Can You Have Too Many Antioxidants?
For anyone who took high-school biology, the word ‘mitochondria’ might ring a distant bell. In grade 9 biology, I recall learning the names and functions of all the organelles located within our cells – the nucleus, the endoplasmic reticulum, the golgi body.. – and we were taught that the mitochondria is the “energy powerhouse” of every cell in the body. Its main function is to generate ATP, which is cellular energy. And that’s all I knew.
In university-level cellular biology, we dove further into the history and function of these organelles. We learned that humans inherit mitochondria from our mothers, and the theory that these organelles were originally bacterial species that very early pre-human forms ingested and began a long, happy symbiotic relationship with. Good thing we did, because we wouldn’t survive for a second without our mitochondria.
The more research I do on these little guys, the more I learn about the multiple different roles they play in our bodies. Not only are our mitochondria responsible for almost all of our energy production, they also play a crucial role in calcium balance, generation of amino acids (proteins) and heme (for red blood cells), cellular signaling and regulation of the growth cycle of a cell. Lots of existing research has shown the importance of mitochondrial function for fertility; more on this in a future blog. Because of their role in cellular growth and programmed death, mitochondria are being investigated for their role in cancer formation. They have so many different roles, I could go on all day.
But to my point - we are also learning more about how and why mitochondria generate reactive oxygen species (aka ROS), like superoxide. In excess, ROS cause damage to all the tissues in the body; our bodies control how much damage is caused through the use of antioxidants. ROS are the reason we encourage patients to eat an antioxidant-rich diet and often take supplemental antioxidants – we’re trying to reduce the damage they cause.
However, we know that in small amounts these ROS are required for cells to communicate with one another, to fight infections and for proper blood flow. We actually rely on a small amount of these ROS for cellular signaling to function properly. Superoxide is converted into hydrogen peroxide in the body that fights infections and has some signaling roles of its own. And nitric oxide, also produced by the mitochondria, is a molecule that causes some oxidative damage itself but is necessary for adequate blood flow to the reproductive organs. So there are benefits to having a small amount of ROS floating around in our systems. Does this mean that too many antioxidants could be harmful?
There is an ancient Chinese Medicine saying that suggests “too little is too little, and too much is too much” – I’m reminded of this as I learn more about the importance of antioxidants and the equal importance of ROS. At Acubalance, we are always striving to investigate what supplements and recommendations, from a daily-growing list of those studied in fertility, will work for an individual patient. We could blindly give everyone super-potent antioxidants, and many patients (having Dr. Google’d themselves) come into our practice already taking them. But perhaps, in those who don’t need them, it could interfere with the communication pathways between their cells and inhibit proper blood flow to the uterus, ovaries or testes.
This is why I’m so happy to have my in-office labs. I test every patient for their oxidative stress levels – do you, specifically, need more antioxidants in your system to protect your egg or sperm cells from damage? Do you inherently have enough? Or are you in need of nitric oxide? These are the questions I ask, and then tailor treatment protocols for my patients. This is just one example of how theories and prescriptions do not work for everyone.
My best advice? Eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables every day. Make sure you digest and assimilate those antioxidants properly. And then give yourself some wiggle room – the 80/20 rule (everything in moderation) proves its importance once again. I’m so thankful that my medicine has appreciated this balance all along.
Dr. Kali MacIsaac HBSc, ND