What Is An Antioxidant?

This is a question I ask people fairly frequently, generally right after they’ve told me that their latest special tea/diet/other fad is full of them. Almost no one can answer the question, they will generally just garble something about them being good for you. And, indeed, they are good for you, but they’re also bad for you. What your body needs is the perfect balance of antioxidants and reactive oxygen species (ROS), the little critters that antioxidants neutralise.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the beginning. ROS are highly reactive molecules that contain oxygen, they are a completely natural byproduct of several metabolic processes in the human body and are vital in several cell signalling and homeostasis pathways. As well as being useful they can sometimes oxidise molecules that we don’t want them to and thereby do us harm. They, too, are good for you and bad for you. Your body can use antioxidants to remove ROS from our system but frequent high doses of antioxidants have been linked with lung cancer, prostate cancer and a certain type of stroke.

You see, the problem is, that our bodies are a staggeringly complex network of systems, all working synergistically to maintain exquisitely fine balances between different processes, many of them often working against each other. We certainly do need antioxidants and we also need ROS; not too many, not too few, just the right amount. I think one of the biggest problems is that nuance is not something that society appreciates anymore. We have become a very all or nothing sort of people that like to say that something is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We rarely invest the time to find out the details of a topic, most people don’t read the news they just read the headlines; I know I’m guilty of it myself. Let’s get back on point.

Your body has at least 6 different mechanisms for controlling levels of ROS and antioxidants in your body, leave them to it. The best way to help them out is to not flood your body with a deluge of antioxidants that it has no need of but to let them do the thing they have spent millions of generations evolving to do.

All the pseudoscientific nonsense that you’ve read in the herbal shop and all the adverts on the posters are just that: nonsense. There is not one scrap, not one iota, not one jot of clinical evidence to show that they will do you the least bit of good. There are, of course, some people out there who have a genuine metabolic disorder of some kind whose condition will need to be carefully managed. This management, though, should be conducted by a qualified healthcare professional using drugs with a known purity and dose whose drug-drug interactions have been carefully catalogued, not by some beardy herbalist who did a weekend course a decade ago who wants to flog you the latest untried, untested, cure-all.

The same can be said for any detox products you might have squirrelled away in your medicine cabinet. Unless you are one of the rare and unlucky people to have a genuine imbalance of some kind your body will do just fine at cleaning itself out. Your liver and kidneys do not need to have nothing but lemon tea for a month, or for you to starve yourself, or for you to cut out some random product from your weekly shop. There is no such thing as a detox diet and anyone who tells you otherwise is either trying to sell you some worthless snake oil or is deluded themselves. If a particular diet is not one that you could spend the rest of your life on then it is not a healthy one. There is only one basic diet plan you need follow: eat a wide variety of foods, most of them fruits and vegetables and don’t have too much of any one thing.

In summary, if you like some weird fancy tea then that’s fine, I’m partial to a bit of lapsang souchong myself, but drink it because it tastes nice. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re doing your body a favour; it won’t thank you for it.

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