Do You Really Need Antioxidant Supplements?

Do you really need antioxidants? Yes, but your own body makes their own. And unless the antioxidants you consume are plutopotent and Nrf2-activating, you may be doing yourself more harm than good.  Read on… I’ll explain…

Do you need antioxidants

Do you need antioxidants?

EVERYONE THINKS that antioxidants are an absolute necessity to combat disease and old age. It’s true that they have their place, but — surprisingly — the objective should not be to wipe out the oxidative stress caused by free radicals.

Instead, our aim should be to balance our own body’s antioxidant defense mechanisms that are actually honed by oxidative stress by consuming specific kinds of antioxidant supplements, as well as antioxidant-rich foods.

The rest of this antioxidant story is culled from the supplements chapter of my never-ending book writing project, 12 Ageproof Biohacks, currently a ridiculous 420 pages!

Yes, it will need to go on a diet before it gets all dolled up and is revealed to the world. But before the trim, more is being added. It’s like what bodybuilders do, getting all massive and bloated, and then losing every bit of fat before the competition.

I remain in the massive bloat period, and this past week added a lot of material to the chapter about vitamin supplements.

Yes, supplements… that stuff that some say improve the nutrition of your pee, or that you flush down the toilet, or are completely unnecessary if you eat right. You may be nodding yes or no to such assertions. I just shrug my shoulders.

Generally speaking, it could be that most of your supplements are unnecessary and thus are a waste of time and money, if the following conditions apply:

  • You’re young and healthy.
  • You eat only real food (aka, right off the farm) that has been organically grown in pristine environments without any degradation of soil or air, and is consumed within a day of harvest.
  • You breath air unsullied from any vehicle exhaust pipes or factory belching.
  • You spend most of your time in a parallel universe circa 1889.
  • If you meet those conditions, you go write a book, and I’ll rip mine apart.

Everyone else, read on.

The focus here is specific – antioxidants. Antioxidants are substances such as vitamins that remove potentially damaging oxidizing agents in a living organism.

That you probably know.

What may surprise you is that you do not want to squash all of your free radicals by taking loads of antioxidant supplements.

Heretical I know, especially coming from me, a fella whose been known to down 50 “pills” a day, many of them antioxidants.

But, it turns out that we need some of those free radicals radicalizing our atoms.

To get more scientific about it: Free radicals (ROS, or “Reactive Oxygen Species”) are atoms or groups of atoms with an odd (unpaired) number of electrons often formed when oxygen interacts with certain molecules. Once formed these highly reactive radicals can start a chain reaction, like dominoes. (1)

The reason there’s a free racial theory of aging is because these ROS damage us, and over time this damage accumulates. The damage occurs when ROS react with important cellular components such as DNA, or the cell membrane, causing cells to function poorly or die if this occurs. ROS also can mangle chromosomes, form protein cross-linking, cell apoptosis (suicide), genetic mutations, mutated germ cells and other forms of cell havoc. (2)

Free radicals are produced as a result of natural metabolism, by exposure to UV and X-rays, by exposure to certain toxic chemicals including heavy metals, and by consuming certain foods and other stuff, such as:

  • Fried foods filled with trans fatty acids
  • Margarine and partially or fully hydrogenated oils
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Alcohol
  • Chlorinated water

The damage originates at the atomic and microscopic levels, but winds up being quite obvious in the form of skin erythema, hair loss, atherosclerosis (and other forms of vascular damage), internal bleeding, cataracts, cancers, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, weakened immune systems, sterility, mutations in offspring, cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, premature aging and death.


As mentioned, oxidative damage due to ROS is one of many theories of aging, perhaps the primary one, but now scientists see it as an important part of a larger picture

Up to a few years ago, most scientists who study such things thought that oxidative damage was the primary cause of aging. The newer theories of aging continue to see oxidative damage as very important in the aging process, but part of a larger picture. In fact, it turns out that some amount of free radicals is needed, and it would be harmful to metabolism, as well as other biochemical mechanisms, if they were eliminated. (3)

Free radicals play key roles in cellular processes, and the body has its own sophisticated organ-specific processes for utilizing them. They also have a crucial role in developmental, metabolic, immunological, and other physiological functions. Without them we would not be able to produce energy, develop properly, repair injury; nor would we be able to destroy pathogens or infected and malignant cells. In rare cases, free radicals may cause DNA damage possibly leading to cancer; however, much more typically, they are involved in the destruction of malignant cells, protecting us from cancer. (4)

We now know that we could not live without free radicals, and their elimination would also kill us. Further, the body has its own complex antioxidant defense system for protection against unwanted free radicals.

