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Antioxidants may protect the skin from sunburn due to free radical–producing ultraviolet rays.1 Combinations of 1,000 to 2,000 IU per day of vitamin E and 2,000 to 3,000 mg per day of vitamin C, but neither given alone, have a significant protective effect against ultraviolet rays, according to double-blind studies.2, 3, 4
Oral synthetic beta-carotene alone was not found to provide effective protection when given in amounts of 15 mg per day or for only a few weeks’ time in larger amounts of 60 to 90 mg per day, but it has been effective either in very large (180 mg per day) amounts or in smaller amounts (30 mg per day) in combination with topical sunscreen.5, 6, 7, 8, 9
Natural sources of beta-carotene or other carotenoids have been more consistently shown to protect against sunburn. One controlled study found that taking a supplement of natural carotenoids (almost all of which was beta-carotene) in daily amounts of 30 mg, 60 mg, and 90 mg gave progressively more protection against ultraviolet rays.10 In another controlled study, either 24 mg per day of natural beta-carotene or 24 mg per day of a carotenoid combination of equal amounts beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene helped protect skin from ultraviolet rays.11 A preliminary study compared synthetic lycopene (10.1 mg per day), a natural tomato extract containing 9.8 mg of lycopene per day plus additional amounts of other carotenoids, and a solubilized tomato drink (designed to increase lycopene absorption) containing 8.2 mg of lycopene plus additional amounts of other carotenoids. After 12 weeks, only the two tomato-based products were shown to give significant protection against burning by ultraviolet light.12
It should be noted that while oral protection from sunburn has been demonstrated with several types of antioxidants, the degree of protection (typically less than an SPF of 2) is much less than that provided by currently available topical sunscreens. On the other hand, these modest effects will provide some added protection to skin areas where sunscreen is also used and will give a small amount of protection to sun-exposed areas where sunscreen is not applied. However, oral protection from sunburn is not instantaneous; maximum effects are not reached until these antioxidants have been used for about eight to ten weeks.13, 14
1. Fuchs J. Potentials and limitations of the natural antioxidants RRR-alpha-tocopherol, L-ascorbic acid and beta-carotene in cutaneous photoprotection. Free Radic Biol Med 1998;25:848-73 [review].
2. Werninghaus K, Meydani M, Bhawan J, et al. Evaluation of the photoprotective effect of oral vitamin E supplementation. Arch Dermatol 1994;130:1257-61.
3. Fuchs J, Kern H. Modulation of UV-light-induced skin inflammation by D-alpha-tocopherol and L-ascorbic acid: a clinical study using solar simulated radiation. Free Radic Biol Med 1998;25:1006-12.
4. Eberlein-Konig B, Placzek M, Przybilla B. Protective effect against sunburn of combined systemic ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and d-alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E). J Am Acad Dermatol 1998;38:45-8.
5. McArdle F, Rhodes LE, Parslew RA, et al. Effects of oral vitamin E and beta-carotene supplementation on ultraviolet radiation-induced oxidative stress in human skin. Am J Clin Nutr 2004;80:1270-5.
6. Garmyn M, Ribaya-Mercado JD, Russel RM, et al. Effect of beta-carotene supplementation on the human sunburn reaction. Exp Dermatol 1995;4:104-11.
7. Wolf C, Steiner A, Honigsmann H, et al. Do oral carotenoids protect human skin against UV erythema, psoralen phototoxicity, and UV-induced DNA damage? J Invest Dermatol 1988;90:55-57.
8. Mathews-Roth MM, Pathak MA, Parrish J, et al. A clinical trial of the effects of oral beta-carotene on the responses of human skin to solar radiation. J Invest Dermatol 1972;59:349-53.
9. Gollnick HP, Hopfenmuller W, Hemmes C, et al. Systemic B-carotene plus topical sunscreen are an optimal protection against harmful effects of natural UV-sunlight. Eur J Dermatol 1996;6:200-5.
10. Lee J, Jiang S, Levine N, Watson RR. Carotenoid supplementation reduces erythema in human skin after simulated solar radiation exposure. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med 2000;223:170-4.
11. Heinrich U, Gartner C, Wiebusch M, et al. Supplementation with beta-carotene or a similar amount of mixed carotenoids protects humans from UV-induced erythema. J Nutr 2003;133:98-101.
12. Aust O, Stahl W, Sies H, et al. Supplementation with tomato-based products increases lycopene, phytofluene, and phytoene levels in human serum and protects against UV-light-induced erythema. Int J Vitam Nutr Res 2005;75:54-60.
13. Sies H, Stahl W. Nutritional protection against skin damage from sunlight. Annu Rev Nutr 2004;24:173-200 [review].
14. Sies H, Stahl W. Carotenoids and UV protection. Photochem Photobiol Sci 2004;3:749-52 [review].
Lycopene, an antioxidant related to beta-carotene and found in tomatoes, helps reduce the symptoms of asthma caused by exercising. In one double-blind trial,1 over half of people with exercise-induced asthma had significantly fewer asthma symptoms after taking capsules containing 30 mg of lycopene per day for one week compared to when they took a placebo.
The carotenoid, lycopene, has been found to be low in the blood of people with atherosclerosis, particularly if they are smokers.1 Although no association between atherosclerosis and blood level of any other carotenoid (e.g., beta-carotene) was found, the results of this study suggested a protective role for lycopene. Lycopene is present in high amounts in tomatoes.
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The information presented by Healthnotes is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications. Information expires December 2018.