Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper's Antioxidant Revolution.
Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper's Antioxidant Revolution, released this fall, goes a step beyond Dr. Cooper's other books, delving into the world of atomic particles to analyze what may be the next great revolution in medical science: the control of free oxygen radicals using antioxidants.
For more than 40 years, scientists have been studying the effects these unstable oxygen molecules have on the human body. Now, research has linked free radicals to more than 50 human ailments, including cancer, heart disease, cataracts, aging, stroke, asthma, pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel diseases, Parkinson's disease, and high blood pressure.
Exactly what are free radicals? Dr. Cooper applies his considerable descriptive talents to explain a phenomenon that cannot be seen and can be measured only with difficulty. Basically, free radicals are oxygen molecules that contain one or more unpaired electrons in their orbits. These unstable molecules are powerfully attracted to other molecules in the body and try to combine with them, causing both good and ill effects - mainly ill. The body generally controls the quantity of free radicals by producing its own antioxidants. The problem comes when antioxidants are overproduced beyond the body's capacity to absorb them.
Although free radicals are considered to be "central actors" in most human health problems, of special interest to Dr. Cooper is the link between free radicals and heart disease. Free radicals are seen to be the primary cause of plaque buildup in arteries. They act directly upon low-density lipoproteins (the bad form of cholesterol), changing them into something called foam cells, which in turn clog arteries. This process, Dr. Cooper believes, may explain the untimely death of his friend, marathon runner Jim Fixx, at age 52 from coronary disease.
Research has shown that overexercising can lead to overproduction of free radicals in the body. Because of his extraordinary level of physical exertion, Fixx would have run a much higher risk of free radical damage than the average person. Other free radical stimulants include air pollution, cigarette smoke, ultraviolet light, pesticides, and food contaminants.
"In the 17 years preceding his death," Dr. Cooper notes, "Fixx had run 37,000 miles, including 20 marathons, and he was still running 60 miles per week up to the time of his death. Of course, it could be contended that if Fixx and other highly trained, older athletes had not been involved in marathoning and ultramarathoning, they might have succumbed to their disease many years before.... But increasingly, I have come to believe that there also may be a link between over-training and disease."
Dr. Cooper presents other examples of athletes who died young, not from heart disease but from cancer, in which radicals may have played a decisive role. Dr. Cooper also considers his own seemingly inevitable bouts of sickness during marathon training: "I wondered if it was possible that excessive exercise might not only be unnecessary, but might even be harmful - so harmful that my own physical training philosophy and recommendations should be altered."
This new view of exercise naturally has a profound effect on aerobic fitness programs. "It has become clear," Dr. Cooper writes, "that an appropriate exercise prescription becomes more complicated - especially when you take into account exposure to free radical |triggers' such as overtraining."
Overtraining with Caution
Researchers, including the late Dr. Linus Pauling, have recommended large doses of the antioxidant vitamins C, E, and beta carotene for fighting free radicals, but Dr. Cooper believes vitamins are only part of the story. "What is often overlooked," he notes, "is that exercise must be at the center of any effective antioxidant action plan. Without regular exercise, your body's internal defenses against free radicals - including natural endogenous antioxidants [those produced by the human body], such as SOD, GSH, and catalase, may become too fragile for supplements to have their full effect."
Dr. Cooper's solution to the free-radical problem is The Lower-Intensity Exercise Program, which he calls "the most effective exercise program for good health - including building up defenses against free radicals...." Here, low intensity means exercising several times a week at your "target heart rate," a rate in between your normal heart rate and the maximum rate that allows you to improve your endurance. For easier measurement of exercise duration and intensity, Dr. Cooper devised a point system. One must work up to 15 points each week using one of a variety of exercise choices, including walking, aerobic walking, walk-running, cycling, and swimming. The exercises can be performed on one of two levels. one for those interested only in fitness, and a more strenuous one for athletic competitors.
The book also offers a section of illustrated warmups (see page 66), calisthenics, and strength-training exercises for building up endurance slowly without overtiring or damaging muscles. "The damage to, and inflammation of, tissues that often accompanies exhaustive exercise is the most obvious sign of free-radical activity," Dr. Cooper notes.
Clearly, Dr. Cooper states, regular exercise remains overwhelmingly beneficial and a prerequisite for maintaining cardiac health despite the complications of overtraining.
An Antioxidant Cocktail
To counter excess free radicals that might be produced by working out, Dr. Cooper recommends a daily cocktail of antioxidant vitamins that varies according to a person's sex, age, and level of exertion. "There was a time when I joined most other mainstream physicians who opposed taking vitamin supplements in any amounts, much less in relatively doses," he admits. "Along with the majority of the medical establishment, I believed that you could get all die vitamins and minerals you needed through your diet. But my research into free radicals and antioxidants has forced me to change my thinking - as well as my personal health habits. Today, I take a daily antioxidant cocktail, a minimum multivitamin combination of 400 IU vitamin E, 1,000 mg vitamin C, and 25 IU beta carotene. When I am scheduled for a heavy physical workout I increase those amounts accordingly."
"Most of the scientific studies support the idea that vitamin E supplementation protects the body against exercise-induced free-radical damage," Dr. Cooper writes. "And there is strong support for the position that vitamin C enhances the effect of vitamin D. Also, beta carotene has been linked to a lower incidence of lung cancer and other free radical-related disease. Exercise of any type will increase your free-radical production," he emphasizes. "So antioxidant supplements are mandatory. . . ."
Although he recommends supplementation, Dr. Cooper also suggests getting as many antioxidants from the diet as possible and offers tips from his own dining and cooking experience. He notes, however, that it is virtually impossible to get enough vitamin E through diet alone. For vitamin C, he recommends going exotic with acerola fruit juice from the West Indies (if you can find it); an eight-ounce glass contains 3,800 mg vitamin C. If you eat carrots for beta carotene, cook them lightly. Your body will absorb 0more beta carotene from cooked than raw carrots. On the other hand, don't overcook green, leafy vegetables, or you will limit the bioavailability of beta carotene. For convenience, in an appendix, Dr. Cooper lists the primary dietary sources of all the antioxidant vitamins.
How seriously are we to take the free-radical threat and the antioxidant solution? Dr. Cooper admits that "the scientific data fall short of saying that beyond any doubt, ultra-exercise activities definitely increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, and other degenerative problems." But there is "solid research," he points out, that antioxidants can prevent or delay the onset of many health problems, including cancer and heart disease. Thanks in part to Dr. Cooper's books on aerobics and cholesterol, thousands of Americans have adopted a more active and healthful lifestyle, and heart attack deaths have steadily declined. If his reading of the antioxidant research proves as accurate, Dr. Cooper's 12th book may turn out to be his most important of all.