Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Case Against Antioxidants

Yesterday, I received a call in my office from a David Feld. David Feld identified himself as a physician that specializes in Obstetrics/Gynecology and is a distributor for Nu-Skin. (For a recent article about NuSkin see  Nu-Skin is a multi-level marketing company that distributes supplements full of antioxidants based on what they claim is a sound, if not the only, practical approach for people to maintain good nutrition.

Dr. Feld and I spent several minutes conversing about the Pharmanex Scanner and Nu-Skin's antidote to low carotenoid (a type of anti-oxidant) levels.  I challenged his science and he pushed back with references to some clip on the Discovery Channel and something he called the Cady Report.  (By the way, I read the Cady report and consider it rubbish.)

Today, I read an article quoting James D. Watson, PhD, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA.  Dr. Watson has a hypothesis that antioxidants may undermine metastatic cancer treatment and even contribute to cancer development.

Here is an excerpt from a MedPage article on the story.

"Antioxidants neutralize DNA- and RNA-damaging reactive oxygen species that would otherwise trigger apoptosis," Watson explained in an article online in Open Biology. [Note: Apoptosis means the death of a cell. To stop cancer, the cancer cell must undergo apoptosis.]

Although that balance is helpful under normal conditions, the vast majority of cancer treatments -- radiotherapy, most chemotherapy, and some targeted therapies -- rely directly or indirectly on reactive oxygen species to block key steps in the cell cycle and thus kill cancer cells.

"Unless we can find ways of reducing antioxidant levels, late-stage cancer 10 years from now will be as incurable as it is today," Watson said in a statement, calling this among his most important work since the double helix discovery.

WenYong Chen, PhD, a cancer genetics researcher at City of Hope in Duarte, California, "agreed."

What does all this mean in layman's terms?  Despite the popular belief that free radicals and oxidative stress is always bad for human health, in fact, both free radicals and oxidative stress contribute to the human body's ability to fight infection and kill fledgling cancer cells. Accordingly, overwhelming the body with antioxidants in pill form, according to Watson, would neutralize the immune system's ability to function properly and would both contribute to the development of full blown cancer and death from it. Watson does point out that this is not true for antioxidants found naturally in consumed fruits and vegetables.

Although Watson considers this a novel hypothesis, it's really not new.  Under the label of hormesis, there is a studied phenomenon that is characterized by low dose stimulation, high dose inhibition. In other words, a little is good, but a lot becomes bad.  The natural antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables, surrounded by other synergistic nutrients including vitamins, minerals, enzymes, co-enzymes, activators, and precursors may be healthful to the body, but when isolated in pills they become harmful.

This turned out to be exactly true with beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant. Found naturally in carrots, it is considered a healthy nutrient. In a study involving smokers and beta-carotene synthetic supplements, the study was stopped when it was discovered that the beta-carotene was increasing the risk for lung cancer.   Basically, when beta-carotene acting as an antioxidant neutralized a free radical, it became a more harmful and dangerous free radical. Go figure.

So after reading about Watson's research hypothesis, I wrote David Feld and asked the following:

"Did you read what Watson, the Noble Prize winner recently said about the role of antioxidants in causing and interfering with cancer treatment?  That should give you pause for thought."

His response:

"Only pause. I know what I've done for patients health in the last 5 years."

I am not surprised by his answer. Dr. Feld apparently does not remember that we met over a year ago at a medical conference. At that time, he gave me the same spiel about the greatness of the products he was peddling. He apparently also doesn't remember that I asked him then, as I did now, to send me a single or multiple studies that showed the promoted benefits of his supplements.  He eventually sent me some studies, but not surprisingly they showed no such benefits. All they showed was the more supplement you took, the higher the level of that supplement in your blood 

True to form, he sent me two studies today. This time, one study showed that low carotenoid levels are consistent with slow walking speed among elderly women. Of course, this was an observational study and as such proved no cause and effect. In fact, if one is low in carotenoids, one would expect to also be lower in other essential nutrients. One would also expect an undernourished older women to walk slowly.  His other study proved the point, as it showed that low carotenoids were consistent with low selenium, one of the fifteen essential minerals the body needs to function properly. The study showed that such nutritional deficiencies can contribute to increased mortality.  As you should know by now, most supplements have no benefit in the absence of deficiency.

No one would disagree that nutritional deficiencies are problematic and harmful to overall health. But Feld still hasn't produced a single study that shows that using his supplements make any difference in cancer prevention or show any other health benefits for that matter (except with macular degeneration treatment, not prevention.)

No one can say for sure what is in Dr. Feld's heart and mind, but forgive me for being cynical when he has a distinct profit motive in pushing and distributing his wares directly to his patients and to other doctors so he can succeed at multi-level marketing.

My opinion is that you should run from doctors who try to sell you things based on the Pharmanex scanner and stay clear of NuSkin's nano lifepak technology, as well as their new genetic LifeGen technology products.   

Just because they say their products are great, doesn't make it so. Plus, a $150 saved is $150 earned.

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