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Antioxidants: a new weapon against disease.

Interest in the relationship between vitamins and disease prevention is surging. Time magazine features the topic in a cover story. A few years ago, words like "antioxidant" or "free radical" would have drawn a blank stare from the typical person on the street. Today, these words are commonly used, as compelling studies of antioxidant protection against cell damage are reported by leading researchers around the world.

Interest at the research level is on the increase as scientists find new links between optimal vitamin levels and the prevention of disease. The antioxidant nutrients, particularly vitamins C and E, and beta-carotene, are the subjects of wide-ranging research into prevention of chronic diseases. Antioxidants work by trapping free radicals -- ubiquitous particles that are produced in the body during normal metabolism and that result from outside influences, such as exposure to air pollution, radiation from the sun, cigarette smoke, and other toxins.

Interestingly, heightened awareness of increasing vitamin levels to achieve optimal health comes at a time when the Food and Drug Administration is proposing replacing the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) with Reference Daily Intakes (RDIs). This controversial proposal recommends reducing intake of some nutrients by as much as 80 percent. A spokesperson, Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., associate director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts, called the RDI proposal "an uninformed and mistaken approach that minimizes nutritional standards."

Research that supports higher intake of vitamins recently has been in the news:

* Reduced severity of atherosclerosis (and in some cases, even regression of arterial blockage) in primates after supplementation with natural vitamin E was reported this spring by A.J. Verlangieri, Ph.D., and M.J. Bush of the Atherosclerosis Research Laboratory at the University of Mississippi. In the April issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, the researchers concluded that natural vitamin E may be effective in lessening the severity and reducing the rate of incidence of atherosclerosis.

* The American Cancer Society announced a policy shift and will focus major resources on preventing cancer through dietary modification because of new nutrition research findings.

* At the recent meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences, Ishwarlal Jialal, M.D., of the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, reported that antioxidant nutrients may be instrumental in preventing heart disease by suppressing the oxidation of certain fat particles (low-density lipoproteins, or LDLs) in the blood stream.

Dr. Jialal stated that in his studies "vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene all inhibited LDL oxidation and the early stages of plaque formation."

* According to several studies by Charles H. Hennekens, M.D., of the Harvard Medical School in Boston, the antioxidant nutrients also appear to reduce heart disease risk. Dr. Hennekens found that men and women who consumed high levels of beta-carotene and vitamin E from foods had fewer heart attacks, strokes and deaths related to heart disease than those who consumed less of these two antioxidants.

* Simin N. Meydani, D.V.M., Ph.D., of the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, reported that vitamins E and B6 play an important role in maintenance of the body's immune response, its system for fighting infection and disease. "The elderly may need supplementation of vitamins E and B6 at levels higher than the RDA to maintain optimal immunity," said Dr. Meydani.

While many of the researchers involved in studies such as these are not ready to recommend supplementation to the general public, they are often less cautious personally. Polls of scientists who are knowledgeable about the results of studies into the link between vitamin levels and disease development show that they find the evidence compelling enough for them to take vitamin supplements regularly.

Natural Sources of Antioxidants

Bran, broccoli, cabbage, celery, cucumbers, garlic, mushrooms, onions, soybeans, whole grains, and sunflower seeds.
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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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