Antioxidant Vitamins and Trace Elements in Critical Illness

Nutr Clin Pract. 2016 Aug;31(4):457-74. doi: 10.1177/0884533616653832. Epub 2016 Jun 16.


This comprehensive narrative review summarizes relevant antioxidant mechanisms, the antioxidant status, and effects of supplementation in critically ill patients for the most studied antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E and the enzyme cofactor trace elements selenium and zinc. Over the past 15 years, oxidative stress-mediated cell damage has been recognized to be fundamental to the pathophysiology of various critical illnesses such as acute respiratory distress syndrome, ischemia-reperfusion injury, and multiorgan dysfunction in sepsis. Related to these conditions, low plasma levels of antioxidant enzymes, vitamins, and trace elements have been frequently reported, and thus supplementation seems logical. However, low antioxidant plasma levels per se may not indicate low total body stores as critical illness may induce redistribution of antioxidants. Furthermore, low antioxidant levels may even be beneficial as pro-oxidants are essential in bacterial killing. The reviewed studies in critically ill patients show conflicting results. This may be due to different patient populations, study designs, timing, dosing regimens, and duration of the intervention and outcome measures evaluated. Therefore, at present, it remains unclear whether supplementation of antioxidant micronutrients has any clinical benefit in critically ill patients as some studies show clear benefits, whereas others demonstrate neutral outcomes and even harm. Combination therapy of antioxidants seems logical as they work in synergy and function as elements of the human antioxidant network. Further research should focus on defining the normal antioxidant status for critically ill patients and to study optimal supplement combinations either by nutrition enrichment or by enteral or parenteral pharmacological interventions.

Keywords: antioxidants; critical care; critically ill; selenium; trace elements; vitamin A; vitamin C; vitamin E; vitamins; zinc.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antioxidants / therapeutic use*
  • Ascorbic Acid / therapeutic use
  • Critical Care / methods*
  • Critical Illness
  • Dietary Supplements*
  • Humans
  • Selenium / therapeutic use
  • Trace Elements / therapeutic use*
  • Vitamin A / therapeutic use
  • Vitamin E / therapeutic use
  • Vitamins / therapeutic use*
  • Zinc / therapeutic use


  • Antioxidants
  • Trace Elements
  • Vitamins
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin E
  • Selenium
  • Zinc
  • Ascorbic Acid