Super Vitamins and Free Radicals
by Dr. Mo Lerner

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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 idea.

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

Heretic Physician