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Oxygen: Life & Death – A Balanced View on Antioxidants

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The Origin of Photosynthesis & Atmospheric Oxygen

In my e-book, From Fungi to Cancer, I wrote:

Very long ago, Mother Earth had an atmosphere very different from today's. It did not contain free oxygen. The single-celled organisms, which dominated then, had to produce energy from fermentation and glycolysis - not very effective methods. An organism (a cyanobacterium) developed the chlorophyll and the photosynthesis, a more effective system which is still generally used in the plant kingdom. But there was a side effect, a complication: it left free oxygen as a residue, and that residue ended up in the atmosphere. Oxygen, however, is strongly toxic, so when it had built up to a certain level, most organisms of that period died out. Those that did not were adapted to the new conditions. They applied a new form of metabolism, one using oxygen, which was much more effective than fermentation.

This paved the way for multi-cellular organisms, which require much more energy than single-celled ones. Evolution gained speed, species became gradually more advanced and specialised. The difference between predator and prey developed, and by their "armaments race", evolutionary speed increased further.

But what happened on the microlevel? How was an oxygen-based metabolism suddenly able to exist?

Again, we have to go far back in time, where a single-celled plant organism penetrated a cell and established a symbiosis we uphold in all our healthy cells to this very day. This organism is commonly known as a mitochondrion. The new symbiotic cell was able to use oxygen and became a survivor in the new atmosphere.

Normal human cells burn carbohydrates to get energy, a method requiring free oxygen. This happens in the mitochondria we have in every healthy cell. If the cell is lacking oxygen, it changes its metabolism to one of fermentation; it becomes a cancer cell, which does not use oxygen. (Read more about that in my e-book From Fungi To Cancer”.)

Oxygen & Oxidation

Oxygen is life and death. Without it, we would not survive more than a few minutes. Chronic moderate deficiency harms us slowly. A little too much, and we would die in a moment. We need it, but it is still toxic. We breathe to live, yet we die by oxidation.

Interestingly, oxygen is the most common element of Planet Earth, being almost 50% of it; and of the human body it is approximately 65%. Of course it was as common before the photosynthesis as it is now. What happened between then and now was not the creation of the element oxygen, but the release of free atmospheric oxygen.

How can we protect ourselves from oxygen-related damage?

For various reasons, most of us live in a state of internal oxygen deficiency. This harms our cells and the symbiosis with the mitochondria; our metabolism threatens to collapse. When it does, we are on our way to develop cancer.

Certain vitamins protect our cells from damage caused by oxygen deficiency, mainly vitamins E and A. There are some medical drugs that can be useful too, but we leave it at that, at least for the moment.

On the other end of the scale we have oxidation. A threat we have to counter all the time. The more oxygen we metabolise, the more oxidation. Physical exercise increases the amount of oxygen that is accessible to the cells, but it also means that more energy is used and produced; there is more cell respiration, and thus more oxidation. That is why more exercise must be accompanied by more antioxidants. In the long run, the effects of physical exercise become destructive otherwise.

What is oxidation? Very briefly it can be defined either as the union of an element with oxygen, or as a reaction where an electron is removed from an atom or molecule. In the body, free radicals, molecules or atoms lacking an electron, are produced by carbohydrate metabolism and the breakdown of fats; by radioactivity, UV-light (sun), aluminium, heavy metals, chlorine, tobacco, alcohol, stress, infection, and much more. These radicals are very reactive. To become "complete", they take an electron wherever they can get one. By that a new free radical is created where the electron has been taken. Then this new one takes an electron somewhere, and so on. This chain reaction might be repeated many times, damaging DNA or other structures. Such free-radical damage has been linked to cancer; arthritis; hardening of the arteries, and other cardiovascular diseases; cataract; wrinkles and diminished elasticity in tissues; multiple sclerosis; allergies and a number of other ailments, often associated with old age.

The chain reaction continues until the chemical energy is exhausted, or until an antioxidant stops it. The body produces a number of antioxidative enzymes, but in today's polluted world they are insufficient. Relying on only food for extra antioxidants is foolish. The environment is toxic, we need extra protection, and high quality food is not available anywhere. Supplementation is vital. The best-known antioxidants are: vitamins A, B1, B2, C, D, E, and B3 in the form of Nicotinic Acid; co-enzyme Q10; minerals Zink and Selenium; pigments as Carotenoids, Bioflavonoids, and Anthocyanins. The latter are contained in the red or violet-blue colours of many berries and some other fruit Furthermore, some foods, herbs, spices, etc. contain compounds which are strong antioxidants. Coffee, turmeric, clove, oregano, and garlic are a few examples.

Antioxidants – A Balanced View

Free radicals, oxidation and antioxidants are widely misunderstood and often erroneously described. The popular media and many medical professionals spread the idea that oxidation is always something bad and that all oxidation must at any cost be combatted. For them it is the root cause of all degenerative disease, and the more antioxidants you get, the better.

Certainly oxidation is not the one and single root cause of all degenerative disease, even if it seems to be an important contributory cause. It is not so simple as I have heard many medical professionals naively say, that with the discovery of the free radicals and what they do, we have found the cause of all degenerative disease. There is no single cause of all degenerative disease. It is a complex combination of many causes.

This time I will clearly go against mainstream and say that some free radicals are working for you, not against you; and if you indiscriminately neutralise them all, you will undoubtedly die an early death! The amount of antioxidants must be suitable. Too much, and you will be turning off important immune and repair reactions.

