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Muscular Dystrophy — Treatment
Although there are many different types of muscular dystrophy, they all involve the degeneration and weakening of muscle tissue and most are associated with well-defined genetic variants. The degree to which genes influence the age of onset, severity and course of the disease depends on the type of muscular dystrophy that affects the individual.
As scientists continue to discover genes related to specific diseases, they are finding that we all have different levels of gene-based predispositions to many different degenerative diseases like cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. However, they have also established that the onset and severity of these diseases are strongly affected by environmental factors like diet, smoking, and occupation. Because of the strong genetic influences that characterize muscular dystrophy, it is only recently that researchers have begun to look at non-drug strategies to treat this group of diseases. At the moment antioxidants are attracting the most attention in this regard.
Antioxidants, free radicals and oxidative stress
To appreciate why antioxidants should be useful in the treatment of muscular dystrophy, we need to appraise the important role that this diverse group of bio-active compounds plays in the maintenance of health and the prevention of disease.
An antioxidant is a substance that, by being oxidized itself, protects other chemicals and substances from oxidation. They play a vital role in limiting the damaging effects of the oxidative processes that have been implicated in the development of most degenerative disorders and the aging process.
Oxidation is caused and perpetuated by free radicals (also known as radicals and reactive oxygen species). The unpaired electron common to all free radicals makes these molecules highly reactive and causes them to oxidise other substances. Their targets are many and varied: DNA, cells, proteins, fats, and other molecules are all vulnerable to oxidative attack. Unless free radicals are intercepted by antioxidants, the targeted molecules become free radicals themselves. This results in the development of a highly damaging "oxidative cascade" that continues to produce more and more free radicals and leads to an unhealthy condition called "oxidative stress".
The consumption of a wide array of antioxidants is essential for protection against oxidative stress. There are no antioxidants, weak or strong, that can neutralize all free radical species. As some of them are effective against certain free radicals but not others, consuming an assortment of antioxidants ensures that the body is able to tackle all types of damaging radicals. This also enables the antioxidants to work optimally, as many operate synergistically with one another. Moreover, different antioxidants tend to locate preferentially in different types of tissues and cells. For example some antioxidants can cross the blood-brain barrier while others do not have this facility. Certain antioxidants are only effective in lipid-containing areas of the cell, while others work more efficiently in the watery parts of the cell. This is another reason why we should take a wide range of these vital compounds rather than one or two so-called "strong" antioxidants.
Muscular dystrophy and oxidative stress
Recent research has provided conclusive evidence that, at least in the types of muscular dystrophies studied to date, free radical damage and oxidative stress play a very important role in the progression of these diseases. In several different studies, humans with myotonic dystrophy and mice with a muscular dystrophy gene were found to be suffering from free radical overload and oxidative stress.
In another series of studies the food given to dystrophic mice was supplemented for several weeks with different antioxidants, including the green tea antioxidant, epigallocatechin gallate. The studies showed that both the muscle power of the treated mice was significantly improved and the necrosis (death) of the muscle tissue was dramatically reduced in those mice taking the green tea extract. The results of these studies have prompted their authors to recommend that antioxidants should now be looked at as possible therapies for muscular dystrophy.
General guidelines for antioxidant use
In any condition in which oxidative stress plays a prominent role — and we now know that people with muscular dystrophy are under continuous oxidative stress — it is important to supplement the antioxidants produced by the body with a dietary source of antioxidants.
The best way to obtain antioxidants in optimal amounts is to eat an extensive selection of antioxidant-rich foods.
Spices the best source of antioxidants
As a general rule, strongly colored or strongly flavored plant foods contain the greatest quantity and range of antioxidant compounds.
However, it is culinary herbs and spices that have the highest antioxidant concentrations of all food groups and they are the best source of these vital compounds — some may contain up to 25 different antioxidant compounds. A scientific survey published in 2006 found that of the leading antioxidant foods in the USA (that included fruit and vegetables) 25% were spices. Moreover clove, oregano, turmeric, ginger and cinnamon were the top five foods on that list!
Treatment of muscular dystrophy with antioxidants
Where does this research leave sufferers of muscular dystrophy? Do they wait for clinical trials to be carried out or can they start doing something about the free radical damage that has now been shown to be an integral part of their disease?
A commonsense approach is needed in respect of both the expectations generated by this research and the way the treatment is administered.
We now know for certain that oxidative stress is an important factor in the progression of muscular dystrophy. We also know that there are no clinical trials to show whether epigallocatechin gallate or any other antioxidant will have the same beneficial effect in humans as they do in mice. It is also important to note that it is not a good idea to take large doses of any one antioxidant be it vitamin C, E, or any other so-called "strong" antioxidant as, beyond a certain threshold, any beneficial substance can become harmful.
Taking into account the research that has been done to date it is safe to assume that those suffering from muscular dystrophy may benefit by increasing their intake of antioxidants. They can do this by adding more antioxidant rich foods to their diet and/or taking a well-balanced antioxidant supplement. These are non-specific measures that can be taken by anyone who has a condition in which oxidative stress plays an important role.
Until clinical trials have identified specific antioxidants that have good therapeutic and safety profiles it is advisable that those with muscular dystrophy take a wide range of food-sourced antioxidants rather than high doses of one or two of these compounds.
About The Author:
Keith Scott is a medical doctor who has a particular interest in nutrition. He is the author of several books including the best selling Natural Home Pharmacy and more recently the ground breaking, Medicinal Seasonings, The Healing Power of Spices. Find out more about the use of spices in the prevention and treatment of diabetes and other diseases at: http://medspice.com. Scientific references for this article are available at: http://medspice.com/content/view/109/47.
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