And here’s another heretical statement:

Recent research suggests taking antioxidant supplements could both interfere with free radicals when and where they are needed and sabotage the body’s own natural antioxidant defense system. (5) (6)

This means that the idea of taking antioxidant supplements in the interest of longevity is being challenged, but not entirely, because there is a pathway along which antioxidants can be very useful.

It’s called the Keap1-Nrf2 pathway.

(I’m not making this up!)

What is this pathway, you inquire? I wish you hadn’t, cause it’s complicated and I have yet to pick my way through it. If you’re very patient and science-minded you can wade into the Nrf2 thicket here.

Discovery of the Keap1-Nrf2 pathway has provided an entirely new perspective on both the theory of aging and antioxidant supplementation. The pathway acts on dozens or hundreds of genes activating the body’s own antioxidant defense system, stress-protective genes and inhibits the expression of NF-kappaB and consequent inflammation.

The “antioxidants” that do provide demonstrable health benefits, like curcumin (turmeric), green tea, fish oil and resveratrol, do so not by direct chemical antioxidant action as once thought. Instead, they act primarily by activating the Keap1-Nrf2 pathway and exercise their actions by activating multiple genes and associated pathways.

Nrf2 has attracted great research interest as being a possible gateway for prevention or cure of multiple diseases ranging from neurological and cardiovascular disorders to cancers, with showing 5,158 Nrf2-related publications as of April 10, 2015.


The Nrf2 Supplement Firewall Against Oxidative Damage

The brilliant Vince Giuliano writes a scholarly blog about aging, and there refers to anything that pushes back against the raging fire that is aging as a “firewall”. His approach is to build an in-depth defense (a firewall) against the causes of aging attributable to each theory of aging or cause of aging death, given what’s currently known to science.

To continue with the firewall metaphor, just as the military will use an assortment of weapons to defeat the enemy, such as rifles, machine guns, grenades, land mines, rocket launchers, etc., our defense against free radicals should be multifaceted. This means that your lifestyle choices involving the consumption of antioxidant foods (see below), exercise, or anti-oxidants should be those that have pluripotent effects.

What “pluripotent effects” mean in this context is that each thing you do can be effective against many conditions. For example, in animal studies resveratrol has very strong positive effects on reducing heart inflammation, preventing cardiovascular disease, supporting bone structure and function, and maintaining loco-motor and balance activity. However, neither it nor any other single substance is a sure cure for, or prevents, a specific cause of death. Each substance works through its own biochemical mechanisms, and has its own role in a protective firewall.

To make matters more complicated, our bodies produce their own antioxidants in response to oxidative stress, and these need to flourish. As Mr. Giuliano has said:

“Long-lived organisms, like humans, have developed very sophisticated enzymatic systems for controlling and utilizing radicals. These natural antioxidant defenses are much more effective than crude antioxidant supplements which have not been shown to be effective at preventing aging, or any degenerative disease. Some clinical trials of antioxidant supplementation have even found harmful effects.” (7)

In 2010, Drs. Carl Zarse and Michael Ristow published a study showing that in some instances taking antioxidants may actually create harm, as indicated by the results of their animal models:

Recent evidence suggests that calorie restriction and specifically reduced glucose metabolism induces mitochondrial metabolism to extend life span in various model organisms, including Saccharomyces cerevisiae [yeast species], Drosophila melanogaster [fruit fly], Caenorhabditis elegans [nematode, aka, worm] and possibly mice.

In conflict with Harman’s free radical theory of aging (FRTA), these effects may be due to increased formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) within the mitochondria causing an adaptive response that culminates in subsequently increased stress resistance assumed to ultimately cause a long-term reduction of oxidative stress.

