The multiple and extraordinary benefits of antioxidant nutrients have been well defined in both exercise physiology and functional medicine for many decades now. In a nutshell, antioxidants protect healthy cells from the oxidizing or damaging effects of oxygen free radicals from which no one can escape. Antioxidants are made in the body and may be obtained through natural food and dietary supplements. Since no one can survive without oxygen, and breathing oxygen produces free radicals, we have a problem. This is known as the oxygen paradox.
Respiration involves gas exchange and the transfer of oxygen from the atmosphere to our cells. Exercise increases the demand for oxygen and, as more oxygen passes through the electron transport chain in the mitochondria or "furnace" of the cell, some of it "leaks out." Like sparks flying out from burning logs, highly reactive oxygen free radicals can damage muscle fibers and the membranes which bind them together in bundles. This causes stiffness, inflammation and muscle soreness.
Free Radical Balance
Free radicals are chemically unstable. In the absence of sufficient antioxidant support, these molecular sharks represent a threat to the health of our cells, joints and genetic energy-control centers (mitochondrial DNA). But free radicals arent all bad. Muscle growth depends on them, our immune cells use them to destroy pathogens, and enzyme systems critical to cell differentiation, programmed cell death (apoptosis) and prostaglandin formation are activated by them. So to reiterate, free radicals are normal constituents of cell metabolism, but they must be controlled or buffered with plenty of antioxidants.
Gaining control of excess free radical pathology means better health and continued peak performance. This is achieved first by reducing our intake or exposure to pro-oxidant substances including rancid food, alcohol, tobacco, coffee, steroids, birth-control pills, antibiotics, prescription drugs, recreational drugs and environmental pollutants. Other factors relate to behavior and state-of-mind, like over-eating, over-training, sleep-deprivation or constant worry. These also increase the bodys free radical burden.
Exercise Is Not An Option, But
The overall effect of exercise when performed with precision and intelligence is enormously positive and essential to the maintenance of health, form and function. But one should train smart and consider taking a full range of fat and water-soluble dietary antioxidants, both before and after workouts. Your kitchen cupboards should include an assortment of carotenoids, flavonoids, vitamin E & C, niacin, B5, magnesium, zinc, selenium, pyruvate, alpha-lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, n-acetyl-cysteine, glutathione, plant enzymes, gingko, grape seed and ginseng extracts. These substances can help protect muscle from free radical damage during exercise and prevent fatigue conditions caused by loss of organ reserve.
Aerobic exercise increases the demand for more oxygen, which increases oxidative stress. When training, athletes breath up to 20 times more oxygen than sedentary folk. Exercise also causes a natural shift in blood flow and oxygen supply. Enormous amounts of blood are diverted to working muscles, causing other body regions to become oxygen deprived. When exercise is completed, blood rushes back to these other areas causing a release of free radicals. This process is called reperfusion.
High-intensity anaerobic training causes an oxygen debt which must be repaid. During rest between sets, blood and oxygen rush back to the recovering muscle, causing a free radical explosion. Oxygen is essential to life. But oxygen burns like fire and when it burns, it damages healthy cells and corrupts our DNA. Without sufficient antioxidant protection, our cells lose their ability to defend against oxidative stress. This means we cant respond to the challenge of exercise, which in part is biologically disruptive and immunosuppressive.
Surprisingly, many athletes eat some of the worst diets you can imagine. Instead of making nutrition a priority for performance and health (long term), they rely on other factors which enhance performance, such as youth, genetics, drugs, coaching, equipment, natural ability, desire to win and tolerance to pain. But refined diets only work short-term, and after the youth and drugs wear off, many find themselves trapped in a hole dug with their own shovel.
Everyone Needs Antioxidant Protection
So what are antioxidants exactly, and how do they work? Anti- means "opposed to." An anti-oxidant opposes or neutralizes the oxidative effect of an oxidant by donating one or more of its own electrons (reduction). Stable molecules are held together by paired electrons. Oxidants are molecules with unpaired electrons. They tend to steal electrons (oxidation) from stable molecules which then become free radicals. Each time a molecule loses an electron, it suffers damage and begins to damage other molecules, causing a destructive chain reaction.
Antioxidant nutrients sacrifice themselves to protect molecules from free radicals but in doing so, become oxidants themselves. This is why taking a full compliment of mixed source antioxidants is important. Antioxidant nutrients regenerate each other through highly complex redox (reduction/oxidation) cycles while creating a more stable and less hostile environment.
Think of rusting metal or burning wood as something oxidizing. Or worse yet, imagine your heart, your joints and your brain oxidizing under continuous stress and tension. Oxygen is corrosive. It burns up objects as they fall from the sky through the atmosphere and in a billion or more years, Mt. Everest will be reduced to a mole hill. Thats oxidation.
Anaerobic & Aerobic Exercise
Power training for strength and muscle mass is a function of anaerobic exercise (without oxygen). To be successful in this category, you need to exercise with intensity for short periods of time, as in sprinting, powerlifting or natural bodybuilding. Principal fuels sources include creatine phosphate, glycogen and the branched-chain amino acids. You also need to consume enough high-quality protein to maintain a positive nitrogen balance throughout the day and night. Carbohydrates and fat provide fuel and many important micronutrients, but contain zero nitrogen. The goal is too keep your anabolic drive alive and train injury-free.
Endurance training is a function of aerobic exercise (with oxygen). It features low-intensity high-volume work, as observed in triathletes, long-distance runners, swimmers, cyclists and tennis players. Aerobic exercise improves heart and lung capacity and burns fat and glycogen as primary fuels. But endurance athletes are never muscle bound nor do they ever manifest their true strength potential. Their steady-state high-volume oxygen consumption is catabolic to fat and muscle.
For optimum health & fitness, a combination of both anaerobic and aerobic exercise is ideal, followed by stretching. However, if maximizing growth is a priority, understand that high-volume aerobic exercise alone doesnt build muscle, improve bone density or favor positive changes regarding growth hormone release or ones testosterone/cortisol ratio.
Excessive and uncontrolled oxidation can cause massive tissue damage and even kill athletes who appear healthy. Oxidative stress is a component of virtually every disease process and is intimately associated with aging. The body responds to stress, oxidation and exercise with near-perfect and predictable evolutionary adaptation. If you want to remain well and train for life, dont ignore the evidence. Combat the power of oxidation with antioxidants derived from both whole food and dietary supplements.