Are anti-ageing pills, creams doing more harm than good?
VITAMINS are good for us. We have grown up with this as a basic fact of health. That’s why it seems like common sense to take supplements and to use creams with vitamins C and E to keep our skin looking young.
These vitamins have gained renown for working as antioxidants. Supplement-makers promise that antioxidants protect the cells that make up our skin and internal organs from being damaged by free radicals – molecules produced by our bodies as we process oxygen, which can also be inhaled from polluted air and cigarettes. They claim that this damage is a significant cause of ageing.
However, disturbing evidence is emerging that shows antioxidant supplements are not only often unnecessary, they may also do more harm than good.
New studies reveal that taking supplementary vitamins C and E can switch off the body’s ability to protect itself against disease and damage – increasing our danger of premature death. These two vitamins may even prevent us benefiting from exercise.
Vitamins C and E are key to the multi-million-pound anti-ageing beauty industry, which markets them as a magical ‘elixir of youth’. But a new investigation has reported that they can instead make skin age faster.
It has been thought that free radicals can break down our cells’ protective membranes and damage the DNA inside. This in turn may make the cells age faster, as well as increasing the risk of cancerous mutations developing.
However, the California-based Buck Institute for Research on Ageing this month published work suggesting that free radicals are essential for skin healing and healthy regeneration in people under 50.
When the scientists bred mice with excess free radicals, they expected to see their skin wrinkle prematurely. But instead the opposite happened: their skin quality improved.
Dr. Michael Velarde, the study’s lead author, says that while scientists previously believed free radicals to be harmful to skin, it seems that nature has harnessed their powers to ‘optimise skin health’ – though the precise workings of the process are not yet understood.
It is only once we pass the age of 50 that our cells’ energy stores get depleted and wear out, and the free radicals’ benefit ebbs away, the researchers said. So women under 50 who use vitamins C and E to keep their skin young may actually be making it age faster.
It is just one of the latest studies to show that we should stop treating free radicals as the ‘enemy’.
They may pose a challenge to our cell health, but it appears that our cells need to be challenged in order to remain robust. It’s rather like they need regular workouts in the gym in order to stay buff.
Michael Ristow, a professor of energy metabolism at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, has found that our bodies create free radicals when we exercise intensely. This prompts our bodies to mount better defences against those free radicals, effectively strengthening our cellular defences and making our mitochondria – the tiny powerhouses that generate the energy within our cells, which we need to survive – work harder.
An earlier overview of human studies showed that the use of the popular antioxidant supplements beta-carotene, vitamin E, or vitamin A slightly increases a person’s risk of death.
The study also showed no benefit — and no harm — for vitamin C supplements. Selenium supplements tended to very slightly reduce risk of death.
Oxidative stress — caused by highly reactive “free radical” compounds circulating in the blood — is a factor in most diseases.
Antioxidants sweep up these free radicals. It seems to be a no-brainer that taking antioxidant supplements would protect your health. But it may not be that simple.
The detailed analysis of human studies of beta-carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E shows that people who take these antioxidant supplements don’t live any longer than those who don’t take them. In fact, those who take the supplements have an increased risk of death.
The finding, reported in The Journal of the American Medical Association, comes from Goran Bjelakovic, MD, DrMedSci, of the University of Nis in Serbia; Christian Gluud, MD, DrMedSci, of Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark; and colleagues.
In 2009, Professor Ristow reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that if we take antioxidant vitamins, the strengthening system is blocked and fails to work. Meanwhile, in June, research reported to the American Diabetes Association warned that giving vitamin C and E supplements to diabetic patients could increase their risk of dying prematurely.
Kumar Sharma, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, who led the study, believes this is because diabetic patients’ mitochondria tend to underperform. Therefore, they suffer particularly badly if their cells are not stimulated into behaving energetically by free radicals. In turn, vital organs can become extremely susceptible to damage.
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