This type of retrograde response has been named mitochondrial hormesis or mitohormesis, and may in addition be applicable to the health-promoting effects of physical exercise in humans and, hypothetically, impaired insulin/IGF-1-signaling in model organisms. Consistently, abrogation of this mitochondrial ROS signal by antioxidants impairs the lifespan-extending and health-promoting capabilities of glucose restriction and physical exercise, respectively. In summary, the findings discussed in this review indicate that ROS are essential signaling molecules which are required to promote health and longevity. Hence, the concept of mitohormesis provides a common mechanistic denominator for the physiological effects of physical exercise, reduced calorie uptake, glucose restriction, and possibly beyond. (7)

My interpretation:

The one proven life extending technique – calorie restriction – may work by increasing (not decreasing) free radicals (ROS) by stimulating the body’s defensive response resulting in long-term reduction in oxidative stress.

This effect – that something that should kill you, but doesn’t, makes you stronger — is hormesis in action.


Hormesis is a natural process ignited in response to various physiological stresses and disease, and exists in every successful organism, from plant to bug to whale. To put it simply (for a change), hormesis is biology’s way of responding to things that can be injurious by making an organism stronger in response.

Think flu shot. A little bit of influenza in every drop puts our immune system in overdrive and develops resistance to the virus. In effect, that little bit of harm makes us stronger.

Another example of hormesis is the body’s natural response to oxidative stress. As suggested by the Zarse and Ristow study cited above, and many others, a modest amount of oxidative stress is good for you, and confers a number of beneficial health effects. Though this is becoming clear among scientists, what remains opaque is how much oxidative stress is no longer good. There is a threshold level that is optimum for life extension, above which retards lifespan, and we don’t know what that is; moreover, certainly it’s different for different people.

{For more about hormesis, read Multifactorial Hormesis.}

So, what to do?

I have three suggestions:

  1. Consume only those antioxidants with proven plutiponery effects that utilize the Nrf2 pathway;
  2. But don’t rely on them only — instead eat whole, fresh, organic foods rich in antioxidants, as listed below; and
  3. Exercise frequently, but only wipe yourself once in awhile (begin here and here).


Plutopotent Nrf2-activating Foods and Supplements

Some are known antioxidants, others not so much, but what the following lists have in common is that they contain foods and supplements that work to make you age better by activating the Keap1-Nrf2 pathway, which in turn activates a large number of stress-protective genes, including genes for our body’s own antioxidant defenses.

The body uses several different antioxidants as part of its own ROS defense system and, like Victor Giuliano, I too prefer a diverse mix rather than on relying on only one or two.

My current “antioxidant” regime includes phytosubstances that activate the Nrf2 pathway in these foods:

Olive Oil: Organic, cold pressed, extra virgin. Heating it above 375 degrees Fahrenheit will destroy key phenols, which work as antioxidants to preserve health.

Green Tea: My latest selection is Macha DNA, an organic powdered Matcha green tea, which boasts that it’s the equivalent of ten glasses of green tea in terms of its nutritional value and antioxidant content.

Blueberries: I always have a supply of these dark purple beauties in the freezer, and use them liberally in many of my smoothies.

Ginger: I slice it, mash it, juice it, blend it and put it in any variety of dishes, and in smoothies, because this root is a near perfect food.

Sardines, anchovies and herring: Great for high protein, high omega-3 fatty acid snacks. Sardines in particular have an enviable nutrition profile.

Broccoli: Along with Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and other high sulforaphane vegetables are reputed to benefit digestion, the cardiovascular system and the immune system, and to have anti-inflammatory and even cancer-preventing properties. (8)

Dark Chocolate: Eating 70%+ caco content inhibits the action of an enzyme nicknamed ACE (formally known as the angiotensin-converting enzyme), which is involved the body’s fluid balance and helps regulate blood pressure, and reduce hardening of the arteries and other cardiovascular diseases. (9)

Walnuts: They have almost twice as many antioxidant polyphenols as almonds, peanuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts and cashews.

