Despite the hype, mega-doses of antioxidants have failed to deliver the promise of a long, healthy life. Quite to the contrary, too much vitamin E can increase the risk of stroke; too much beta-carotene can increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers; and so on down the line.
The reason is that the antioxidant theory is way too simple, depicted as one of these battles between good and evil. Punks called free radicals roam the body looking for fights, roughing up DNA, knocking loose electrons, causing mutations and perhaps even causing aging itself. Antioxidants come swooping in, donating electrons and repairing damage.
Some of this is true. Yet free radicals are crucial for life, embedded in the human immune system and also involved in certain important cell signaling. Meanwhile, antioxidants can turn on you, causing oxidative damage just like free radicals. There's a proper balance of free radicals and antioxidants needed for good health; and popping vitamin pills can throw off that balance.
Yet a team of Canadian researchers has been playing with a crazy idea for more than a decade: If a lot of one antioxidant doesn't work, how about a little bit of a lot of antioxidants — you know, sort of like what you could get from a well-balanced diet?
Turns out that their hunch might be right... in mice, anyway.
Of mice and men
As relayed in the current issue of Experimental Biology and Medicine, researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, have developed a cocktail of antioxidants and other nutrients that forestalls major aspects of the aging process in mice.
Mice fed the cocktail dramatically warded off many of the signatures of aging, such as loss of memory, motor skills, sensory perception and energy. The reason might be the nutrients' ability to increase the activity of the mitochondria — the cellular organelles that create the enzymes needed to turn food into energy — while reducing their production of free radicals.
The cocktail includes vitamins C, D and E, acetylsalicylic acid, beta-carotene, folic acid, garlic, ginger root, ginko biloba, ginseng, green tea extract, magnesium, melatonin, potassium, cod liver oil, flax seed oil and over a dozen more. Shaken or stirred, it doesn't matter.
Note the word "experimental" in that journal's name, though. The work is promising, the latest in a series of papers with rather similar titles from this lab over the past decade. Yet there's no solid evidence this can work in humans.
Less isn't more
"Most studies only test a few things and the general results have been disappointing or unimpressive," said David Rollo, who led the study. "I find it amazing that some top cardiovascular studies have actually tested single antioxidants on study groups, because anyone in this field knows these are likely to be pro-oxidant."
So which nutrients are doing what and how? Rollo doesn't know. He said he concocted this mix because they are associated with ameliorating key mechanisms associated with aging: free-radical production, inflammation, insulin insensitivity, cell membrane damage, and mitochondrial damage. He figures his team can always work backwards and remove nutrients to understand what their functions are.
If you're waiting for a pill, you best start eating healthfully and exercising so that you can live that long to see it.
The next step in his research, Rollo said, is to tweak the cocktail in short-lived crickets. Human studies are complicated because they are expensive; and slight changed in the aging rate, whatever that might mean, are hard to discern in such long-lived creatures.
Also, the aforementioned nutrients are off-the-shelf. Big pharma isn't likely to support such a study when there is little chance of securing a patent.
Note that this is no promise of a fountain of youth or even a major extender of life span. Rather, the right cocktail of nutrients might simply help extend youthful function and healthy life for any given individual.
Rollo, like many in the anti-aging field, is optimistic. "Even a few extra healthy years across six billion people would be an amazing thing," he said.
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Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.