Antioxidants: Biochemical Life Savers

Antioxidant – Biochemical Life Savers

For many years, the field of nutrition focused on illnesses caused by a lack of macronutrients like protein, or micronutrients such as iron. More recent research has made it clear that antioxidants are just as critical to preventing the diseases that weaken or kill most people. Numerous chemicals act as antioxidants, including vitamins A, C and E. But there are many others compounds that are found in a variety of foods.

Why are antioxidants such key components of disease prevention? Because our bodies are constantly producing unstable compounds in the course of normal functioning. One such essential processes is cellular energy production. That creates oxygen free radicals, a form of oxygen that can cause a lot of damage. Antioxidants deactivate these harmful compounds and that is why they are life savers.

The body usually makes sufficient antioxidants but there are situations where oxygen free radical production is increased and overwhelms the body. One such circumstance is chronic inflammation. Inflammation is a protective response of the body to anything deemed to be a threat. It can be caused by germs that have gotten into the tissues, a chemical like carbon tetrachloride, or even unhealthy foods such as sugar, or cigarette smoke. This inflammatory response can help eliminate the foreign substance but in the process oxygen free radical production increases. If inflammation is quickly resolved, no permanent harm is likely. But if the cause of the inflammation isn’t removed or avoided, as with years smoking, the inflammatory process continues and the long-term increase in oxygen free radicals injures tissues and cause diseases.

The very good news is that antioxidants can also be consumed and boost the level of antioxidants in the body. This is why you’ve probably read a lot about eating fruits, nuts, vegetables, whole grains and other healthy foods. Different foods contain different types of antioxidants and the greater the variety of foods consumed, the more likely you are to be protected from a wider array of diseases. Eating an assortment of various colored fruits and vegetables is just one way to help ensure this. For example, yellow and orange vegetables and fruits are rich in carotenoids. And carotenoids like beta-carotene act as antioxidants.

Many research studies have supported the disease-preventing power of antioxidants. One large, long study found that the research subjects who consumed more than 27 servings of vegetables, berries and fruit per month, when compared with an otherwise similar group that ate less than that amount, had an 8 to 10% decrease in all cause mortality, as well as a 20% lower stroke death rate. Higher fruit consumption was linked most strongly with lower cancer rates, and regular produce intake was associated in particular with less gastrointestinal cancer.

It should be noted that cooked vegetables seem to offer fewer benefits than raw. Also, fruit juices aren’t as protective as whole fruit, in part because the fiber in the fruit slows the release of sugar into the bloodstream. The pesticides on many types of produce can make them less healthy. If cost is a concern, stick to organic for the “dirty dozen” such as apples and strawberries, but not for the “clean fifteen,” produce like oranges with a thick skin that can be removed.

Damage from oxygen free radicals is a major threat to health. It has been linked to the start of diseases ranging from cardiovascular disease to neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, certain dermatological disorders, endocrine disorders like type 2 diabetes, and immune disorders, to cancers. But antioxidants are plentiful in a wide variety of healthy foods. This certainly makes them a lifesaver in my book!


  1. Hjartaker, et al, (2015) “Consumption of berries, fruits and vegetables and mortality among 10,000 Norwegian men followed for four decades.” European Journal of Nutrition (2015) 54: 599-608
  2. Pratt, M.D. and K. Matthews (2004). SuperFoods Rx. NY, NY: Harper Collins.
  3. Yang, et al (2018). “Proanthocyanidins against Oxidative Stress: From Molecular Mechanisms to Clinical Applications.” Biomedical Research International.

Diseases, Drugs and Vitamin D deficiency

Vitamin D Deficiency, diseases and drugs

Vitamin D is needed by almost every tissue in the body, so the harm from deficiency isn’t surprising. The majority of research on vitamin D deficiency and depression found a correlation between the two, but a few studies didn’t. In one such study, “Low vitamin D status is associated with more depressive symptoms in Dutch older adults,” (E.M. Brouwer-Brolsma, et al, in European Journal of Nutrition, 2016, 55:1525-1534) supplementing those with depression with vitamin D for two years didn’t lead to any improvement. Is there some other benefit from sun exposure apart from vitamin D synthesis that improves mood?

Vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium. It also helps regulate this mineral in the body. So, it isn’t surprising that vitamin D deficiency is associated with weak even deformed bones in children. A lack of this vitamin can also lead to seizures and heart failure. In adults, vitamin D deficiency can lead to hypertension, coronary artery disease, and heart failure. In one study of patients with heart failure, 87% were found to be significantly deficient in vitamin D. Muscle weakness is common with a shortfall of the vitamin, so it isn’t surprising that falls and fractures are more common in those with a lack of it.

