The benefits (???) of Antioxidants


It seems everyday we read stories in the media about the benefits of these things called antioxidants. We are repeatedly told that we ‘need more antioxidants in our diet’, because they will help to stave off debilitating conditions like Parkinson’s disease.

Last week, however, a study was published which indicates that this may not be the case.

In todays post we look at antioxidants and their impact on Parkinson’s disease.


Berries are a wonderful source of antioxidants. Source: Steroidal

Antioxidants are one of those subjects that is often discussed, but not well understood. So before we review the study that was published last week, let’s first have a look at what we mean when we talk about antioxidants.

What is an antioxidant?

An antioxidant is simply a molecule that prevents the oxidation of other molecules.

OK, but what does that mean?

Well, the cells in your body are made of molecules. Molecules are combinations atoms of one or more elements joined by chemical bonds. Atoms consist of a nucleus, neutrons, protons and electrons.

Oxidation is the loss of electrons from a molecule, which in turn destabilises the molecule. Think of iron rusting. Rust is the oxidation of iron – in the presence of oxygen and water, iron molecules will lose electrons over time. Given enough time, this results in the complete break down of objects made of iron.


Rust, the oxidation of metal. Source: TravelwithKevinandRuth

The exact same thing happens in biology. Molecules in your body go through a similar process of oxidation – losing electrons and becoming unstable. This chemical reaction leads to the production of what we call free radicals, which can then go on to damage cells.

What is a free radical?

A free radical is an unstable molecule – unstable because they are missing electrons. They react quickly with other molecules, trying to capture the needed electron to re-gain stability. Free radicals will literally attack the nearest stable molecule, stealing an electron. This leads to the “attacked” molecule becoming a free radical itself, and thus a chain reaction is started. Inside a living cell this can cause terrible damage, ultimately killing the cell.

Antioxidants are thus the good guys in this situation. They are molecules that neutralize free radicals by donating one of their own electrons. The antioxidant don’t become free radicals by donating an electron because by their very nature they are stable with or without that extra electron.


How free radicals and antioxidants work. Source: h2miraclewater

What are good sources of antioxidants?

While human being are pretty poor at producing antioxidants, plants produce LOTS! Thus vegetables and fruits are a fantastic source of antioxidants.


Sources of antioxidants (no. 3 is our favourite). Source: DrAxe

The Oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) score mentioned in the figure above is a method of measuring the antioxidant capacity of various substances. For comparative sake, a piece of tofu has an ORAC score of approximately 90, a beef steak has an ORAC score of approximately 10, and a ‘Redbull’ energy drink has an ORAC score of 0 (as they all have very few antioxidants – Source:Superfoodly).

A source of major antioxidants are vitamins (such as beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E). Vitamins are essential nutrients that our bodies needs (in small amounts) to function properly. Many of them are also potent antioxidants.

Vitamin C (or ascorbic acid), in particular, is a powerful antioxidant and it is found in both animals and plants. Unfortunately for humans, however, one of the enzymes needed to make ascorbic acid was lost by a genetic mutation during primate evolution, and so we must obtain it from our diet (eat lots of oranges folks).

How could antioxidants work for Parkinson’s disease?


Postmortem analysis of the brains of people who had Parkinson’s disease has revealed numerous signs of oxidative damage, and this has lead to many researchers hypothesising that oxidation is a key component of the disease.

So what research was published last week?

The results of this study:


Title: Intake of antioxidant vitamins and risk of parkinson’s disease.
Authors: Hughes KC, Gao X, Kim IY, Rimm EB, Wang M, Weisskopf MG, Schwarzschild MA, Ascherio A.
Journal: Movement Disorders. 2016 Oct 27. doi: 10.1002/mds.26819.
PMID: 27787934

In this study, the investigators wanted to look at the consumption of antioxidant vitamins and the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. In order to do this, they needed large pools of medical data that they could analyse. They used the databases from the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (HPFS) in the USA.

NHS study was started in 1976 when 121,700 female registered nurses (aged 30 to 55 years) completed a mailed questionnaire. They provided an overview of their medical histories and health-related behaviours. The HPFS study was established in 1986, when 51,529 male health professionals (40 to 75 years) responded to a similar questionnaire. Both the NHS and the HPFS send out follow-up questionnaires every 2 years.

The investigators in the current study, removed the data from people who reported ‘implausible total energy intake at baseline (<660 or >3,500 kcal/day for women and <800 or >4,200 kcal/day for men)’, missed reporting for any survey, or had a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease at the start of the study. This left them with the survey results of 80,750 women and 48,672 men to analyse.

From these pools of subjects, they found a total of 1036 people with Parkinson’s disease (554 in HPFS and 482 in NHS). When the investigators looked at antioxidant vitamin consumption, they found that vitamin E was not associated with an increased or decreased risk of Parkinson’s disease. Vitamin C intake showed indications of reducing the risk of developing Parkinson’s, but this not significant.

The investigators concluded that their results do not support the hypothesis that consumption of antioxidant vitamins reduces the risk of Parkinson’s disease.

What about other Parkinson’s disease research on antioxidants?

There have been several clinical trials for antioxidants and Parkinson’s disease. Of particular interest has been the research surrounding Coenzyme Q10 (also known as ubiquinone and ubidecarenone).Coenzyme Q10 is an antioxidant that exhibited positive preclinical results for Parkinson’s disease, and this led to several large clinical trials:


Title: A randomized clinical trial of high-dosage coenzyme Q10 in early Parkinson disease: no evidence of benefit.
Authors: Parkinson Study Group QE3 Investigators., Beal MF, et al.
Journal: JAMA Neurol. 2014 May;71(5):543-52.
PMID: 24664227

This article reported the results of a phase III randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trial at 67 North American sites, consisting of 600 participants. While Coenzyme Q10 was safe and well tolerated by the subjects in the study, it demonstrated no evidence of clinical benefit.

One justified critique of this study, however, was the variety of subjects with Parkinson’s disease involved in the study. It has been suggested that a clinical trial should be performed with coenzyme Q10 in people with Parkinson’s disease who have a proven mutation in the PINK1 gene as these are the subjects who are most likely to benefit from this approach. That would be an interesting trial.

So what does it all mean?

Well, the study published last week needs to be replicated with another large database before any serious conclusions can be made. For all the hype around antioxidants, however, there is a worrying lack of supporting evidence that they actually have any effect (in the case of lung cancer there are even suggestions that some vitamin antioxidants could exacerbate the situation – click here for more on this).

The results of the study reviewed above do suggest that our view of oxidation in Parkinson’s disease needs to be re-addressed. It may be that oxidation may simply be an end step in the condition, and trying to block it with antioxidants is fruitless.

It should be noted that we are not suggesting here that people should stop taking antioxidants – they are an important part of any balanced diet, necessary for normal biological functioning. We are simply presenting the evidence that some of the hype surrounding their potential is unfounded.

As usual, as more information comes to hand, we shall present it here. Watch this space.

The banner for todays post was sourced from Pinkhope

5 thoughts on “The benefits (???) of Antioxidants

  1. Hi Lillian, thanks for your message and for your interest in the post. Unfortunately we don’t allow advertising on the website so we won’t be able to post your message. This policy is to avoid ethical and conflict of interest situations. We hope you understand.
    Kind regards,


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