Be Wary Of Antioxidants, They Can Give Cancer A Serious Boost

Credit: Michael Stern

Frightening new research punches holes in the antioxidant industry as evidence emerges that antioxidants can fuel cancer's deadly invasion plans.

Put down the supplements

Vegetables and fruit are good for you in the right amounts; that's been backed up consistently. Exactly why they are isn't always certain however, and extracting specific molecules and gulping them down as supplements has not had the same beneficial effects as whole foods. There has even been hints that some actually cause you harm.

Where is the concern coming from?

The free radical theory of aging is still influential, despite failing to last the test of time. Free radical damage is definitely a problem, but there has been little evidence showing antioxidants can slow time's cruel march, and many other areas of aging seem to be bigger players. One problem with applying tonnes of antioxidants is that your body simply makes less of its own - so you don't end up any better off. 

The latest scare is from a paper that tested a popular antioxidant called n-acetyl cysteine, which replenishes stores of powerful glutathione, on mice with melanoma.  The results were worrying; levels of cancer cells in the blood rose, and grew larger tumours that were more widespread. 

Breast cancer metastasis in the liver

 

"What we're starting to learn is that there can be bad cells from cancer that appear to benefit more from antioxidants than normal cells"

 

 

Why might this be?

There are a number of theories, but while antioxidants are extremely varied and have multiple effects beyond antioxidant activity, they help cells indiscriminately. This means they may be protecting normal cells, but also shield cancer cells from damage. Cancer metastasis (when cancer cells start to spread and invade other tissue) is very inefficient. Most cancer cells never make it to a safe harbour to establish another tumour, and die on the way. It may be that antioxidants can give life to the dying cancer migrants, and help them colonise more tissue. 

This doesn't apply to just melanoma; another study showed that vitamin e and n-acetyl cysteine gave prostate cancer a big boost and heightened its aggression. Larger doses had more disastrous effects. 

"Personally, from the results we've seen, I would avoid supplementing my diet with large amounts of antioxidants if I had cancer"

The moral of the story

N-acetyl cysteine is a valuable molecule that has been shown to have a range of positive effects and is also used in medical treatments. However this study reveals that it may require more caution; in the right people it may do good, but in the wrong it could be collaborating with the enemy. The same may be true for many other antioxidants. 

The problem is that a varied diet gives you far more than antioxidants, and these studies don't address this factor. Reducing inflammation and improving overall health are important for holding cancer at bay, so these results may apply only to patients who already have cancerous cells. It's likely for healthy individuals, they have a very different effect. 

Read more at The Washington Post