Saturday, March 07, 2009

To Antioxidant or not to Antioxidant

About a year or so back—might be longer—I read an article that argued that maybe we shouldn't stake our lives on nuking as amany as possible of those nasty, damaging free radicals in our bodies, because, being 'natural'—always a dangerous term!—they might just be there for a good reason.

Well, there's no 'reason' in nature and biology or evolution. Period. But there's adaptation and the fact is that if an organism survives for long enough to reproduce and reproduce successfully—meaning that it's offspring also lives long enough to reproduce, and so on—then there's no mechanism, short of random mutation, to weed out some organismic property that might kill said organism a suitable time after it has reproduced.

Simple enough. Applied to free radicals, that would simply lead us to conclude that they're there because the organisms that produced them never became mis-adapted in terms of survival for long enough to reproduce. They might kill us afterwards, but so what?

Meaning, of course, that to those of us, who care about survival, and never mind how old we are, free radicals are evil and antioxidants are the good guys. There's no reason to suggest that the bad guys have any function at all, but to be 'there': nasty little critters that evolution never took care of, because it had no survival value to take care of them.

Well, while that kind of reasoning—one which I still hold to be valid as a general principle—applies to many other things, it just might not hold true for the free radical issue. The evil guys might just be much more ambiguous than we assumed, and the good guys might be doing too much good. Doesn't that remind of life in general and the damage that do-gooders have done over the ages? Damn, damn! I should have known!

The operative term is 'might', of course. It might also be that the current, widely-accepted paradigm ('free radicals do damage; antioxidants mop of free radicals and reduce damage; antioxidants are good and free radicals bad') still applies. But possibly just not the way we were thinking, and with effects more devious and labyrinthine than we had naively concluded.

Biological logic, especially in complex organisms, isn't always 'logical'—or, maybe it would be more correct to say that it is perfectly logical if only we had all the facts. Meaning that theorizing about how things work is very different in biology than it is in, say, physics. We need research, research, research, because we need facts. Whatever theories there are, they must always be considered tentative.

It seems perfectly sensible to conclude—and why should one not?—that eliminating something that does damage or harm to a component important to an organism, should benefit the organism. Yet biology provides myriad examples of how feedback loops and causal pathways can defy simple rules of reasoning, simply because we don't know about the feedback loops or hidden effects.

Just like life? You betcha!

I advise those interested in reading the article and following up the debate. It provides not just a valuable lesson for thinking about biology, but also 'life'—because biology in its complexity is, not unsurprisingly, the closest thing to a 'science of life'. It also provides a stark lesson, for those willing to take these thoughts further, of just how the universe really and truly doesn't 'care' about anything; and how, at the purely physical level, there is no 'good' or 'bad', but only a devastatingly complex network of causal interactions and feedback loops that we'll never fully, or even 'approximately fully' understand; no matter how long we continue to investigate things.

From a purely human-longevity perspective, Resveratrol may therefore not be interesting and beneficial because of its antioxidant properties, though this has been touted by those promoting its use—no doubt because 'antioxidant' is a magic promotional term—but others that aren't of as obvious and apparent benefit and which work in devious ways.

Anyway, that biology and its ways are seldom as we expect them to be; and those dosing themselves to the eyeballs with apparently 'beneficial' agents, may be doing themselves an actual disservice. An interetsing consideration may well be that what is apparently good for your health may do diddly-squat to keep you alive significantly longer. Truly, a thought to give life-extensionists pause for thought, or so one would think.

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