For years, health experts have raved of the regenerative benefits of antioxidants. From heart disease to eye deterioration, antioxidants have been touted as one of the best preventatives for disease. But now, scientists are wondering if the very mechanisms that allow antioxidants to protect healthy cells may also protect cancer cells.

Before going any further, what exactly is an antioxidant? In layman’s terms, it’s a chemical compound that prevents the oxidation of another molecule, or the loss of electrons. When you’re a molecule and lose electrons, you change chemically; hence, maintaining molecular equilibrium should stave off everything from cancer to skin aging.

But what if that same protective mechanism worked for cancerous cells? New research shows that antioxidants, at high levels, don’t pick a side when it comes to healthy or malignant cells. A group of Swedish scientists found that melanoma, in particular, was especially receptive to a boost of antioxidants.  

Does our over-medicated, nutritionally deficient, sleepy culture mean that immigrants would be better off in their home countries? No, not necessarily.

Does that mean that you should forgo blueberries and vitamin C supplements if you have cancer or are cancer prone? Not necessarily. But the multi-million dollar industry of antioxidant pushing may have to rethink itself. For instance, antioxidant phenols (most common among them, resveratrol) have been shown to restructure cells when under attack from pathogens. While resveratrol is an antioxidant, it is also a pro-oxidant and this Jekyll-and-Hyde chemical identity has been argued to be effective in treating cancer. In other words, a glass of wine might be more beneficial than a bowl of berries.

Of course, the amount of how much (or little) of these enzymes you should take is totally dependent of whom you ask. Famed holistic doctor Joseph Mercola insists that aggressively taking them can be an alternative option for patients experiencing chemo-resistance, while Dr. [Mehmet] Oz argues a daily regimen fights inflammation throughout the body.

Until the scientific community comes to a consensus, Oscar Wilde’s advice — ”everything in moderation, including moderation” — will have to suffice when it comes to antioxidants. Feel free to pour a glass of wine and eat a bowl of cherries. 

Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones Solution has traveled the world, studying its many "blue zones": regions where the local population enjoys exceptionally long average lifespans.


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Daphne Muller is a New York City-based writer who has written for Salon, Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, and reviewed books for ELLE and Publishers Weekly. Most recently, she completed a novel and screenplay. You can follow her on Instagram @daphonay and on Twitter @DaphneEMuller.