The combination of exercise and nutrition, specifically the study of free radicals and antioxidants, has always been a strong interest of mine. It is with this interest, and recognition of National Physical Fitness and Sport Month, that I would like to highlight my latest work surrounding how exercise and antioxidant foods, like oats, can support healthy aging.
Free Radicals, Antioxidants and Exercise
Henry Lardy, my Ph.D. advisor and postdoctoral mentor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Enzyme Institute, was the grandfather of studying free radical generation in the human body. He took what was first discovered in the context of radiation and applied it to the biological system. A free radical is a molecule containing at least one unpaired electron that can damage tissue. Oxygen consumed by the body can generate free radicals, even though it’s a very small fraction, and it’s happening in our bodies every day and every minute. The more free radicals in our body, the harder it is to support healthy aging.
At the same time, our body produces antioxidant enzymes, the counter force to remove and restrict free radical generation. These enzymes require trace elements (such as selenium) and other nutrients found in the mitochondria and other cell components, which are the first line of antioxidant defense to remove free radicals. Copper and zinc are also very important trace elements for antioxidant defense. The balance of free radicals and antioxidants became the foundation of my work over the past couple of decades.
I was one of the first to study how exercise influences this delicate free radical/antioxidant balance. If the body generates free radicals when consuming oxygen, what would happen when oxygen consumption increases 10- or 20-fold during exercise? Early findings showed an increase in free radicals, but also in antioxidants, creating a new balance between the two.
Oat Antioxidants Fight Cell Damage
Nutrition and antioxidants are closely linked. But during my early studies, naturally occurring antioxidants in fruits and vegetables were not widely researched or widely recognized. Then in 2000, David Peterson of the USDA Cereal Crops Research Unit coincidentally discovered our research when he came to our facility for exercise. Dr. Peterson was testing oats and grains for nutritional value, including antioxidant properties like avenanthramides (AVE), so he was naturally interested in our biochemistry and antioxidant expertise. He asked if I would be willing to test animals with the hope that oats would increase antioxidant defense. Of course I said yes.
So we divided rats into two groups and fed them for eight weeks, one with corn flour-based foods and one containing a few milligrams/kilograms of synthesized AVE. Then we had them complete heavy exercise to examine their antioxidant defense and oxidative damage. We demonstrated a dramatic increase in antioxidant defense and resistance to exercise-induced cell damage with the AVE-fed rats. This was very exciting, but at the time natural oats didn’t contain enough AVE to demonstrate the same effect in humans without an enormous portion (roughly two kilos). This put our research on hold for several years.
More AVE, More Questions
A few years ago we were approached with a new line of natural oats containing up to 20 times the AVE found in other available oat lines. We picked up the project and demonstrated the same effect in humans as seen in rats with just a couple of oat cookies. Further research revealed that oat antioxidants are naturally designed to fight inflammation. For example, when your muscles get very sore after running, oats have the ability to fight inflammation, which is caused by the same cytokines that are elevated in the body after being exposed to bacterial infections.
Several companies are racing to capitalize on the benefit of AVE. Until oats with higher AVE yields become commercially available, a few questions remain. Should we still eat ordinary oats to gain some benefit? Can we eat smaller amounts over time to see a cumulative benefit? How much of the dosage goes into the body and how much is retained? We believe eating ordinary oats on a regular basis does provide some benefit, but for now, it won’t be as dramatic without higher AVE content. These are all important research avenues in the near future.
Three Tips for Healthy Aging
Consume more antioxidants. Aging is a phenomenon related to free radical generation. I would not go to the extreme of saying it is caused by free radical generation, but the Free-Radical Theory of Aging (FRTA) is supported by vast research. Over the course of a lifetime, your body produces a small amount of free radicals each day, which it does not completely clear. This leads to accumulating damage as a result of inflammation, causing your body to deteriorate. Inflammation and free radical generation are closely related to cancer and other deteriorative diseases like atherosclerosis, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease among others. So for healthy aging it’s important to boost your antioxidant defense.
Don’t rely on supplements. Research has shown that taking straight pharmaceutical, synthetic antioxidants (such as Vitamin E and Vitamin C) at mega doses can actually cause more harm than good. Heavy doses of synthetic antioxidants dramatically change your body’s redox status. In fact, a small amount of free radicals are the source of your body’s ability to adapt. Fruits, vegetables, herbs, tea, coffee, cocoa, oats, etc. all enhance your body’s ability to suppress inflammation and free radical generation.
Exercise often. Why should you exercise if it generates free radicals? Good question. Again, free radicals in moderation are the source of your body’s adaptation. People are healthier with exercise because they generate more free radicals, which are checked by increased antioxidant defense. This increase in free radicals also activates the body’s redox signaling for healthier molecules including antioxidant enzymes, mitochondria generation and muscle rejuvenation. All these healthy pathways are dependent on some free radical activation.[sc:li-li-ji]
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