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Antioxidants are substances that quench free radicals (see below) and include enzymes, vitamins, minerals and plant substances called phytochemicals. The most popular antioxidant supplements include beta-carotene and other carotenoids (such as lycopene found in tomatoes), vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, Coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, conjugated linoleic acid, N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC), proanthocyanidins (found in pine bark and grape seed extract), curcumin (found in turmeric), the amino acids cysteine and methionine, and catechins (found in green tea).
Should Athletes take Antioxidant Supplements?
The more you exercise, the more free radicals you generate. This is due partly to the 10-20fold increase in oxygen consumption, the increase in lactic acid production and the increase in heat generation. Heavy weight training is one of the worst. It results in microtears in the muscle that generate more free radicals, and this is partly responsible for post-exercise soreness and tenderness.
The body tends to adapt - thankfully - by producing higher levels of antioxidant enzymes to deal with the additional amount of free radicals. So could supplements provide any further benefit?
Well, antioxidant supplements will not stop you producing free radicals nor will they enhance your strength and performance. However, they will bolster your body's defences against increased free radical attack, and studies have found that supplementation helps reduce the damage to muscles and other tissues caused by exercise. You also get less post-exercise discomfort, swelling and soreness.
Food or Supplements?
The best advice is to get as many antioxidants as possible from food. It is not possible to replicate what you get from food in a pill. Food contains hundreds of phytochemicals, all of which have slightly different antioxidant actions. Taking a selected few in the form of a supplement will not give you the best protection.
The Department of Health and the World Health Organisation advise a minimum of 400 g or five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Aim to consume at least 2-3 portions of fruit and 3-4 portions of vegetables - the more intensely colored the better. (The Table given below shows the healthiest fruit and vegetables, ranked by researchers at Tuft's University for their ability to soak up free radicals.)
A number of experts have recommended optimal doses of selected antioxidants, which are considerably higher than the intakes you could hope to get from a normal diet. For example, to get 80 mg vitamin E you would need to consume 162 g (about 15 tb sp) sunflower oil (one of the richest sources of vitamin E) daily. To obtain 25 mg beta carotene you would need to eat 333 g carrots (that's six carrots) daily. Therefore, it makes sense to take a daily antioxidant supplement.
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