A new study has found that antioxidants, which are often used as a health supplement, may hasten the onset of type 2 diabetes.

An international team has claimed that this study challenges the concept that antioxidants should be taken as a general preventative measure, since this may well increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.

The team, led by Prof Tony Tiganis of Monash University, has found that molecules known as Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) may play a protective role in the early stages of Type 2 diabetes by enhancing insulin action. Anti-oxidants prevent the beneficial effects of ROS.

Scientists showed that when ROS levels were elevated in muscles of genetically modified mice they could prevent the onset of insulin resistance and diabetes that is induced by a high-fat diet.

However when these animals received anti—oxidants, which “mop up” ROS, the improved insulin response was lost and the mice became more “diabetic“.

The findings, published in the ‘Cell Metabolism’ journal, challenge the widely-held view that ROS are always harmful and that anti-oxidants are always beneficial.

“ROS molecules, such as hydrogen peroxide, are important for normal cell function. We have shown that ROS present in muscle enhance insulin action and help lower blood sugar levels.

“However, our studies do not negate the role of ROS in late-stage disease. There’s a ‘yin and yang’ relationship that takes place, wherein ROS are beneficial in the early stages of Type 2 diabetes and shift to being harmful at later stages of the disease. We are now trying to find out when ROS make the switch from being ‘good’ to ‘bad’.

“Although we need to undertake further studies in humans, our results indicate that the widespread use of antioxidants by the general public as a preventative measure is something that should be discouraged, particularly if you are otherwise healthy.

“Eat healthy and exercise as this is a natural source of ROS that promotes insulin action,” Prof Tiganis said.

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