Most cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), as well as age-related cardiovascular alterations, are accompanied by increases in oxidative stress, usually due to increased generation and/or decreased metabolism of ROS (reactive oxygen species; for example superoxide radicals) and RNS (reactive nitrogen species; for example peroxynitrite). The superoxide anion is generated by several enzymatic reactions, including a variety of NADPH oxidases and uncoupled eNOS (endothelial NO synthase). To relieve the burden caused by this generation of free radicals, which also occurs as part of normal physiological processes, such as mitochondrial respiratory chain activity, mammalian systems have developed endogenous antioxidant enzymes. There is an increased usage of exogenous antioxidants such as vitamins C and E by many patients and the general public, ostensibly in an attempt to supplement intrinsic antioxidant activity. Unfortunately, the results of large-scale trails do not generate much enthusiasm for the continued use of antioxidants to mitigate free-radical-induced changes in the cardiovascular system. In the present paper, we review the clinical use of antioxidants by providing the rationale for their use and describe the outcomes of several large-scale trails that largely display negative outcomes. We also describe the emerging understanding of the detailed regulation of superoxide generation by an uncoupled eNOS and efforts to reverse eNOS uncoupling. SIRT1 (sirtuin 1), which regulates the expression and activity of multiple pro- and anti-oxidant enzymes, could be considered a candidate molecule for a ‘molecular switch’.

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