Antioxidants: It’s one of the biggest health buzzwords today. The fabled powers of these mysterious compounds have been featured on daytime TV, plastered on age-defying beauty products and foods in the grocery store, and sold to us as a major reason to frequent juice bars and smoothie shops. Antioxidants are not just an overblown fad, though. They play an important role in keeping our bodies healthy, and they are critical for some people, such as patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), who can’t get enough oxygen and are inactive as a result.
Antioxidants neutralize molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS compounds are byproducts of our body’s metabolism, and too much of them can damage DNA, change cell structure and even kill cells. We can acquire antioxidants to combat ROS by eating foods such as berries, nuts and sweet potatoes. In addition, the body has its own array of natural antioxidants to destroy ROS. Inactivity and low oxygen in the blood (hypoxia) that occur in COPD alter the body’s levels of ROS and antioxidants and can worsen the disease. Maintaining healthy levels of ROS and antioxidants in patients with COPD is a concern for health care providers.
A new study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that a low level of activity may be enough to raise antioxidant levels. In a 10-day study, healthy women were confined to strict bed rest, confined to bed rest while breathing air with 32 percent less oxygen, or breathed the low-oxygen air but could stand, walk and conduct normal daily activity. Blood samples were taken before, during and after the experiment to compare the balance between ROS and antioxidant levels. ROS levels increased in all three groups, but the most noticeable difference was in the active group, which had higher antioxidant levels than those on bed rest. Although low oxygen in the blood increased the ROS levels of the participants in the active group, maintaining a somewhat active lifestyle allowed their bodies to produce more antioxidants to buffer the damaging ROS compounds.
There’s a growing population of patients with lung disease who experience both inactivity and hypoxia, so research that helps identify additional consequences of hypoxia and inactivity is paramount for improving care. This study suggests that if these patients can maintain some degree of their physical routine, they may be protected from some of the damaging effects of ROS. This research also provides evidence health care workers can use to educate and encourage healthy behaviors in their patients to reduce complications caused by too much ROS.
Thomas J. Otskey, Hannah Grace Deery, Sandra Bigirwa, Sarah Small and Erin Feldott are students in the Department of Health and Human Physiology at the University of Iowa studying respiratory physiology with Melissa Bates, PhD.