It has long been known that vitamin D is needed by many of the immune system cells and those that are deficient in t have a much higher risk of developing autoimmune disorders such as type 1 (juvenile) diabetes as well as multiple sclerosis. A country in northern Europe started giving infants vitamin D every day for their first year and after twenty years of this practice, the rates of type 1 diabetes fell by over 80%! Resent research shows a link between a lack of vitamin D and type 2 (adult onset) diabetes. The immune system is more able to fight infections if the blood level of vitamin D are normal.

Vitamin D appears to boost the body’s cancer-fighting ability. Those with metastatic colon cancer may have a longer life expectancy if they maintain adequate levels of it. This isn’t surprising given the way it supports immune system functioning.

Some medications have been found to be linked to vitamin D deficiency. This information comes from “Vitamin D deficiency as adverse drug reaction? A cross sectional study in Dutch geriatric outpatients.” (A.C.B. van Orten-Luiten, et al, in European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 2016, 72:605-614). The following are those uncovered thus far:

  • metformin for type 2 diabetes
  • loop diuretics such as furosemide and potassium-sparing diuretics like spironolactone
  • digoxin used for heart failure and atrial fibrillation
  • warfarin, a medication that decreases blood clot formation
  • ACE inhibitors such as lisinopril and
  • SSRI antidepressants such as sertraline.

See your health care provider if you are taking one of these medications and ask if a vitamin D supplement may be recommended. Those needed to avoid sun exposure may want to ask about this as well.

Super Star Spinach

Super Star Spinach

Spinach is not only listed as one of the super foods in Dr. Steven Pratt’s SuperFoods Rx (also by Kathy Matthews, NY, NY, 2004), he considers it so rich in so many important nutrients, it is almost in a class by itself. But before I start singing its praises, I have to add his important note that there are other similar foods that also have many of the same impressive substances.

Spinach Knock-offs

  • Kale
  • Collards
  • Swiss chard
  • Mustard and turnip greens
  • Bok choy
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Orange bell peppers (yes, that struck me as a pretty distant relative too)


On to the resume for these super stars (using spinach as the proto-type)

  • The carotenoids lutein, zeaxanthin (both associated with lower macular degeneration and cataract rates), and beta-carotene
  • The antioxidants glutathione (protects DNA), alpha lipoic acid (anti-aging nutrient), vitamin C, and vitamin E
  • Vitamin K (important for blood clotting and thus to be avoided if taking warfarin (Coumadin) a blood thinner)
  • Coenzyme Q10 (needed for cell energy production)
  • B vitamins thiamine, riboflavin, B6, and folate (cancer fighter)
  • Chlorophyll (a potential cancer fighter), Polyphenols, Betaine (may help lower arterial disease risk)
  • Plant-derived omega-3 fatty acids


Which is better, raw or cooked spinach? There are benefits to each. Cooked spinach makes the carotenoids more available and increases lutein, but decreases the vitamin C and folate. So, it is probably best to consume raw and cooked spinach each day. Also, adding olive oil, nuts or avocado to cooked spinach will increase the carotenoid absorption.

One more note about the “knock off” vegetables. Kale, as noted in Super Foods by Tonia Reinhard (Buffalo, NY:  Firefly Books, 2014) has more than twice the level of antioxidants compared with other leafy greens. Okay kale, you’ve got my vote, and a place of prominence in my garden.

Medications and conditions that can cause constipation

Medications and disorders that can cause Constipation

There are many causes of constipation, including some types of medications. Those that already have problems with constipation before starting medications might want to discuss a change in medications if they’ve started one that has that as a side effect.

Medications that can cause or worsen constipation:

Antidepressants including many of the tricyclic antidepressants like Elavil, some of the SSRIs like Prozac, some of the SNRIs

Antipsychotic agents

Calcium carbonate and calcium or aluminum-based antacids

Iron (some are worse than others in this respect)

Antihistamines that are sedating (diphenhydramine for example)

Urge incontinence medications

Calcium channel blockers (an antihypertensive and heart medication)

Disorders the diseases that can cause or worsen constipation:


Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)



Excess stimulant laxative use

Some cancers


Neuromuscular diseases like MS and Parkinson’s disease



References:  Alison Bardsley, Assessment and treatment options for patients with Constipation in British Journal of Nursing, 2017, Vol. 26, #6

Harvard Health letter, August, 2017, page 7. This is not meant to replace the care of your health care provider.

Chromium: The good, the bad, and the not-so-important

Chromium:  The good, the bad, and the not-so-important

Chromium is found and produced in several different forms. The most common forms are metallic, trivalent and hexavalent. The trivalent form occurs naturally and is an essential nutrient. Its needed for fatty acid and cholesterol production and insulin metabolism. It is found in eggs, meat, cheese, whole grains and certain fruits and vegetables. Metallic chromium isn’t pertinent to this article (Pediatric Environmental Health, 3rd edition, Dr. Ruth Etzel, Editor, and Dr. Sophie Balk, Assoc. Editor. Elk Grove Village, IL:  2012).