Getting too much antioxidants in our polluted world and with the grotesque life-style errors of modern life is not easy, but it can happen. It is also a matter of the right ones, at the right time, and different ones in the right balance. A very clear example of how you should not use antioxidants is the famous study where a high intake of beta carotene actually increased the frequency of lung cancer amongst smokers.

Many antioxidants are themselves becoming free radicals when they have neutralised others. To understand that, let's look at what happens.

A free radical is lacking an electron. It snatches one wherever it finds it, and thus it can harm the proteins of the body, even the DNA. Such damage is a part of what causes degenerative disease and many things commonly referred to as "ageing".

An antioxidant leaves an electron to the free radical, which is then neutralised and rendered harmless; but now the antioxidant is missing one electron - the one it has given away: it has been transformed to a free radical itself. Another antioxidant is needed to neutralise that. This other antioxidant also becomes a free radical and sometimes it needs a third antioxidant to become harmless - and so it continues till the chemical energy is exhausted. Unless an antioxidant in the chain has a surplus electron and can stop the whole process. So: most antioxidants need other antioxidants! Giving high dose supplementation of just one might be outright dangerous! You might create a new class of harmful free radicals consisting of the used remnants of the single antioxidant that was taken. If you take antioxidants in high doses, it must be as broad a spectrum as possible. There might be specific situations and conditions excepted from that rule, both chronic and acute, but they must be handled with profound knowledge.

Vitamin C is a good example of an antioxidant needing other antioxidants to neutralise its remnants. It needs, as far as it is known, bioflavonoids. (But don't fall into the trap of believing that all effects of the C-vitamin are due to its capacity as an antioxidant. Vitamins, minerals and many substances being antioxidants have many other functions as well, although that is irrelevant for this discussion.)

For the immune system, one of its main weapons is to generate free radicals and shoot them at alien disease-causing attackers (bacteria, fungi, parasites, etc) so they die, and even to try to kill off tumour cells. That's what is imitated when radiation is used against cancer. It causes superoxidation, generating a huge amount of free radicals with the purpose to kill the cancer cells. Unfortunately healthy cells are killed too, and the uncontrolled extra oxidation also harms many surrounding tissues, and might even cause new cancer by harming the membranes or the DNA of healthy cells. But if you take high dose antioxidants at the same time, the radiation is useless, its free radicals are neutralised!

In the same way, too much antioxidants at the wrong moment, and perhaps the wrong combination (far too little is known about the optimal balance), might neutralise the free radicals of the immune system, so its capacity to kill alien disease-causing microbes or parasites is reduced or even eliminated. That is to say, we need some oxidation; some free radicals are essential for our health, while others make us ill. It all depends on what free radicals, where and when. Much more research is needed in order to understand this fully.

Be aware that there is a form of fashion in the medical science, as in everything else. At a certain point of time, something is modern. Then everything is attributed to that. The theory of free radicals and antioxidants is and has been modern for some time, and sometimes it gets too much attention at the cost of other factors. The human mind is too inclined to see only one thing at a time and by that to be deluded into over-generalisation and over-simplification; not to mention to premature conclusions.

There are a number of methods to measure antioxidant activity, but none of them should be seen as conclusive. The most common one is to measure ORAC, Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity. We will not discuss that in scientific detail, but it comes with a number of uncertainties. One problem is that the tests are made on biological substances in vitro (clinically). Antioxidant activity in vivo (in living organisms) have been proved only for vitamin A, C, and E. However, while in many general cases, results of medical tests in vitro correspond to effects also in vivo, it is far from always the case.

Indeed, there are results suggesting that some antioxidants, such as flavonoids, are not providing a significant direct antioxidant activity in a living organism, but that their indisputably strong health effects may be due to other mechanisms.

So, if we return to the question, we will see which five substances or foodstuffs have the highest ORAC. Not even that should be seen as conclusive, since far from everything has been tested. Here are the results at the present level of knowledge.

At the top we have Dragon's blood, from Croton lechleri, in its natural state. It scored 2,897,110.

Astaxanthin, chemically purified and concentrated, scored 2,822,200. That is very close to the Dragon's blood, but it is a concentrated product. Natural astaxanthin is found in some marine plants or the animals eating them, but they need to be processed in order obtain the ORAC.

As number three, we have Sumac bran, which scored 312,400.

Fourth, Ground Cloves, scored 290,283. A quite common spice with many health effects.

Number five: Dried amla berries, or Indian gooseberries, scored 261,500. They should not be confused with other “gooseberries”.

As a comparison, we can mention that apples score 2,828 – and raw green kale scores 1,770. Far below the top 5.

(This article is a chapter from my e-book “Paradigms of Health”, 2019.)

Copyright © 2019, 2021 Meleonymica/Mictorrani. All Rights Reserved.

All my articles on health & medicine can be found here.

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A somewhat stable balance is all I hope for.
Excess and deficiency can occur in cycles survivable if gentle.

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Yes, that is true. There is always some tolerance for temporary excess and deficiency. That holds for everything.

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The role of antioxidants in disease prevention is difficult to evaluate, as in epidemiological studies their role is almost impossible to distinguish from vitamins and other beneficial compounds present in fruits and vegetables.But some intervention studies, preceded by numerous laboratory studies, have shown that regular consumption of plant antioxidants reduces the possibility of oxidative cell damage and thus the development of certain diseases.

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