the most powerful naturally occurring antioxidants ever found. It has been shown effective against many of the age related and chronic degenerative conditions known today. It seems to influence just about every immune enhancing and antioxidant producing system in the human body. It is found in very small amounts in food.
The following are other potent antioxidants that have a place in the cellular anti-oxidative protocol:
• Coenzyme Q10 • Resveratrol • Garlic • Alpha-Lipolic Acid • Acetyl-L-Carnitine • Green Tea • Manganese
The body has built-in defense mechanisms to repair itself. But with the stresses of today, exercise, sickness and an inferior diet, free radical damage may get out of hand. Just look at all the diseases and health conditions today. It is my suggestion that, at the very least, you should take a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement. The athlete and anyone else environmentally, physically, or mentally challenged should consider not only a good multi-vitamin/mineral supplement, but also should consider supplementing antioxidants.
Maria Emmerich is a wellness expert in nutrition and exercise physiology. She shares a passion for helping others reach their goals of optimal health. More information at marianutrition.com