The myth of healthy radical scavengers

Free radicals are said to age the tissues and cause cancer. That’s why millions of people are trying to fight them with high doses of antioxidants like vitamin E. But that involves risks.

The fairy tale of harmful free radicals dates back to the fifties. The American biogerontologist Denham Harman proposed that the highly reactive molecules promote the aging process by damaging the genetic material in the cells and thus impairing the functions of tissues and important organs. Although this has never been proven, millions of people still try to block the diabolical molecules with vitamin bombs.

A possible reason why high doses of vitamins could also have the opposite effect is, according to Bloch, the immune system: this kills with the help of free radicals cells that proliferate unchecked. “If you take the body this weapon, it can fight tumors much worse.” Although free radicals lead to high levels of oxidative stress, such as sunburn. The result is cell damage, which in turn can cause cancer. “But it also takes free radicals to fight the mutagenic cells and eliminate the waste cells from oxidized fats and proteins.”

A first estimate of the effects of free radicals involved a study by Bloch’s research team on the harmful effects of exhaust gases from motor vehicles. For this purpose, human oral mucosal cells were exposed to both toxins and the amount of radicals occurring with a specific antibody determined. The result: The toxic lead contained in the emissions and carcinogenic benzopyrene lead to a significant increase in the free radicals in the mucosal cells. The higher the amount of free radicals, the greater the extent of cell damage.

Whether radical damage or use better, so depends on the number – true to the motto of the famous Medieval physician Paracelsus: “Only the crowd makes the poison.” The idea of ​​being able to optimize everything with a quick grasp into the drugstore rack is therefore very naive. “Several hundred genes set a very delicate balance between free radicals and their defense systems in the body,” says Bloch. “You can not just push a slider all the way up or down.”