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A tidal wave of antioxidant research has begun to hit the beaches of the old medical paradigm, and even long-time advocates of "You-can-get-all-you-need-with-a-knife-and-fork" philosophy are beginning to succumb to the weight of the evidence in favor of the health benefits of antioxidant supplements. A recent international conference convened by the American Health Foundation (AHF) and cosponsored by the the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was held in Tarrytown, New York last fall (1992).

The shift in thinking was particularly clear in a panel discussion entitled "The Potential for Antioxidants in Disease Prevention." Consisting of three scientists with PhDs and three with MDs, this panel was extremely critical of the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) of the FDA, vociferously opposing any expanded or resurrected form of RDAs. Among the key points that were made were the following:


Epidemiologist Gladys Block pointed out that as levels of oxidative stress increase, people's needs for antioxidant nutrients increase accordingly. While median consumption of the major antioxidants vitamins C, E, and the carotenoids approaches the RDAs - a not very meaningful concept - the consumption levels are substantially worse for those below the poverty line.

The data suggest that important segments of the U.S. population have levels of these nutrients that may be vastly insufficient to meet the needs generated by oxidative stress and degenerative disease. Incidentally, it was Dr. Block who edited the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition's special supplement to the January 1991 issue on the London Antioxidant Conference that was widely reported in the press in recent months. She has now left the National Cancer Institute to become Professor of Public Health Nutrition at the University of California at Berkeley's School of Public Health.


One panel member, Dr. David Menzel, Professor and Chair of the Department of Community and Environmental Medicine, University of California at Irvine, suggested that the body's need for antioxidants may be greater during environ-mental oxidant stress from air pollution and that supplementation should reflect these conditions.


Jean Lud Cadet, MD, of the department of neurology, Columbia University College of Physicians, stated that recent advances in neurosciences suggest that some motor movement disorders such as tardive dyskinesia and parkinsonism might be related, at least in part, to the deleterious effects of ephemeral oxygen-based free radicals. A treatment approach might, therefore, make use of vitamin E.


Direct and indirect evidence indicates that cataracts and degeneration of the macula are related, perhaps causally, to oxidative insult, according to Dr. Allen Taylor, Director of the Laboratory for Nutritional and Vision Research at the USDA's Human Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. Cataracts and macular degeneration are the leading causes of blindness, and the costs for cataract-related problems or lens extraction comprise the largest line item in the Medicare budget. Taylor views vitamins C, E, and carotenoids such as beta carotene as potential prophylactics in these age-related problems of the eye.


Dr. Donald Mickle, Deputy-in-Chief of Clinical Biochemistry at Toronto General Hospital, spoke of the efficacy of water-soluble analogues of vitamin E in the prevention of myocardialischemia-reperfusion injury. A great deal of damage is thought to occur in the aftermath of a heart attack when blood flows back (reperfuses) into an area that has been denied by a blockage (ischemia), releasing massive amounts of free-radicals. Dr. Mickle tested the ability of trolox, a water-soluble analogue of vitamin E, to prevent reperfusion injury. In a study with rabbits with myocardial infarcts, a derivative of trolox was found to protect all myocardial cell types from oxidative damage.


Gary Williams, MD, Director of AHF's Medical Sciences Division, was so impressed by the data showing that antioxidants may protect against cancer that he suggested the addition of the antioxidant BHT to the water supply. As one of the organizers of the Antioxidant Conference and head of AHF's Division of Pathology and Toxicology, Dr. Williams' comments carried added weight. Surprising to many of those present, he was particularly critical of frequent homage to what he called "the soup of nature," the natural presentation of nutrients, with all its knowns and unknowns. Sliding back the safety of his cognitive revolver, Dr. Williams leveled his mind on the curative powers of the ingredients that have already been isolated rather than the unidentified hodgepodge of the soup itself.

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