Small Nutrition Changes, Big Difference to Men’s Health
An antioxidant supplement with modest amounts of vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, zinc, and selenium reduces the risk of cancer and all-cause death in men, according to the Archives of Internal Medicine (2004;164:2335–42).
Antioxidants are compounds that protect cells from damage by free radicals: highly reactive, electrically charged particles that damage cells throughout the body. Oxidative damage by free radicals is believed to be a central cause of the degenerative changes associated with aging, including those that leave us more vulnerable to cancer and heart disease. Vitamins and minerals that act as antioxidants in the body include vitamins C, E, and A, beta-carotene, zinc, and selenium. Fruits and vegetables are especially rich in various antioxidants, and numerous studies have demonstrated that eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can protect against cancer and heart disease. The effect of using antioxidant supplements on cancer and cardiac risk, however, is less clear.
The current study examined data from 7,713 women between 35 and 60 years old and 5,028 men between 45 and 60 years old. The participants were healthy at the beginning of the study. They were randomly assigned to receive either a combination antioxidant supplement, providing 120 mg of vitamin C, 30 IU of vitamin E, 6 mg (10,000 IU) of beta-carotene, 100 micrograms of selenium, and 20 mg of zinc per day, or placebo. They were followed for an average of 7.5 years with blood tests, physical exams, and cancer screening tests. They also kept monthly logs of health and compliance in taking the study supplements.
The risk of cancer was 29% lower in men taking the antioxidant supplement than in men taking placebo, but no similar protective effect was seen in women. The antioxidant supplement was found to make no difference in heart disease risk in either men or women; all-cause death, however, was significantly lower by 36% in men taking the supplement than in men taking placebo.
The results of this study suggest that taking a supplement containing modest amounts of antioxidants can lower the risk of cancer and risk of death in men, but not women. It is possible that the protective effect observed in men was due to the fact that blood antioxidant levels were lower in the men than the women at the beginning of the study, suggesting lower intake of fruits and vegetables in men.
One criticism of previous studies has been the use of synthetic beta-carotene and vitamin E. The sources of beta-carotene and vitamin E used in this study were not specified; therefore, the issue of reduced effectiveness in this study due to poor forms of the supplements used is unresolved. All studies should name their supplement sources, and specific studies are needed to determine whether natural forms of antioxidant supplements are more beneficial than synthetic forms. In addition, the effects of supplementing with higher amounts of antioxidants in women and in people with “adequate” dietary intake needs further exploration.
Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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