Antioxidants are chemical compounds that can bind to free oxygen radicals preventing these radicals from damaging healthy cells.
Preliminary studies have suggested that antioxidants are useful in a number of ways in regards to cancer. For instance, they may improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy, decrease side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and prevent some types of cancer. Sufficient epidemiological studies have shown that ingesting foods high in antioxidants, such as fruits and vegetables, can decrease the risk of many types of cancer. Studies have also found that cancer patients have lower levels of antioxidants in their blood. The American Cancer Society suggests eating five servings of fruits a day to decrease the risk of cancer.
Studies of antioxidant supplements to decrease the risk of cancer have not been conclusive. Most antioxidant research has centered around vitamins A (and its provitamin, beta-carotene), C, E (alpha-tocopherol), and the trace element selenium. While some studies have shown positive effects for antioxidants in preventing cancer, they have been conducted mostly in underfed populations or persons otherwise deficient in these antioxidants. The CARET studies in the early 1990s found that if smokers take beta-carotene and vitamin A supplements they actually increase their risk of developing lung cancer. Rather than isolated antioxidants found in supplements, it may be the combination of antioxidants found in foods that are responsible for decreasing the risk of cancer. The American Institute of Cancer Research warns that antioxidant supplements cannot substitute for whole foods. Individuals who may want to consider supplements include those who are underfed, have certain medical conditions, chronic dieters, some vegetarians, some seniors, and newborns.
Concern has developed about potential negative interactions between high doses of antioxidants and chemotherapy. Anthracycline antitumor antibiotics used as chemotherapy act by creating free oxygen radicals to kill tumor cells through a process known as apoptosis. Although patients taking antioxidants may improve their tolerance to chemotherapy drugs, they may be decreasing the effectiveness of treatment and risking a recurrence of the tumor in the long run. This viewpoint is theoretical, however, and no clinical studies have as yet addressed it. Patients interested in using antioxidants during chemotherapy or radiotherapy should discuss this option with their physicians.
High doses of vitamins and minerals can be toxic. The National Academy of Sciences has suggested safe upper intake levels for adults for some antioxidants. These limits are 2, 000 milligrams of vitamin C per day from both foods and supplements combined, 1, 000 milligrams of vitamin E per day, and 400 micrograms per day of selenium from both supplements and foods. It is not known how higher levels than these will affect healthy persons.
Side effects of vitamin E overdose may include fatigue, intestinal cramping, breast soreness, thrombophlebitis, acne, and diarrhea, and increase in blood pressure in certain people. Blood clotting time has been shown to increase. Also, with 1, 800 IU per day, and vitamin E is antagonistic to iron and patients with anemia who are taking iron supplements should not take the two supplements at the same time. Vitamin E may also interfere with vitamin K. Selenium toxicity is characterized by dermatologic lesions; brittle hair, fragile or black fingernails, metallic taste, dizziness, and nausea.
Cindy Jones Ph.D., The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,