Scientists at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis say they have developed what they believe could be a new way to measure free radicals.
Free radicals also called oxidative stress – are a natural byproduct of exercise. They’re uncharged molecules that are highly reactive, short-lived and can damage DNA and cell membranes. Oxidative stress has been linked to aging and may be an underlying cause of some cancers, heart disease and diabetes.
The current global standard in exercise science measures oxidative stress by using a compound called F2-isoprostanes, which are found only in small amounts in the body and are expensive and time-consuming to obtain. David Nieman, the director of the Appalachian State University Human Performance Laboratory, and his team at NCRC say they have identified a fatty acid called “13-HODE + 9-HODE” that can be used as a less-costly, more efficient measure.
Nieman compares the human body’s efficiency rating to that of a gasoline engine in an automobile. He said both use roughly 25 percent of the energy created and the other 75 percent becomes heat. Just as the exhaust is the harmful byproduct of combustion engines, free radicals are a natural, and harmful, byproduct of exercise.
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Nieman said this discovery provides, for the first time, an abundant and stable measure. He now has set his sights on proving ways to minimize free radicals in athletes by using antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents in fruits and berries.
The team’s research paper was published in the April issue of the American Journal of Physiology, and the next step will be to have scientists confirm their research methods.
The paper, “Metabolomics approach to assessing plasma 13- and 9-hydroxy-octadecadienoic acid and linoleic acid metabolite responses to 75-km cycling,” was based on a study conducted in partnership with the David H. Murdock Research Institute and Metabolon, a Durham-based company that specializes in measuring molecular chemicals within a biological sample.
Test subjects included several high-performing athletes who rode bicycles on a computerized, 75-kilometer course. Each performed the course multiple times, consuming different combinations of fruits or berries. The average athlete finished in 2 hours and 37 minutes and a professional finished in 2 hours and 2 minutes, Nieman said.
Nieman said people who are overweight or not physically fit face chronic oxidative stress where levels are stagnant, but higher in a rested state. Athletes showed lower levels of oxidative stress while resting, but their peak levels during exercise also were higher.
Niemen said 30 minutes of exercise per day will help combat free radicals, but people should aim for an hour or more. A runner since the 1970s, Nieman’s competed in nearly 60 marathons and strives to be active for 1-2 hours every day.
“All my risk factors are rock-bottom and I do that because I think exercise is the best medicine there is,” he said. “Everyone agrees there’s damage that comes from exercise, but some say the adapted muscle handles it better and, in the end, the muscle gets remodeled. Some experts say you have to have (oxidative stress) to stay fit.”
Niemen also said it’s likely certain fruits, like bananas and blueberries, could prove to be a better for athletes than ibuprofen to alleviate post-workout pain and swelling. A previous study led by him proved the carbohydrates in bananas supported cycling performance just as well as Gatorade, he said.
Adding a mix of blueberry polyphenols (or micronutrients) and sugars from bananas might be the best combo, he said.
“No one has shown any evidence that colors in fruits can act as ibuprofen substitutes but we’re on that track and we think we have great evidence supporting that,” Nieman said.
Concord resident John Zenger, a 47-year-old cyclist, has been involved in nearly 10 studies at the research campus.
“I think its really cool and extraordinary,” he said. “All the studies I’ve been involved with, they’re trying to see what types of food will impact on our ability to ride, be a more effective cyclist, but also they drill it down to what types of things you can use to enhance the exercise process or better take advantage of exercise.”
Zenger took part in three test rides: one with just water; one with water and cranberry puree; and one with bananas and water. He said his ride during the banana test was 10 minutes faster and he felt better afterward. Zenger said he wonders what’s really true when it comes to exercise and nutrition products.
“I don’t know if they’ll perfect anything, but they are definitely finding things that truly make a difference in performance and are not just a fad,” he said.