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Can Antioxidants Cause You to Die Sooner? -- antioxidant supplements and carrots


A review of many clinical studies found slightly increased mortality (i.e., more people died during studies) associated with the use of supplements containing beta-carotene and possibly vitamin E and higher doses of vitamin A (Bjelakovic, Cochrane Database 2012). The increase in mortality was 3% to 10% depending on the type of statistical analysis used.

Increased mortality was not associated with the use of the antioxidants vitamin C or selenium (although there are other concerns with selenium supplementation), but there was also no evidence that vitamin C or selenium provided a benefit with regard to mortality.

The researchers concluded that current evidence does not support the use of antioxidant supplements for prevention of mortality in healthy adults or those with various diseases (including gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neurological, ocular, dermatological, rheumatoid, renal, endocrinological or unspecified disease). 

Keep in mind that all of this research is based on getting nutrients from supplements, so you should not worry about getting these nutrients from foods, such as fruits and vegetables. Vitamin A and vitamin E are essential nutrients, and beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A as needed. In addition, the research did not assess the supplements for the prevention or treatment of specific diseases or nutrient deficiencies. Although deficiencies of these nutrients are uncommon in the U.S. and Canada, they occur elsewhere and can be effectively treated with supplements.

Similarly, a long-term study of Americans found the risk of dying over the course of the study (about 14 years) was lowest when antioxidant levels in the blood were above the lowest levels (the bottom 20% of the population) (Goyal, Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2013). However, for people in the top 20% of blood levels for vitamins A and E, the risk of death increased compared to people with moderate levels. For selenium, and beta-carotene, there was no significant difference in the death rate between moderate and high levels, although for vitamin C some additional benefit was seen at high, but not the highest, levels.

The results suggest that antioxidant supplements may be useful for those who are nutritionally deficient, but, as noted by the researchers, "beyond a certain threshold, higher levels do not lead to additional benefit, and may potentially be toxic." More details (including specific serum levels) are found in the following reviews: 

Vitamin A and Beta-Carotene Supplements Review >>    

Vitamin C Supplements Review >>    

Vitamin E Supplements Review >>

Selenium Supplements Review >>

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Diane 17497
January 27, 2019

Does astaxathin fall into this category of antioxidants to be cautious with?
January 28, 2019

Hi Diane - Please see the "Concerns and Cautions" section of the Astaxanthin Supplements Review for information about this:

January 27, 2019

I was treated for early stage breast cancer last spring at City of Hope. Fortunately I did not need chemo, but did have 6 weeks of daily radiation. The radiation oncologist was adamant that I stop all supplements for the reasons you stated in your article. Of course, I listened to him and complied. He also mentioned that alpha lipoic acid was one of the most suspicious when it came to radiation and protecting the cancer cells. I was a low risk patient for breast cancer, but spent decades taking supplements....and now wonder with recent studies pointing the finger at supplementation in pill form whether or not I reached some tipping point in my body where they played a role in the advent of the cancer.

October 5, 2014

A popular figure in the world of supplements sells (quite expensive) multivitamin-mineral capsules for daily use that contain no folic acid. In his view only dietary folate from vegetables is free from potentially harmful effects. (In addition the multis have no beta-carotene or vitamins A and E because of purported adverse effects.) However, my last blood work while taking these showed high homocysteine levels (first time this has occurred). This can't be good. Question: how do I get enough folate when obviously my veggie consumption, which is about all I can eat, isn't nearly enough? Is folic acid that harmful?
October 9, 2014

Hi Ann - Thank you for your question. We've answered it here:

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