NUTRITIONAre Antioxidants the Key to a Healthier Fire Service?

Are Antioxidants the Key to a Healthier Fire Service?

By: Megan Lautz

It’s no secret that firefighting is an exhilarating but dangerous job. Exposure to pollutants, trauma, sleep deprivation, and high-intensity work can cause free radical damage that accumulates over a 25+ year career. This damage contributes to firefighters’ increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Antioxidants can help fight free radical damage. Could antioxidants be the answer to improving health in the fire service?

What are Antioxidants and Free Radicals?

Antioxidants are molecules found in fruits and vegetables that can help prevent or delay free radical damage. Examples of antioxidants include Vitamin C, selenium, and carotenoids. Free radicals are unstable molecules constantly formed in the body from exercise, exposure to pollutants, lack of sleep, etc. Your body needs some free radicals to function (ex., fight infection). However, when free radicals outnumber antioxidants, it can lead to oxidative stress. 

Oxidative stress is a process that can trigger cell and DNA damage. DNA damage is associated with an increased risk of cancer and heart disease. Antioxidants have been show to counteract oxidative stress. 

Should I Supplement with Antioxidants?

Often, the knee-jerk reaction in firefighters is to start supplements when a specific nutrient shows benefit. However, research suggests otherwise. Clinical trials of antioxidant supplements have not found that they prevent disease. 

Some research suggests that antioxidant supplementation may have health consequences. One large study showed that beta-carotene supplementation increased the risk of lung cancer in smokers. For those looking to gain muscle, research suggests antioxidant supplementation may have a negative impact on muscle growth. 

When it comes to antioxidants, food should be the focus. If you want to try a supplement, work with your physician to weigh the risks vs. benefits. Supplements can interact with medications and a detailed conversation is essential for preventing side effects. 

How can I improve my Antioxidant vs. Free Radical Balance? 

Firefighters are exposed to more free radicals than the general population and often struggle to eat a balanced diet on shift. The goal is to make small shifts to reduce exposure and increase healthy habits. 

Reduce Exposures

  • Reduce alcohol intake. Aim for less than 14 drinks/week for men and less than 7 drinks/week for women
  • Quit smoking
  • Include naps and focus on improving sleep quality

Increase Antioxidant Intake from Food 

  • Keep frozen fruits and veggies on hand
  • Add spinach to smoothies
  • Add pre-shredded coleslaw veggies
  • Have applesauce or other fruit pouches on hand as a snack
  • Double up on salsas in burrito bowls 

Antioxidants might not be the cure-all for all of the health problems in the fire service, but more fruits and veggies can make a big difference in long-term health. Plus, firefighters will have more energy and recover better from shiftwork in the short term.

Sources

Antioxidants: In depth. NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Retrieved from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/antioxidants-in-depth#:~:text=Introduction,be%20beneficial%20in%20preventing%20diseases.

Lobo V, Patil A, Phatak A, Chandra N. Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. Pharmacogn Rev. 2010 Jul;4(8):118-26. doi: 10.4103/0973-7847.70902. PMID: 22228951; PMCID: PMC3249911.

Willis, B. Why you shouldn’t be always taking antioxidants, especially if you want to build muscle. Examine. Retrieved from https://examine.com/conditions/muscle-gain/faq/GlX8pl8-why-you-shouldnt-be-always-taking-antioxidants-especially-if-you-want-to-build-muscle/

Megan Lautz, MS, RD, CSCS, TSAC-F 

Megan is a Registered Dietitian and strength coach who specializes in firefighter nutrition. Megan shows firefighters how to eat healthier when they don’t have time, money, or energy. Megan is the owner of RescueRD LLC, which provides nutrition seminars and coaching for tactical athletes across the country. Check out @Rescue.RD on Facebook and Instagram.

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