It doesn't seem that long ago that nutritional information was limited
to the "Recommended Daily Allowance" (RDA) of vitamins on corn
flake boxes and the like. The RDA list was originally produced by the U.
S. Research Council as advice for the military in the 1940's. The fact is
that the recommended daily allowance is more what people consume in ten
days. Although there is a great deal of controversy about supplements, most
credible health care professionals believe the best way to get essential
minerals and vitamins is to eat a healthy diet.
But this is not the end of the story. It turns out that the reason many
of us suffer from heart disease, get cancer, and physically atrophy as we
get older, is to a great extent the result of culprits called free radicals
(I always thought "free radicals" was the motto of the sixties
hippie counter-culture movement). As time goes on, our bodies literally
rust in a process which releases these particles called oxidation. When
oxygen feeds our cellular engines it emits an exhaust of billions of molecules
that are missing an electron in their atoms, These radical particles roam
the body bouncing off cell membranes in an attempt to steal away valuable
electrons. Unfortunately, a dense cache of electrons exists in the DNA of
our cells and this constant robbery results in damage to the genetic blueprint
for future cells. Added to the damage occurring as a result of other processes,
such as infection and radiation, it is not hard to understand why we get
sick and our bodies age as the radicals do their dirty work.
To the rescue come antioxidants such as Vitamins C, E, and BetaCarotene;
scavengers that gobble up and neutralize as many free radicals as they can.
However, even generous portions of fruits and vegetables may not always
create enough ammunition for the battle. So let's take a look at those vitamins
and how to take them.
Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid) is essential for growth and has a role in both
tooth and bone formation. The lack of it was the notorious cause of Scurvy
(bleeding gums, bone problems, etc.). Historically, the word "limey"
often referred to British sailors because they ate limes on long voyages
to get their vitamin C. Little did they know that limes are not even the
best source. A variety of citrus fruits, cantaloupes, and virtually all
vegetables are better. Consuming them fresh and raw is the best ways to
procure the vitamin as it is heat-labile. Smokers usually need a little
more as the metabolism of the vitamin speeds up in proportion to tobacco
consumption, Vitamin C is rapidly absorbed in the stomach. The body stores
it and uses it as required, then flushes the rest out in the urine. Adults
should consume about 40-50 milligrams a day minimum, and for the maximum
antioxidant effect 1,000 milligrams should do.
The late Nobel Laureate scientist Linus Pauling advocated massive doses,
but most scientists agree that there are dangers in this practice: kidney
stones, diarrhea, and stomach cramps may be a signal that you are ingesting
too much. Even more serious is the fact that if you stop taking massive
doses of vitamin C, you may actually suffer a case of rebound Scurvy.
Beta Carotene is responsible for the orange or yellow pigmentation in most
plants and is the precursor of the much renowned enhancer of night vision
and best friend of the rabbit, vitamin A. Surprisingly, the body is not
very efficient at absorbing this vitamin from vegetables. A close relative-Retinol-is
more readily available in meats, fish, and dairy products. One might be
hesitant to consume these foods in large quantities because of the risk
of fat/cholesterol overload and so vitamin supplementation might be a good
Large adults should be cautious not to consume more than the recommended
10,000 international units per day. Clues that you are taking too much include
people telling you that you have a marvelous tan even though you haven't
been out in the sun in months, The orange color is especially prominent
on the hands and feet, and skin may actually begin to peel. This is a sign
that it is time to cut back on your Beta Carotene intake, Vitamin E is especially
prevalent in oily foods like nuts and seeds. It is best taken in an oil-filled
capsule because it retains its stability and is more easily absorbed in
this form. If you do opt for the chewable tablets you may need to have them
with a meal where oil is involved, e.g. salad dressing. Unless you are prepared
to consume almost three hundred cups of whole grain cereal, or one hundred
cups of nuts, you might want to take a dose of 100 international units of
Alpha-Tocopherol. The scientific name is important because the body would
require massive amounts of the artificial forms of vitamin E to do the work.
People of size on blood thinners should be aware that this vitamin is stored
in fat and, in large accumulated doses, can lead to bleeding problems. Aside
from vegetable oils and fatty foods, vitamin E can also be found in leafy
greens and fish.
Selenium has not received the notoriety of the other antioxidants
possibly because of the controversy about taking it at all. Though an essential
part of the armamentarium that battles oxidation, in high doses it can mimic
arsenic poisoning complete with abdominal pain, hair and nail loss, and
fatigue. The RDA of 50 micrograms is readily available in healthy daily
diets of cereals and grains, fish, and meat. Overdosage from natural foods
is highly unlikely even with a high fat diet. I don't recommend a supplement.
For those of you truly interested in starting on antioxidant supplementation,
be aware that there is evidence that most of these substances work better
as a team rather than in isolation. However, before rushing out to the health
food store to buy a stock of antioxidant vitamins realize that there is
still a lot of controversy in the scientific community about whether these
supplements make a difference in the long run. If one smokes excessively
or lives a sedentary lifestyle exposed to carcinogens and other dangers,
the sudden ingestion of these "magic" vitamins won't improve things
much. Until next time, be happy, keep moving, and enjoy life. ß