Can antioxidants help us live longer?

Aging is a natural process for us.

It is an inevitable, universal and biological imprint of our bodies. At the end of the day, everything has its ending, including our life; however, don’t fret, as there is still a brighter future for a longer lifespan with advanced science and research. 

Longevity is a hotbed of new research, and one question comes up again and again – can antioxidants really help us live longer? You can see and read various claims everywhere saying antioxidants can contribute to longevity, but how true is this? 

The process of aging 

Let’s start with one basic thing to fully understand – why do we age in the first place? DNA damage is the most common reason behind aging.

Your DNA contains all the instructions for building up the cells in your body; hence, when it is damaged, your whole body will be affected. There are different diseases that can damage your DNA and impair your DNA repair, making aging accelerate. 

Another reason for aging is because of epigenetic dysregulation. The epigenome tells which genes are active and not. When you get older, your epigenome becomes dysregulated, which can result in cancer.

On the other hand, there is protein accumulation causing you to age. The protein in your body can cause protein clumps that stop your cells from functioning healthily. It becomes protein toxicity which is called loss of proteostasis. 

Mitochondrial dysfunction also plays a part in the process of aging. When you get older, your mitochondria become damaged and dysfunctional.

Furthermore, senescent cells are another reason why you age. These are zombie cells that should be eradicated from your body because they have no healthy function in there anymore. However, they stay and damage your healthy surrounding cells. On the surface, senescent cells can cause wrinkles [1]. 

And most importantly, free radicals can cause you to live shorter. They are unstable atoms that can damage cells and are associated with aging and various diseases. So, with all these ways on your body aging, how do antioxidants help? 

Antioxidants and free radicals 

Antioxidants can be found in healthy foods and may contribute to preventing and slowing damage to your cells that is caused by free radicals, which refer to unstable molecules helping the body in producing reactions to environmental and other pressure. They help with the process by neutralising the damages, which include vitamins A, C and E, and other essential nutrients, such as minerals, copper, zinc and selenium. Think of free radicals as bandits plundering healthy cells while antioxidants save your body by stabilising them [2]. 

Free radicals lack a key component, and so they try to have it by killing other cells causing damage to their DNA. It will eventually make your body weaker and ultimately leads to death. Additionally, free radicals can cause a number of health conditions, including:

  • Heart diseases
  • Eye problems like cataracts or vision loss
  • Inflammation of the joints, like arthritis 
  • Damaged nerve cells causing Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s 
  • Acceleration of the aging process
  • Cancers triggered by damaged cells and DNA

Antioxidants may not help with longevity

There are many studies proving that antioxidants may not help with longevity in clinical trials and research. According to questionable claims, vitamins C and E and synthetic compounds from antioxidants can help with the longevity of model animals. Vitamin C or commonly known as ascorbic acid, is a major hydrophilic antioxidant, while vitamin E is believed to prevent atherosclerosis through the inhibition of oxidative modification. 

However, the effects of antioxidant supplementation in model organisms are later found quite disappointing and opposite to the claims. The ability of antioxidants to prolong lifespan only applies to certain cases, and this is only for evolutionarily distant mammals.

Hence, in most research, experts concluded that antioxidants could not be assumed to significantly help us to live longer [3, 4]. One study revealed that there was no effect of multivitamin-multimineral treatment on all-cause mortality for a sample of 62 years old within 43 months.

One expert from Tufts University further explained that even at large and carefully controlled studies have shown no signs of antioxidant supplements being beneficial to longevity. The expert also added that antioxidants could be known to help in longevity, maybe because it is much easier to be an answer than scientific research [5]. 

Most antioxidants can’t help you live longer 

Many large studies found that antioxidants can’t slow down aging and are unable to reduce mortality [6, 7]. In fact, one large meta-analysis with 230,000 participants concluded that some antioxidants are linked to an increased risk of dying early [8], and vitamins A and E, including beta-carotene intake, were associated with slightly increased mortality.

With the controversial claim that antioxidants can’t help with longevity, there are many studies conducted to counter the argument. Some critics said the research may have given the wrong form of antioxidants to the participants, too low doses or improper timing of the doses.

