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Antioxidant Special

Part 3

New antioxidants may tip the balance of power to good health

Since the antioxidant army first became known, it has been growing. The first soldiers were the well-known vitamins and minerals, and then other fighters joined their ranks. As research continues, we are discovering more and more weapons in the war against free radicals.


Glutathione is hardly new; it is the cells’ primary antioxidant and is manufactured by the body. However, it is just now being recognized as perhaps the most important antioxidant. Glutathione is produced by the body from three amino acids found in foods: glutamic acid, cysteine, and glycine. It is found in every cell in the body.

There are several million times more glutathione molecules in the cells than vitamin E. Glutathione is also found in the liver, where drugs, pollutants, alcohol, and other toxins are eliminated.

In his book The Antioxidant Miracle, Lester Packer, Ph.D., perhaps the leading antioxidant researcher today, notes that glutathione plays many roles. It protects against damage that can lead to cancer and protects DNA, and is also an immune booster, as it increases the production of T cells—our primary disease-fighting cells.

Glutathione also helps regulate the genes that cause chronic inflammation and lead to problems such as arthritis and autoimmune diseases.

Glutathione is an essential part of the detoxification process—this is why it is found in large quantities in the liver. It has the ability to make a toxic compound water-soluble so it can be flushed out of the body via the kidneys. According to Packer, maintaining high levels of glutathione is critical for life—low glutathione levels are a marker for death at an early age. Unfortunately, glutathione production by the body diminishes as we age, and glutathione supplements don’t work.

The key to getting enough glutathione is found in other supplements—such as alpha-lipoic acid and N-acetylcystine, which both spark glutathione production. Packer believes the best way to maintain healthy glutathione levels is through supplementing with alpha-lipoic acid.

Alpha-lipoic acid

Alpha-lipoic acid is a “new” antioxidant that may turn out to be one of the most important of all antioxidants. First of all, it is both water-soluble and fat-soluble. This means that it can access all parts of our cells, which have both water-soluble and fat-soluble components. This enhances its ability to destroy free radicals throughout the entire cell.

Alpha-lipoic acid is especially powerful as an anti-aging substance. Aging can be described as a process that reduces the number of healthy cells in the body. The major factors in reducing healthy cells are free radical damage and glycation.

Glycation is the process in which protein in our bodies reacts with excess blood sugar (glucose). This damage is as detrimental to our health as that caused by free radicals. Alpha-lipoic acid may keep blood sugar under control, which reduces glycation, and thus slow the aging process. Both free radicals and glycation affect the appearance of proteins found in the skin. Thus, a secondary benefit of alpha-lipoic acid (and all antioxidants) is that we look “young for our age.”

Alpha-lipoic acid also works with other antioxidants to boost their levels. When you take alpha-lipoic acid, you also increase your levels of vitamins C and E, glutathione, and coenzyme Q10.

According to Packer, alpha-lipoic acid can protect against stroke, heart disease, and cataracts; strengthen memory and prevent brain aging; and prevent and relieve complications from diabetes.


Although little-known, N-acetylcysteine (NAC) is a powerful antioxidant and a powerful tool in maintaining immunity. It has been used since the 1960s as a mucolytic; that is, a substance that breaks up mucus, especially in lung tissue, and has also been used for years in hospital emergency rooms to counteract acetaminophen poisoning.

Acetaminophen is not all that NAC detoxifies. It also detoxifies such heavy metals as mercury, lead, and cadmium (J. Clin. Pharmacol. 13 (1973): 332-6), herbicides such as paraquat (Rev. Respir. Dis. 143, no. 4 part 2 (1991): A731), and some environmental pollutants.

Clinical trials in Europe have indicated that NAC may also offer protection against the flu and flu-like symptoms. Research into NAC also indicates that it may enhance the production of human T cells, an important part of the immune system.

Rosemary extract and lycopene

Rosemary extract is increasingly under scrutiny for its antioxidant properties. Like other antioxidants, it inhibits and fights free radicals. Recent studies show that rosemary extract, and its constituents carnosol and ursollic acid, enhance activity of enzymes that can detoxify carcinogens: Animal studies show that the extract results in an increase in glutathione-S-transferase, one of these enzymes. Other animal studies have indicated a beneficial effect on the promotion of skin and mammary tumors. The abstract of a report on rosemary published in Carcinogenesis (16, no. 9 [September 1995]) concludes, “Therefore, rosemary components have the potential to decrease activation and increase detoxification of an important human carcinogen, identifying them [rosemary components] as promising candidates for chemopreventive programs.”

Lycopene, an antioxidant carotenoid found in abundance in tomatoes, has been found to be twice as effective as beta carotene and 100 times more effective than vitamin E in counteracting the dangerous free radical singlet oxygen. Lycopene first received attention when it was discovered that it significantly reduces the risk of developing prostate cancer. Today, preliminary studies indicate that lycopene offers strong protection against cancer and heart disease.

With these new additions to the antioxidant army, we may be on the frontier of truly winning the war against free radicals.

The article "Antioxidant Special" is reproduced with the permission of AIM International
© 2000 by the AIM Companies

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