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Issue #02 (December 2014)

From the Editor

Panaceas will never go out of style. A century or two ago, literal snake oils were sold to unsuspecting sufferers of gout, arthritis, and general malaise. These days, with billions of dollars spent on biomedical research worldwide, you’d think snake oil would be less common. But no! It’s possibly even more common.

Unfortunately, snake oils can be quite hard to detect these days. In fact, some promising compounds end up being little more than snake oil due to being overhyped and overdosed. This issue of NERD touches on a few compounds which fit that bill.

If you asked a random person on the street what they think about antioxidants, what do you think they’d say? Almost certainly that they are good for you, universally. Public opinion often lags science by years or decades, and this is just one example. Researchers have veered away from the overly simplistic “free radical theory of aging,” which suggests that throwing a bunch of antioxidants at your mitochondria could limit the harms of free radicals floating around dangerously close to your energy production centers.

The story is more complex than that, and free radicals actually play a variety of needed roles in the body. One of these is the building of muscle, which is likely to be a goal of at least a few readers of this research digest. If you take a step back from reductionist thinking (e.g. drink protein powder and take a bunch of vitamins, and fuel your muscle growth!) and think about what exercise really does, this whole thing makes more sense.

Exercise is a form of hormesis, in which a low dose of a stressful or toxic stimulus produces a beneficial effect. We put our muscles through the ringer, and our body adapts by growing stronger, gaining endurance, running faster. The body doesn’t just magically adapt though -- the adaptation involves signals sent from damaged muscle cells. And those signals happen to need free radicals to work smoothly.

This issue of NERD looks at breaking research on vitamin C, vitamin E, and resveratrol. High doses of these supplements are absent-mindedly popped by millions of people who equate “free radical” with “bad”. It’s not their fault -- research is complex and ever-changing. But taking a step back, being careful with large doses of anything, and being familiar with research: these are steps that you can take to help yourself and those you know avoid the dangers of snake oil, no matter how legitimate it looks at the time of purchase.

Kamal Patel,
Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Examination Research Digest

See other articles in Issue #02 (December 2014) of Study Deep Dives.