• Bronwyn Carroll

Food For Thought

With so much focus and concern surrounding Covid 19 the past two years, a great deal of new research, along with reviews of studies from the past decade have been undertaken, with a particular focus on the immune system. This has resulted in a new paradigm emerging regarding our model of the antioxidant theory and I thought it would be valuable to explore it a little further.


So stay with me here, a little bit of speedy history required to bring us up to date.

In the 1950’s Dr Denham Harman came up with his theory of free radicals. Free radicals are unstable oxygen-containing molecules that can damage cells in the body and he theorised that this was what caused ageing. This is when the first theory of using anti-oxidants, such as Vitamin A, E and C was first introduced. Linus Pauling, a Nobel Prize winning chemist, continued along these lines, working with vitamin C in large doses. Speeding much further along to the early 1990’s scientists discovered a transcription factor called Nrf2, a switch that helps to up-regulate our body’s super complex antioxidant system; a system that switches on hundreds of genes that can protect cells from oxidative damage. With this new framework, the mindset moved to one where there’s somehow a flaw in nature producing these reactive oxygen species, and in turn, moved our thinking to all free radicals are bad and antioxidants are good.

So we have our latest thinking, excess free radicals leads to inflammation and inflammation leads to disease, ageing, altered immune response and less than optimal health. Right!

Right, this part of the model really hasn’t changed too much, however the specific antioxidant paradigm has been turned on in head.


So brace yourself. The latest research is demonstrating that the best way to turn on our amazing protective Nrf2 switch is with pro-oxidant, I repeat pro-oxidant stressors.

What does that mean, it means when we exercise, eat a charred bit of steak or get a brief whiff of smoke, our body then detects a mild threat and turns on its amazing orchestra, up regulating all these protective genes and it’s own built in antioxidant system.


So is the advice to expose your self to loads of stressors. No of course not. Studies also show that if we overwhelm the system, this is when we start heading down the excess free radicals leads to inflammation track. What it does mean, is that living a healthy, normal, every day life, our bodies are naturally designed to protect us from mild, day to day stressors.


But wait there’s more and this is the bit I really wanna talk about. So many of you may have heard about these super compounds in plant foods called phytonutrients; words like flavonoid, anthocyanin, carotenoid and isoflavonoid. Also known as phytochemicals, these compounds protect the plant from invaders, such as fungi, viruses, bacteria and other critters. So, these compounds have also been considered to be antioxidants, however what recent material is demonstrating is that they are achieving these health benefits in a completely different way. They are actually weak stressors. Thats right.

Weak stressors, and as a result pretty awesome at turning on the Nrf2 switch. In fact sulforaphane from the cruciferous family, was found to be a super hero weak stressor, and is not an antioxidant at all. Broccoli and the cruciferous family win again!


So what’s my point, why am I writing this. It turns out that mother nature does know what she’s doing. She has provided us with an abundant supply of various, weak stressors that turn on hundreds of genes that protect our cells and our body. Pretty cool hey. So the good old fashioned message lives on, eat a healthy diet rich in fruit, vegetables and

ah-hem… herbs.

Yes that’s right herbs too are rich in these wonderful healthful nutrients. We intuitively know this right, but it is becoming even more important to explore the benefits of a diet that is wide and varied….. more on that in another blog.


There is one more point I do just want to touch on and that is one of high dose supplementation. This has been the thinking for quite some time now, by many health professionals, and the times they are a changing. Let’s go back to what the new research is showing about how the Nrf2 switch model works. Basically we have this complex orchestral system that up regulates hundreds of genes that protect our cells. Nrf2 is basically the conductor, telling the parts when and how to play. We know if it gets overwhelmed, the switch falters and we get an increase in free radicals and in turn inflammation. So we don’t want to overwhelm the switch. High supplementation of a few antioxidants, is a bit like asking only the pianist and violin to play together, ignoring the rest of the orchestra. But even more concerning, runs the risk of overwhelming the system and turning off the switch more often.


Am I saying don’t take supplements. No of course not. There are many reasons one might benefit from a supplement such as deficiency, or poor diet due to stressful circumstances, not to mention that vitamins and minerals play other roles in the body as co-factors. What I am saying, is specific to our antioxidant pathways, and that supplementing, especially in high doses, may be doing more harm, rather than good. If you are unsure about your diet, or the supplements you are taking, visit a Naturopath. Shameful self-plug there I know… uh-hem. Where was I?


So if you wanna increase your body’s antioxidant potential at home, do it with food. Eat healthy with lots of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs. It’s cheaper and something you've got to do everyday anyway. Eat a rainbow. Eat yourself to health and wellbeing. It’s what your body was designed to do. Your body knows what to do with food.



As inspiration for this article, I would like to reference the delightful webinars I have watched recently, where these lovely ladies have done all the research, reviewing, collating and presentation of the material for us: The Antioxidant Conundrum with Dr Christine Houghton, Engineering Immune Protection with Phytonutrients with Lara Zakaria, and Emerging Pieces in the Covid 19 Puzzle with Dr Christine Houghton.


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