Vitamin A, C and E supplements are touted as a panacea for everything from crow's feet to the common cold. However, Dr. Randolph M. Howes, who earned his doctorate in medicine and biochemistry from Tulane School of Medicine and serves as adjunct associate professor of plastic surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, argues that synthetic antioxidant supplements do more harm than good. His book, Death In Small Doses?: Antioxidant Vitamins A, C & E in the 21st Century (Trafford Publishing), debunks the free radical theory.
Q: What is the free radical theory?
A: The free radical theory was proposed by Dr. Denham Harman in 1954. He concluded that oxygen free radicals were responsible for most of the diseases in man. So if oxygen free radicals were causing diseases like cancer, heart disease and stroke, then antioxidants would reverse, cure or prevent these diseases. This theory has been around for more than half a century, and it became accepted as being true.
Q: Is the free radical theory a sound one?
A: The free radical theory lacks predictability, ergo it fails to be validated by the scientific method. So many studies that show the nullification of the free radical theory have either been ignored or denied. One of the most accepted theories for aging is the oxygen free radical theory of aging, but these over-exuberant claims for antioxidants have been wrong. Today, with the antioxidant vitamins, it is not about scientific evidence. It is about clever marketing.
Q: Are synthetic vitamin A, C and E supplements good for you or even necessary?
A: Unless you have a known deficiency of a vitamin, all you need is a well-balanced, nutritious diet. You need to consume nuts and five servings a day of fresh fruit and vegetables. Fresh fruits and vegetables are very complex biochemically, with tens of thousands of compounds in them. We can't say what they are doing on their own or synergistically with all these other compounds. So taking a supplement is not even close to the same thing as eating a fruit or vegetable.
Q: Can these antioxidant supplements hurt you?
A: Everywhere from Johns Hopkins Hospital and Harvard (Medical School) to Tufts (University School of Medicine) found that antioxidants increase total mortality. They increase risks of prostate and lung cancer, the risk of various forms of heart disease, the rates of bone fracture, the risk of gestational (or pregnancy-induced) hypertension ... the list goes on and on.
Q: What should we do to stay healthy?
A: If there is one thing that is consistent in medical literature, it is the fact that exercise decreases the risk of disease. When you exercise, you increase your oxygen consumption, and we want to increase our oxidative capacity. The second best way is with vitamin D3. A substance in the skin is converted into vitamin D3, a pro-oxidant, when exposed to sunlight. Fifteen minutes of sun a day is enough, but it is also available as a supplement, and it appears to be very effective in that form, unlike other supplements. And you need to consume fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts. Even fast food places are offering salads and fresh fruits, so it is a matter of choice.