Lots of people take multivitamins, mineral supplements, and a vast range of antioxidants? But, do they improve your health and wellbeing above and beyond what you could achieve with a well-balanced diet, plenty of fresh air and exercise? In some instances, the jury is still out, although recent evidence suggests that deliberately taking super doses of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) will not, despite the proclamations of the late, great Linus Pauling, protect you from the ravages of the common cold.
There is also the issue of contraindications, not only are some fat-soluble vitamins and minerals toxic at high dose because they can accumulate in the body, there are some supplements and so-called natural tonics, that can interfere with prescription medicines. It is not a good idea, for instance to take the purported natural antidepressant St John’s wort with prescribes serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) used in treating depression. Why this is so remains unclear and becomes an especially problematic puzzle to solve given the increasing evidence that the active ingredient in SJW, hypericin, does not in fact inhibit the reuptake of serotonin in the brain anyway!
Now, researchers in Italy have demonstrated that copper, an essential element in our bodies, interferes with our natural internal antioxidants and those many people ingest in the form of over-the-counter health boosters.
Chemists Luigi Campanella and Maria Costanza of the University
of Rome La Sapienza and colleague Marcelo Enrique Conti in the Development Studies Research Centre (SPES) have used an electrical technique known as cyclic voltammetry, to investigate the oxidising and reducing behaviour of antioxidants in the presence of copper ions. Their results, published recently in the International Journal of Environment and Health (2007, 1, 328-340) could make worrying reading for anyone popping health pills on a regular basis.
Copper ions have antioxidant activity. Indeed, copper is an essential nutrient for humans because it works in the regulation of antioxidant enzymes to protect out tissues from highly reactive oxygen free radicals that would otherwise tear apart the biomolecules from which our cells are composed. However, the electrical tests also suggest that the presence of copper is a double-edged sword, because it can also promote the kind of oxidising reactions that cause such damage. “the final effect [of taking supplemental copper] may not be as positive as expected,” the researchers say, and may also be associated with “the risk of toxic secondary effects.”
If oxidants and antioxidants are not balanced, then our cells are exposed to harmful oxidative stress, biochemical damage, and ultimately cell death. There are numerous protective agents, including superoxidodismutase (SOD), glutathione peroxidase (GSHPx), catalase enzymes and transferrin, ferrithin and ceruloplasmin (these bond to iron and copper ions as the activating metals of radical reactions) and the secondary ones such as all the molecules, including antioxidant vitamins, that are able to stop the reactions started by free radicals. When these agents are overwhelmed, cell damage ensues, and this plays an important role in the beginning of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and degenerative diseases.
The team points out that further studies are needed to verify the results of their electrical tests at the clinical level. What seems to emerge from the present laboratory study is that copper ions sometimes act as antioxidants and sometimes as pro-oxidants. “These conclusions disagree with the current theories that copper ions show only antioxidant action,” the researchers say.