Antioxidants have long been promoted among dietary and health professionals for their health benefits. As such, many people have taken extra efforts to include antioxidant rich foods in their diets. Research has found, however, that these protective molecules also protect cancer cells, allowing cancerous cells to quickly grow out of control.
As an important point of distinction, scientists don’t believe that antioxidants are causing cancer themselves. Instead, the ability of these molecules to disrupt free radicals protects healthy cells as well as cancerous cells.
This conclusion was reached after Sean Morrison, a researcher from the University of Texas Southern medical center, who conducted research on mice that had been transplanted with melanoma skin cells from humans. Morrison and a team of researchers then gave one group of mice N-acetylcysteine (NAC), a commonly used antioxidant, and another group of mice nothing.
The group of mice that were given NAC ultimately suffered from much higher levels of cancer in their blood, and also suffered from more tumors, which themselves had grown larger.
What are free radicals, and why do antioxidants help?
So what are free radicals? If the name sounds to you like a group of bandits, you’re actually not that far off. Free radicals are basically thieving molecules that steal electrons from other molecules to gain balance. When this occurs, the molecule that had its electron stolen becomes a free radical itself, with the exception being antioxidants (more on that later).
Free radicals form when oxygen interacts with certain molecules. This also gives “antioxidants” their name.
This electron theft can disrupt cellular functions and even damage DNA. As such, free radicals are suspected by many to increase cancer rates because they damage cells, and specifically DNA. Once the cells are damaged, they are more likely to become cancerous.
Antioxidants, however, are able to donate an electron without becoming unstable. This means that when an antioxidant comes into contact with a free radical, it will donate an electron and end the cascade of electron theft.
By having high amounts of antioxidants in their blood, people can increase the chances that a free radical will run into an antioxidant.
Antioxidants good or bad?
So should you pass on foods that contain high amounts of antioxidants? Given the data presented, you should probably avoid blackberries and other foods that high in the molecules if you already have cancer. For those who aren’t suffering from cancer, the picture isn’t so clear.
Some studies suggest people who eat diets high in fruits and vegetables generally enjoy lower cancer rates. It’s possible, though not yet proven, that antioxidants can prevent cancer before it starts. Does this seem like a contradiction? It’s actually not.
Antioxidants prevent damage to cells, and particularly DNA. This, in turn, should help lower the chance of a cell going crazy and spiraling out of control and multiplying endlessly, which is what happens when someone suffers from cancer.
Cancer is a serious disease in the United States. Experts project that approximately 1.65 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and nearly 600,000 will die as a result of the disease.