How does BHT work in the body?

BHT, distantly related in structure to vitamin E, is an antioxidant that was once widely used to protect food from damage by oxidation and microorganisms. It is frequently used as an anti-aging supplement.

What we can’t tell you

In the U.S. and some other industrialized countries, government agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have adopted censorship as a method for intensifying their control over the supplement industry and its customers. Thus, FDA regulations prohibit us from telling you that any of our products are effective as medical treatments, even if they are, in fact, effective.

Accordingly, we will limit our discussion of BHT to a brief summary of relevant research, and let you draw your own conclusions about what medical conditions it may be effective in treating.

How does BHT work in the body?

BHT’s medical usefulness is due to two unrelated characteristics: its antioxidant properties, and its effects on biological membranes. BHT’s antioxidant properties are responsible for its benefits vis-à-vis aging, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and brain damage; its membrane effects are responsible for its anti-viral benefits.

As an antioxidant, BHT terminates certain kinds of chain reactions that damage structures in living cells. These chain reactions normally occur during the extraction of energy from fats and sugars, a process which takes place in sub-cellular organelles called “mitochondria”.1 The molecular apparatus for energy extraction has been evolving here on Earth for several billion years, but is still far from perfect — and harmful byproducts are generated along with the energy. One of these byproducts, called the “peroxide radical”, gives rise to chain reactions in which repeated molecular damage takes place until the chain reaction is forcibly terminated by an appropriate antioxidant molecule. The body produces such antioxidants, but not in sufficient amounts to prevent some damage to DNA and other essential biological structures. This is why we benefit from adding antioxidants through supplementation — they neutralize some of the chain reactions that the body’s own antioxidants miss. BHT can serve as such an antioxidant.2

In BHT’s other function, as a membrane manipulator, molecules of BHT merge with the lipid membranes of cells and of viruses that have lipid envelopes (such as the herpes virus). The presence of enough BHT molecules in a viral envelope can alter the envelope’s physical properties enough to make the viral particle incapable of infecting a human cell. This can bring a halt to a viral infection’s spread within the body.

What is BHT good for?

According to the medical research literature, BHT can be useful for:

  • preventing viral infections, such as herpes, and terminating their outbreaks3,4,5,6
  • prevention of DNA damage and cancer by certain carcinogens7,8,9
  • protection of the brain from damage by alcohol10
  • increasing the tissue concentrations of Vitamin E11
  • preventing birth defects in diabetic pregnancies12
  • preventing atherosclerosis13
  • protection from manganese toxicity14
BHT for herpes infections

To put it briefly, BHT has been shown to lower the incidence of herpes outbreaks, and to shorten the duration of those outbreaks that do occur.15,4,16 It appears to work better in some people than in others — perhaps because the susceptibility of human cells to membrane-altered viruses varies from person to person. For some people BHT may be an excellent prevention; for others it may ineffective. There’s no way to predict in advance whether it will work for you — you simply have to try it to find out.

A good, readable review of BHT as a herpes fighter is the one by Ed Sharpe at the website.6 As Sharpe points out, the evidence for BHT’s effectiveness comes both from the medical literature and from numerous anecdotal reports. Since Sharpe’s review was written there have been a few more studies5,3 and lots more anecdotal reports, such as the experiment reported on by Lucky Phoswa of South Africa in his blog.7

While people’s genetic susceptibility to herpes viruses probably varies between individuals, the herpes virus’s susceptibility to interference by BHT probably does not vary from strain to strain. Viruses can develop resistance to antibiotics, which act upon specific viral protein structures that are determined by specific viral genes, but viruses are highly unlikely to develop resistance to a substance like BHT, which alters membrane properties that are not determined by viral genes.

The myth of BHT toxicity

During the 1970s and 1980s, neurotic food-activists scared the public into thinking that BHT and other food preservatives were highly carcinogenic. They succeeded in getting preservatives removed from most food products — and as a result, thousands of cases of food poisoning, some of them fatal, now occur every year that would otherwise have been avoided. Those preservatives were protection against the production of toxic chemicals in food by microoganisms. But at realistic doses BHT is not carcinogenic — in fact, it is anti-carcinogenic.17,8 Our society has paid dearly in both money and health for caving in to the irrational demands of those food-activists.

At high doses, on the other hand, many substances, both synthetic and naturally-occurring, are carcinogenic — they can initiate or promote the growth of cancer cells. All plants, including those we use for food, produce many kinds of substances that cause cancer when fed at huge doses to lab animals.18,19 Cooking generates even more carcinogens in food.22,23 But so what? At lower doses many of them actually protect against cancer. We don’t consume these substances in carcinogenic amounts, and we don’t consume BHT in such amounts, either.

The medical literature suggests that oral doses of BHT up to at least 6 grams/day have no toxicity.20 There is one report of someone who took 80 grams and suffered temporary light-headedness, headache, slurred speech, and unsteady gait.20 It has also been shown that applying BHT to the skin in the amounts used in cosmetics does not lead to any toxic effects.21


Are BHT supplements useful for the conditions and purposes mentioned above? We aren’t allowed to tell you, so you should take a look at some of the references cited here, and then decide for yourself.

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