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The energy of animal life depends on the use of oxygen, but the use of oxygen comes at a price. That price is known as oxidative damage. You might know it simply as “ageing”. If we want to live, we have to age. Talk about your classic catch 22....

The use of oxygen (and nitrogen) in your body creates compounds known as free radicals. These free radicals have been called “the spark of life” since we could not be alive without them. They are enormously powerful and reactive compounds. Unchecked, they can cause a great deal of damage in a short period of time. What controls their unfettered damage are other compounds known as antioxidants. Antioxidants can quench free radicals before they can cause too much cellular damage. You might know of vitamins E and C as classic antioxidants, but your body produces a number of enzymes and compounds that are much more powerful antioxidants. Catalase, Super Oxide Dismutase (SOD), and Glutathione reductase are the major antioxidant systems in the body and they rely on the minerals magnesium, selenium, zinc, copper, molybdenum, and manganese to run efficiently. Glutathione is your body’s most powerful intracellular antioxidant. Its production is limited by the supply of the amino acid L-cysteine and magnesium.

Oxygen and free radicals have some pretty important functions in the body:

  • Energy Production (oxygen splits the carbon-to-carbon bonds in the foods we eat to release their stored energy)
  • Detoxification (nearly all toxins require oxygen to eliminate them)
  • Immune function (free radicals are the only weapon your immune system has to kill microbes and repair tissues)
  • Hormone synthesis (we use oxygen to transform cholesterol into all stress and sex hormones)

Why do we need to age?

Dr. Imry Zs.Nagy has developed the cell membrane theory of ageing. Basically, free radical damage to cell membranes sets up a series of chain reactions that causes progressive cellular dehydration. Foetal cells are about 80% water, whereas the cells of an 80 year old are only about 40% water. The dehydration process is progressive and unstoppable. It exists because for about the first 20-25 years of life, dehydration makes our cells ever more metabolically efficient. In simple terms, we can run faster as a 20 year old than we can as a 3 year old, we also think better, remember better, and survive better. Cellular dehydration allows us to function better and more efficiently but only until about age 20, then the process makes us progressively less functionally efficient. We can’t stop the process just because we want it to stop – Nature does not work like that... The beauty of this theory is that is shows us why ageing helps us to survive but also why it is an unstoppable process.

The use of antioxidants in life and in health is not to stop ageing but to slow it as much as is reasonably possible without interfering with the critically important role of free radicals in life itself. Clinically, we see benefits supplementing moderate amounts of antioxidants but do not see additional benefits from supplementing large amounts of antioxidants. Not only can we not stop aging but we would not WANT to stop ageing, for if we did, we would stop life itself. You can age beautifully, but you will age all the same.

NB: regular aerobic exercise (brisk walk, running, cycling, etc) allows cells to use oxygen more efficiently and lowers the total oxidative stress on your body, but irregular exercise (e.g., 3 hours of football every 2 weeks) increases oxidative stress dramatically and accelerates ageing. Vitamin E may help, but in general, exercise regularly or don’t bother.