Antioxidants Block Exercise Recovery — Part 1

Antioxidants Block Exercise Recovery — Part 1

Apr 16, 2012

It’s a rookie mistake made by a lot of fitness experts, pro athletes, and exercise enthusiasts: taking  popular antioxidants can hamper exercise recovery by mucking up the body’s own natural antioxidant systems that evolution put in place hundreds of thousands of years ago. For the last 30+ years, weekend and world-class athletes have blindly trusted the questionable claims of dietary supplement marketers and self-proclaimed fitness gurus that taking antioxidant supplements would prevent muscle damage, inflammation, and loss of performance due to exercise-induced free radical damage.

I’ve been involved in dietary supplement product development since the early 1980s and developed a number of highly successful product concepts for Twinlab® and TwinSport® from 1985–2003. Such products can be quite lucrative for those who develop them and for those companies that sell them. For example, just a single nutraceutical product concept I developed in the early 1990s was one of the most successful in the company’s 30-year history and paid off my home mortgage.

So I’m not surprised when I see everyone and his brother with a website hawking dietary supplements. There’s big money to be made. Unfortunately, a number of the products I’ve reviewed are poorly designed, meaning they provide inappropriate doses or contain questionable ingredients. Some are simply a waste of your money and won’t live up to the seller’s claims, explicit or implicit.

Antioxidant supplements are among the most misunderstood and overused fitness supplements by exercise enthusiasts and elite athletes alike. Inappropriate use of certain antioxidant supplements can nullify potential training improvements to those seeking optimized fitness, free-radical protection, and a performance edge.

Ironically, it’s active people who are most vulnerable to the harmful effects of antioxidant supplements. Most take them anyway because they believe the conventional wisdom that foods and supplements with high ORAC values are healthier and more protective than products with lower ORAC values. ORAC values are more of a marketing tool than they are a valid measure of how well a food, beverage, or supplement will quench reactive oxygen or nitrogen species once inside your body. In my book,


I speak with a number of professional athletes who suffer from chronic systemic inflammation and muscle breakdown and soreness who blame their condition on everything from eating too many carbs or too much fat or dehydration or lack of certain minerals. The truth is that most are unknowingly overtraining, which sets the stage for muscle damage and pain. Sometimes, taking antioxidant supplements can make matters worse.

The first question I ask is: Are you taking megadose antioxidant supplements on a daily basis? The answer is almost always, YES! The second question I ask is, “Are you taking iron supplements?” Again, the answer is usually affirmative. Of all the conventional sports nutrition supplements on the market, iron supplements would be at the top of my “Do Not Take” list. There are rational uses for iron supplements–when used in the proper context–but certainly not for quenching free radicals produced by moderate-to-heavy workouts. Often promoted as “anti-anemia” pills, iron supplements could wind up working against you, not for you.


Is The Free-Radical Theory of Aging Due For Retirement?

In 1982, exercise physiologists demonstrated that lab rats—when run to total exhaustion—produced lots of free radicals (reactive oxygen species, or ROS) in their skeletal muscle. Since then, sports fitness gurus and dietary supplement marketers have sold billions of dollars worth of antioxidant supplements promoted as free radical quenchers and damage control compounds that protect our bodies from the destructive compounds made during physical activity.

During that same year, a popular life extension book based on Denham Harmon’s free-radical theory of aging promoted antioxidant supplements and firmly established them as an important fitness tool in the minds of many athletes and exercise enthusiasts. Nutrition science has rapidly progressed since Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw first popularized antioxidant supplements in the early 1980s. While free radical damage may play a role in aging, it is clearly not the only contributor. Recent evidence supports the concept that phytonutrients (e.g., curcumin, EGCG, fisetin, quercetin, resveratrol) not only prevent free radical damage but also exert even more powerful protection through non-antioxidant actions. Many of the phytonutrients fitness gurus believed were merely antioxidants are now understood to be quite capable of modulating gene expression, and as such could represent a more effective means for preventing exercise-induced damage to muscles and vital organs.


Although a number of armchair experts on various blogs promote such popular antioxidants as vitamin C, vitamin E, and fish oil to reduce free radical damage during and after exercise, biomedical researchers have yet to reach a clear consensus on the benefits of these supplements. For example, see here, here, here, and here.

Today, the accumulated evidence of the last three decades has led me to conclude that fitness gurus who promote antioxidant supplements seem to have ignored a large and growing body of robust evidence that suggests that indiscriminately taking antioxidants for “damage control” and “health insurance” could be counterproductive to exercise recovery and healing from sports injuries.

Such supplements may paradoxically increase inflammation and muscle damage after exercise and minimize or reduce expected exercise gains.

[Continued In Part Two on Paleo Sport]

☆ Disclaimer: This is my informed opinion. I could be wrong. What do you think?

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