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Sports performance and antioxidants

Sports performance and antioxidantsRegular sport is good for you, whereas arduous training and high-performance sport can result in physical injuries, infections, chronic inflammation, and serious diseases due to oxidative stress. This phenomenon occurs as a result of the increased energy turnover, which produces an excess of free radicals that cause damage to cells and tissues. Oxidative stress is also associated with impaired performance, poor restitution, and faster ageing. Our only natural defense against free radicals is the presence of antioxidants, and it is especially things like vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, Q10, omega-3 fatty acids, and turmeric that protect against oxidative damage and improve recovery time. According to a review article published in Nutrients, supplements with the right doses of different nutrients can also help boost your physical and mental performance.

Our cells produce energy in a process where they use oxygen to convert fat, carbohydrate, and protein inside the mitochondria, which are the small cellular powerhouses. During this metabolic process, some of the oxygen generates free radicals that are also known as reactive oxygen species (ROS). Free radicals are used as signaling substances to control the immune defenses, insulin sensitivity, and other vital functions. However, it is important that they are kept on a tight leash and kept in check by protective antioxidants to prevent unwanted damage. If not, there is a risk that they wreak havoc by starting chain reactions that can cause damage to cells and tissue.
During physical activity, the free radical production is stepped up due to a faster respiratory rate and increased energy turnover. Athletes and people who train regularly without overdoing it enjoy many health benefits, which is because their body’s own antioxidant defense can handle the temporarily increased free radical load. However, if the physical burden and the free radical load suddenly exceed the antioxidant capacity, it may lead to potentially damaging oxidative chain reactions in the body. This can result in acute injuries and infections, chronic inflammation, muscle weakness, joint pain, asthma, circulatory problems, cataracts, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases. In the long run, neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease may occur.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) includes different molecules such as:

  • Hydrogen peroxide (H­202)
  • Hydroxyl radicals (OH)
  • Singlet oxygen (O2)
  • Super oxide (O2 _)

Antioxidants and their functions

The body can produce antioxidants such as Q10 and catalase, but the endogenous production goes down with age. Other antioxidants like different vitamins, minerals, and plant compounds are ones we get from our diet. Some antioxidants such as vitamins C and E even work together as a team. There are three main antioxidant categories with the following functions:

The first antioxidant defense that works extremely fast consists of catalase (CAT) and glutathione peroxidase (GPX), which contains selenium, and superoxide dismutase (SOD) that contains zinc. These antioxidants are able to break down and convert hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen.

The second antioxidant defense consists of vitamin C, vitamin E, Q10, and plant compounds such as curcumin, glutathione, carotenoids, and flavonoids. We get these compounds from e.g., turmeric, cabbage and other vegetables, fruit, berries, and cocoa beans. These antioxidants have the ability to stop free radicals in their tracks by donating the missing electrons, thereby neutralizing them.

The third antioxidant defense includes a complex group of enzymes that can repair damaged DNA, damaged proteins, oxidized lipids, and peroxides. Among these antioxidants are methionine, lipase, protease, and transferase

The authors also mention that the different antioxidants have other essential functions, and they describe that the two omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, counteract oxidative stress by blocking chronic inflammation, which can be extremely harmful.

Sports performance and antioxidant supplements

It’s always best to get the different antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids by eating a balanced diet. In their review article, the authors refer to several studies that have looked at the use of antioxidant supplements as way of boosting athletic performance and preventing injuries. Supplements can also be useful for speeding up the healing process in connection with sports injuries. On one hand, we need sufficient quantities of antioxidants. On the other hand, excess intake of some antioxidants can be toxic in some cases.
Vitamin C, vitamin E, Q10, selenium, zinc, fish oil, and turmeric are listed as the most beneficial supplements, and the doses depend on the duration and intensity of the sports performance. The following doses are generally recommended for adults:

C-vitamin: 500-2.000 mg. Some studies recommend up to 3,000 mg in connection with extreme sports activities such as a marathon race. Larger quantities should be divided into several smaller doses to be taken during the course of the day, and it is advised to use non-acidic vitamin C sources that are gentle on the stomach (e.g., calcium ascorbate).

E-vitamin: Sædvanligvis anbefales 15-30 mg (d-alpha-tocoferol). In connection with brief and intense periods of training, one can go as high as 268-536 mg per day (400-800 IU). However, taking more than 671 mg/day (1,000 IU) may cause side effects (1 mg of d-alpha-tocopherol = 1.49 IU).

Q10: 100-300 mg. Larger quantities should be split into several smaller doses during the day for better absorption).

Selen: 200-400 mikrogram. WHO has set 400 micrograms/day as the safe upper intake level.

Zink: 15-30 mg. EFSA has set 40 mg/day as the safe upper intake level

Fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids): 1-5 grams. Up to 4-5 grams in the case of inflammation. Beware that it takes around one month for the optimal effect to kick in.

Turmeric (curcumin): 100-500 mg of curcumin 1-2 times daily.

Some supplements combine the different vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids in formulas that are designed specifically for athletes and sports people. Make sure to get enough vitamin D, which also counteracts chronic inflammation and oxidative stress.


Juan Mielgo-Ayuso et al. Antioxidants and Sports Performance. Nutrients 2023

Christina Nocella et al. Impairment between Oxidant and Antioxidant Systems: Short- and Long-term Implications for Athletes´ Health. Nutrients 2019 

O.M. Ighodaro. First line defence antioxidants-superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT) and glutathione perioxidase (GPX): Their fundamental role in the entire antioxidant defence grid. ScienceDirect. 2017

Science News. Vitamin D pill a day may improve exercise performance and lower risk of heart disease. ScienceDaily

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