Hexavalent chromium is the toxic form. The US National Toxicology Program, World Health Organization, EPA, and International Agency for Research on Cancer have all identified hexavalent chromium as a human carcinogen. It comes mostly from industrial emissions and passes into the air, water, and soil. It’s also part of tobacco smoke. Chromium is used in so many ways it isn’t surprising it is found in more than 50% of the National Priorities List superfund hazardous waste sites as well as many landfills. Fossil fuel burning and steel production are major sources of chromium in the air. The movie Erin Brockovich was about The Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s role in the excessive chromium in water and even though it has been out a long time, this is still a real problem.

Absorption of hexavalent chromium from the lungs is high. Gastrointestinal absorption of this form can be as high as 50% but much of it is converted to the trivalent form. Chromium doesn’t stay in the body very long, so antidotes and chelators aren’t in demand. Vitamin C helps convert hexavalent chromium to the trivalent form. Laboratory assessments are not particularly useful, and environmental documentation is more helpful.

Topical chromium is a common cause of allergic contact dermatitis. Swallowing a large amount of hexavalent chromium could cause nausea, vomiting and acute kidney failure.

The biggest concern is with chronic inhalation of the hexavalent form of chromium. Those at highest risk are those working or who have worked in industries where chromium is used. These individuals have an increased chance of developing nasal and lung cancer. The latter risk increases with the duration of an exposure and there’s about a 13 to 30-year latency period. In “Profiling stainless steel welding processes to reduce fume emissions, hexavalent chromium emissions and operating costs in the workplace,” (by M. Keane, et al in Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 2016, v. 13#1, pages 1-8) almost half a million Americans do some welding in their work, and that is a potential exposure. Gas metal arc welding was found to create less exposure to toxic gases.

In “Hexavalent Chromium Is Carcinogenic to F344/N Rats and B6C3F1 Mice” (by M. Stout, et al, in Environmental Health Perspectives, v117, #5, for May 2009, pages 716-722), the possibility of an increased risk for oral, stomach and duodenal cancer with chronic consumption of water polluted with excess chromium was raised. The research done involved giving water with various levels of hexavalent chromium in it to the test animals for 2 years. Before you decide that this isn’t relevant to humans, consider the fact that rats and mice are used in research because they share many biological processes and tissue structures with humans.

This all lends support to having water tested, including well water, before even a sip.

Citrus versus Cancer: Guess which one Wins!

Citrus versus Cancer:  Guess which one Wins!

Before plunging into all the nutrients and cell protectors found in citrus fruits, it is worth stating an important fact once again. That key concept is that with these foods, as with most super foods, the benefits add up to much more than the sum of its parts. To put it another way, you can’t take the specific molecules, even in the amounts proportionate to what they are in the fruit, and reap the same rewards. These compounds work together. This writer can think of no other comment on this amazing aspect of many foods than the word miraculous. To profit fully from these foods, eat them as they are – the whole food. Even juices are often far inferior to their original containers. And really, why do we want to add time, effort and expense to our diet?

Numerous anticancer compounds are found in citrus fruits, maybe more than any other food, and per the National Cancer Institute a complete package of natural cancer inhibitors. Some of these cancer fighters include the following:


  • Pectin which is a soluble fiber, impairs growth factors that cancers need to keep growing. This same compound benefits the cardiovascular system as well. The white lining of citrus fruit is especially high in pectin.
  • Citrus flavonoids in the juice, pulp and skin are antioxidants (protecting cells from free radical damage – something that comes from many sources including normal energy production and inflammation). They are also antimutagenic – preventing the cell mutations that are the first step in cancer development. Flavonoids are also anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial. They also strengthen blood vessels as well as tendons, cartilage and ligaments.
  • Folate in citrus is another compound that helps protect the DNA. Folate also helps protect the cardiovascular system.
  • Limonene is a phytonutrient (nutrient found in plants) in the oil of citrus peel. They function to detoxify – another cancer fighting action of citrus. Animal research has shown this compound can help shrink tumors. These chemicals may also have antimicrobial properties. Add citrus zest to fruit dishes and coleslaw.
  • Vitamin C helps protect against nitrosamines, carcinogens associated with GI cancers such as stomach cancer. Vitamin C’s effects are strengthened by bioflavonoid polyphenols that are also found in citrus. C also decreases stroke and cataract risk.

Carotenoids are found in particular in tangerines and grapefruit. These also fight cancer. Citrate levels in urine are increased with orange juice consumption and that helps stop kidney stone formation. This was noted in David Grotto’s book 101 Foods that could save your life (Nutrition Housecall, 2007).

Other references:  Tonia Reinhard’s Super Foods (Firefly Books, 2014), Eat This and Live by Don Colbert (Siloam, 2009) and Fourteen Foods that will change your life SuperFoods (HarperCollins, 2004).