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Antioxidant supplements could accelerate cancer growth, study finds

Antioxidants have long been described as substances with cancer-preventing properties, protecting our bodies from any potential harm. But a new study has placed them under fire, revealing they may actually have the opposite effect on tumour growth.  

Antioxidants have a seemingly platinum rating in the world of health and wellness. They’re the headlining ingredient on most health-food labels and supplement commercials, and they’re eagerly endorsed by countless health professionals and nutrition experts. 

Their stellar reputation for boosting our health has inspired thousands of replicas across the supplement industry, each attempting to reproduce the slew of health benefits associated with the hero agents. In turn, antioxidants have led the charge in the fight against our physical deterioration for decades.

But a recent study by Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet has revealed the long-revered substances also possess catalytic properties towards tumour growth and metastasis.

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According to healthdirect, Antioxidants play a vital role in our body. Typically, they’ve been classified as protectors, neutralising free-radicals and preventing the negative effects a build up can incur on our health. 

While the body naturally produces antioxidants, and common types (such as vitamin C, vitamin E and omega-3) are readily found in common food sources, the supplement industry offers a range of artificial antioxidants, allowing people to easily increase their daily intake beyond the recommended amount. 

What did the study uncover? 

Exploring the stimulatory effect of dietary supplements containing vitamin C and other antioxidants on existing lung cancer tumours, the study concluded newfound blood vessels had developed, growing the cancers. 

The findings come as a surprise to many, as given their ability to neutralise reactive oxygen species that cause damage to DNA, it has long been hypothesised that antioxidants should be able to protect our bodies against cancer. 

„We’ve found that antioxidants activate a mechanism that causes cancer tumours to form new blood vessels, which is surprising, since it was previously thought that antioxidants have a protective effect,“ says Martin Bergö, leader of the study and vice president of Karolinska Institutet. 

In essence, the new blood vessels formed by the intervention of supplement-derived antioxidants were found to nourish the tumours, helping them grow and spread. The findings of this study corroborate the long-suspected idea that dietary supplements containing antioxidants can have detrimental effects on tumours, as well as in general.

Research by the same team has previously shown that common antioxidants like vitamin C and E speed up the growth of lung cancer by stabilising a protein called BACH1. Now, the findings of this study prove that the activation of BACH1 induces the formation of new blood vessels (angiogenesis).

Have antioxidants been cancelled?

If the findings of this study have you wanting to throw out your citrus fruits and swear off seafood indefinitely, think again. Natural antioxidants produced by your body and found in healthy, nutritious foods aren’t the suspects under scrutiny here. 

„There’s no need to fear antioxidants in normal food but most people don’t need additional amounts of them,“ says Professor Bergö. „In fact, it can be harmful for cancer patients and people with an elevated cancer risk.“

So as the findings of the study demonstrate, not everything can be safely replicated in supplement form. While the research delivers a warning to those highly dependent on artificial supplements, there’s no need to cut out natural sources of the substance. 

Maintaining a healthy diet full of antioxidant-rich ingredients is still very much recommended by the team responsible for the study.  

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