Antioxidants vs. Free Radicals: An Unexpected Finding

Antioxidants vs. Free Radicals: An Unexpected Finding: The long-playing mantra in personal health has been, “Eliminate free radicals!” Antioxidants have been added to vitamin supplements and teas. ‘Super foods’ have been elevated to the status of health saviors. However a new report indicates that free radicals can be either good or bad depending on which side of the diabetic diagnosis you’re on.

The report originated in Cell Metabolism and suggests that free radicals known as ROS (reactive oxygen species) may actually be important in retarding the development of Type 2 diabetes. According to, “The researchers show that low levels of ROS – and hydrogen peroxide in particular — might actually protect us from diabetes, by improving our ability to respond to insulin signals.”

Is it possible that by adopting antioxidants as a means of advancing personal health we have actually placed ourselves in jeopardy of being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes? It’s actually more complicated than that. You see antioxidants may be very helpful once a diabetic diagnosis has been made. There seems to be an unusual tipping point between when antioxidants are bad – and when they are good.

Tony Tiganis of Monash University in Australia who participated in the research said, “Our studies indicate that ‘physiological’ low levels of ROS may promote the insulin response and attenuate insulin resistance early in the progression of type 2 diabetes, prior to overt obesity and hyperglycemia.”

The data seems to suggest that ROS can provide your body with the ability to maintain proper insulin response in non-diabetic or prediabetic patients. Once high blood sugar is noted it may be important to eliminate free radicals (ROS) with antioxidants.

The reports indicates, “Tiganis’ team found that mice with a deficiency that prevented them from eliminating physiological ROS didn’t become insulin resistant on a high-fat diet as they otherwise would have. They showed that those health benefits could be attributed to insulin-induced signals and the uptake of glucose into their muscles. When those animals were given an antioxidant, those benefits were lost, leaving the mice with more signs of diabetes.”

There have been other studies that have suggested antioxidants may actually reduce an individual’s lifespan. Studies on worms show that a removal of free radicals actually served to cause their premature death. Tiganis is quoted as saying, “In the case of early type 2 diabetes and the development of insulin resistance, our studies suggest that antioxidants would be bad for you.” Under some conditions, treatments designed to selectively increase ROS in muscle – if they can be devised – might even help.”

Tiganis further suggests a two-prong approach to the information he’s uncovered. The first step is to stop taking all pill forms of antioxidants. The second step is to exercise. Tiganis notes that exercise actually promotes ROS development that could work to improve insulin receptivity within the body. Perhaps there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all pill that can eliminate the need for physical activity after all.

The research does provide scientists with information they may be able to use to develop alternative therapies that balance the bodies need for ROS with the role of antioxidants if/when they are ultimately needed.

There has been some suggestion of working toward a therapy that can replace ROS striped from the body by antioxidants. As with most startup research there will be more testing to take place before new therapies emerge, but the research provided by Tiganis offers compelling data to suggest the value of free radicals may have been misdiagnosed.