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Out of all categories of supplements, antioxidants are one type that is highly underrated – and misused. If you can quench those evil free radicals in order to live longer and feel better, while also aiding recovery and reducing soreness, why not load up with antioxidants? However, before you start filling your online cart with antis, it’s important to note that proper usage is key. You can’t and shouldn’t avoid them but you also shouldn’t be so gung ho. Using antioxidant supplements the wrong way could actually hinder your progress, because sometimes oxidation is actually good (gasp). And sometimes antioxidants can even turn to the dark side and become pro-oxidants.
In 1998, news headlines warned against the dangers of vitamin C after the publication of a controversial study in the prestigious journal Nature. The study showed that some DNA was oxidized by vitamin C, which isn’t good, but some DNA was also protected from oxidation by vitamin C. Turns out the protection was around ten times greater in magnitude — a fact that was conveniently left out of the paper. The paper was attacked and the author pretty much reversed his conclusion. So outside of that popular but flawed study, what does the evidence say about antioxidants turning bad specifically for exercise?
Well…results are somewhat mixed. The few studies directly testing antioxidants for muscle growth after a weightlifting routine fail to show a benefit. But there are many different markers of muscle damage that you can measure after a workout, so there are some studies showing benefits of antioxidants. These may just be temporary benefits though, not supporting long-term muscle growth. Bear with us…there are a lot of interesting competing factors.
You definitely don’t want to overdo it. There have been a few trials showing that post-workout antioxidants, typically vitamin C and vitamin E at larger doses, can blunt some of the positive effects from exercise. For example, exercise normally improves insulin resistance but that positive effect disappears when you take vitamin C and vitamin E after the workout. Why is that?
It turns out that reactive oxygen species (ROS) are not universally bad, and one of their important functions is to signal the body to increase protein synthesis as part of the mTOR pathway. Vitamin C in extremely large doses inhibits muscle growth by quenching not just bad ROS, but helpful ROS as well. And ROS is also essential to insulin benefits from exercise.
It’s also important to realize that while we get antioxidants through foods and supplements, we have an even more powerful antioxidant system that our own bodies provide. And some evidence has shown that post-exercise antioxidants can curb our body’s natural antioxidant response to exercise.
Perhaps more importantly, taking too many antioxidants may be harmful for longevity. Researchers previously thought that ROS were largely responsible for shortened lifespans but current thinking indicates that ROS may actually be important for increasing lifespan. The reason is a concept called “mitohormesis”, with “hormesis” referring to your body’s positive adaptation to stressors (like growing muscle after the stress of weightlifting or altitude training improving cardio capacity), and “mito” referring to the mitochondria where these adaptations arise from.
Essentially, small amounts of stress within your cells caused by ROS can lead to improved stress resistance naturally created by your body. And that stress resistance could play an important role in living a long and healthy life.
All that being said, don’t go to the extreme and avoid antioxidant vitamins altogether. Vitamin C is critical to collagen formation, which is something that comes up a lot when you’re taxing your joints lifting heavy weights. And antioxidants are overall quite beneficial for health, just not necessarily when mega-dosed right after your workout.
Remember that a healthy diet should incorporate a variety of antioxidant-rich nutrients, as antioxidants often work together with one another. So as usual, focus on getting a balance of nutrients from your diet, and always be careful before going heavy any nutrient.
Kamal Patel is the director of Examine.com. He has an MBA and an MPH (Master of Public Health) from Johns Hopkins University, and was pursuing his PhD in nutrition when he opted to go on hiatus to join Examine.com. He is dedicated to making scientific research in nutrition and supplementation accessible to everyone.