Tumeric: Along with ginger, nuts, fatty fish, this spice helps to lower systemic, chronic inflammation, often a precursor to diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Garlic: You name the ailment and this pungent Allium plant can probably help cure it – here are 11 proven health benefits.


The following list of supplements have antioxidant properties that are thought to work via the Nrf2 pathway. The links will either take you to more information, and/or to a website where you can buy them.

The multivitamin/mineral vitamin mix is your first line of defense, and a good overall insurance policy. Any of these three are good:


Vitamin D-3




Olive leaf extract

Grape seed extract


R-Lipoic Acid

Acetyl L-Carnitine, or better yet, N-Acetyl Cysteine

PQQ (better than CoQ10)



Fish Oil


33 Antioxidant-Rich Foods

There are three things to know about the following list of antioxidant foods:

  1. I got most of them from a site called here.
  2. It’s not an exclusive list.
  3. Some work via the Nrf2 pathway, others not so much, but don’t worry about it, because we’re talking whole, real foods here, not supplements.


Food Most Notable Antioxidant Comment
1. Broccoli Sulforaphane
2. Apricots Lycopene
3. Raspberries Ellagitannins
4. Cherries Anthocyanins
5. Watermelon Lycopene
6. Artichokes Silymarin
7. Oranges Vitamin C
8. Spinach Beta-Carotene
9. Cranberries Vitamin C
10. Kidney Beans Manganese to support Superoxide dismutase As with all beans and legumes, soak them overnight to help reduce the lectins and phyto acids, the two main reasons Paleo Dieters avoid them.
11. Blackberries Ellagic Acid
12. Strawberries Phytonutrients
13. Lentils Anthocyanin See my comment above for Kidney Beans.
14. Grapefruit Lycopene, Vitamin C
15. Pecans Vitamin E
16. Peaches Phenols and Selenium
17. Prunes Phenols
18. Kale Beta-Carotene I grow it in my backyard.
19. Bell Peppers Carotenoids
20. Oats Avenanthramides Make them slow-cook, steel cut oats, or don’t bother.
21. Apples Polyphenols
22. Soybeans Isoflavones Double-edged sword that cuts for you with isofavones but against you if you’re sensitive to their naturally occurring estrogenic compounds, which 40+ year-old guys might be. For more on soy, read The Science of Soy: What Do We Really Know?
23. Asparagus Glutathione
24. Alfalfa Sprouts Vitamin E
25. Brussels Sprouts Sulforaphane
26. Carrots Beta-Carotene
27. Watercress Vitamin C, Beta-Carotene Hey you big time exercisers… intense exercise bangs out ROS, so it’s a good idea to consume antioxidants after exercise. Watercress is particularly good for this. I through a small handful into the blender when making my post-workout protein smoothie, along with plenty of #29.
28. Blueberries Anthocyanin
39. Cantaloupe Polyphenols
30. Tomatoes Lycopene Grow them in my backyard.
31. Walnuts polyphenols Walnuts have almost twice as many antioxidant polyphenols as almonds, peanuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, macadamias and pecans.
32. Dark Chocolate Polyphenols and Flavanols 80% + cacao content dark chocolate has more antioxidant activity, polyphenols and flavanols than most fruits tested, including blueberries and Acai berries.
33. Ginger Phenolics, Flavonoids Ginger is among the world’s most healthiest foods, and I consume it daily… read on.

{Want more health-pumping foods? Check out An 86 Year-old Billionaire’s Recipe for Longevity.}


Your Takeaway

I’ve listed just a small fraction of the number of worthy antoxidant supplements and foods that exist. It can be mind-numbing and confusing to choose which are the best for you. One way to whittle down the list is to choose those antioxidants that can do many healthy things (pluripotent), and that do their work along the Nrf2 pathway, so as to not overwhelm our bodies natural antioxidant defense mechanisms.

Over and out.

Last Updated on April 11, 2023 by Joe Garma

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Joe Garma

I help people live with more vitality and strength. I'm a big believer in sustainability, and am a bit nutty about optimizing my diet, supplements, hormones and exercise. To get exclusive Updates, tips and be on your way to a stronger, more youthful body, join my weekly Newsletter. You can also find me on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.

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