However, the results are still the same for both animal and human studies. Animals were given all kinds of antioxidant cocktails but still didn’t live longer, and unfortunately, humans, too. 

On the other hand, if some antioxidants can function to extend lifespan, it is most of the time not because of their antioxidant activity but because of other mechanisms, which include anti-inflammatory, epigenetic or mitochondrial activities, which were mentioned above as factors contributing to the process of aging. 

Additionally, most antioxidants do not work for longevity for some reasons:

  • Antioxidant enzymes work better than antioxidants: it was found that antioxidant enzymes are much more effective than antioxidants (small molecules) when taken by mouth. However, this finding still does not seem to have significant effects on lifespan.
  • Antioxidants can’t enter the regions in the cells where they are needed the most: one huge problem with antioxidants is when taken orally, they can’t naturally go to the areas of cells where they are needed, which normally is in high concentrations. Hence, some studies tried to trick the situation by modifying an animal’s genetic composition to make more antioxidant enzymes – but, guess what, they still did not live longer. 

Now, when do “some” antioxidants help you live longer? 

The substances of antioxidants are designed to neutralise free radicals to have life-extension effects, as also mentioned earlier. To elaborate further, a study on genetically-modified worms, which were found to produce more free radicals, significantly live 32 percent longer. The clinical worms that were provided a weed-controlling herbicide and then created a surge in free radical production were found to have a longer lifespan by 58 percent [9]. 

Antioxidants and cancer

Aside from the rejection of the claim that antioxidants can help us live longer, they are, in fact, can be harmful to us as well. One good example of this is that antioxidants can increase your risk of cancer and aid cancer cells in spreading or metastasizing [10]. Moreover, cancer cells are metabolically considered active; hence, they produce a lot of free radicals as a side effect of their metabolism.

Meaning cancer cells can benefit from antioxidants when they neutralise free radicals. Hence, it is not always advisable for cancer patients to take antioxidants.

A healthy diet can help with longevity 

While antioxidants are not scientifically effective in helping us to live longer, doing the classic is still the best way to go! This is by eating a healthy diet that helps in countering the natural process of aging. 

You must eat healthy foods that contain substances that can provide epigenetic effects, reduce inflammation,  improve mitochondrial functioning, positively benefit the gut microbiome and prevent overstimulation of aging pathways. Of course, healthy foods must have the vitamins and minerals that your body needs.

  • Vitamin A: can be found typically in butter, eggs, milk and liver.
  • Vitamin C: fruits and vegetables are great sources of vitamin C, which include berries, cantaloupes, oranges, kiwis, papayas, broccoli, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale and tomatoes.
  • Vitamin E: you can get this by eating nuts and seeds, such as almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts and sunflower seeds. Also, you can find it in green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale and soybean, sunflower, corn and canola oils.
  • Beta-carotene: most brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables contain beta-carotene. These can be peaches, apricots, papayas, mangoes and cantaloupes for fruits, while carrots, peas, broccoli, squash and sweet potatoes for vegetables.
  • Lycopene: this can be found in pink and red fruits and vegetables, such as apricots, pink grapefruits, watermelon and tomatoes.
  • Lutein: this essential nutrient is in green leafy vegetables like collards, kale and spinach. You may also want to eat broccoli, corn, peas, papayas and oranges as they are rich in lutein as well. 
  • Selenium: you can get selenium by eating bread, grains, pasta, corn, wheat and rice. Selenium is also present in animal products such as beef, fish, turkey and chicken. Some other sources are cheese, eggs, legumes and nuts. 

Although antioxidants have little to zero effects on longevity, it is up to us to extend our lifespan by eating healthily and having better lifestyle choices every day. 

[1] https://novoslabs.com/why-do-we-age-and-what-can-we-do-about-it/ 
[2] https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/antioxidants 
[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23255568/ 
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3982418/ 
[5] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/antioxidant-supplements-will-help-you-live-longer/
[6] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17327526/ 
[7] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23117775/ 
[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17327526 
[9] https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1000556 
[10] https://www.cancer.gov/news-events/cancer-currents-blog/2015/antioxidants-metastasis

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