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Vitamins & Exercise: Media Throws Baby Out With Bathwater

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The media was quick to jump on research findings released earlier this month how antioxidant vitamins prevented "health-promoting effects of physical exercise in humans." According to the report, the vitamin C and E supplements tested appeared to nullify the spike in oxidation after exercise that improves insulin sensitivity and may help prevent type 2 diabetes. The lead researcher Dr. Michael Ristow went on to tell WebMD that people should not interpret the study that active people should avoid fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants because they contain other beneficial health-promoting substances.

It's bad enough to so often receive contradictory messages from the media -- a panacea one day, a curse the next. It's also disconcerting when we jump to conclusions and make snap judgments based on preliminary data in a news report. But this one took me over the top. How could nutritional supplements and exercise suddenly be at counterpoint, factors that are probably responsible for me feeling more like 30 than my actual age of 55.

A half century ago, before both of these high-impact tools were in more widespread use, people in their fifties considered themselves old and over the hill, and they were probably right. I was recently struck by this fact when watching the 1955 Oscar best picture winner Marty. Marty's mother was dressed in old woman's clothing and was lamenting the infirmities of her advanced age. She sighed and said how hard it was being so old with no one to take care of her. Then, she revealed that she was about the same age as yours truly. And truth be told, she seemed old. There's no way I could envision her along for the ride on the strenuous backpacking or river rafting trips I've done over the last two weekends.

Before jumping to any conclusions, I contacted Kathleen A. Head, ND, editor-in-chief of the Alternative Medicine Review, to get her views on this report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. What I got was an eye-opener.

For all of us who are considering throwing away our bottles of C and E based on the study, we can chill out, Dr. Head assured me. The design of the study from a technical standpoint was not particularly flawed and passed peer review, but that's about all the good she had to say about it.

Sparing you the annotated references and jaw-breaking vocabulary, here's the bottom line. This data was based on a small study of a narrow population: forty young healthy men. The findings were determined on evaluation of short-term data and not the more important long-term stress factors that play out in the real world. It made sweeping generalities implying that similar results would happen in all populations and by using all antioxidants. Lastly, she told me, the study flies in the face of hundreds, if not thousands, of articles that say the opposite, a fact the researchers to their credit admitted themselves.

Dr. Rob Childs, a nutritional biochemist for the Cervelo Pro Cycling Team, said it best in the online publication NutraIngredients. "The study only investigated the effects of two free radical scavengers in a highly complex system involving hundreds of antioxidant compounds. This makes it inappropriate to extrapolate the study findings to other antioxidants." He went on to say how the study did not put into perspective the potential advantages of the vitamins in preventing soreness and muscle/structural damage and enhancing muscle performance and recovery.

Just as we all know how political opinion poll numbers can be skewed by the way a question is formulated, we also need to apply the same healthy skepticism to a good portion of the medical findings we read about in the media. In a world of nutrient-depleted soils, processed foods, environmental toxins, great stress and skyrocketing healthcare costs, eroding public confidence in the importance of antioxidants is an irresponsible act.

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