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updated 3/21/2011 3:49:08 PM ET 2011-03-21T19:49:08

To mitigate the effects of radiation on astronauts, doctors advise a simple measure: Take a vitamin pill.

Along with the anti-radiation drug potassium iodide, scientists recommend a vitamin pill to plug any nutritional deficiencies in the Recommended Dietary Allowance, a standard established by the U.S. National Academy Sciences in 1941.

“There are ways to greatly modify the radiation response,” Ann Kennedy, head of the NASA-backed National Space Biomedical Research Institute’s Radiation Effects Team, told Discovery News.

“(Vitamin) deficiencies appear to be extremely important in determining radiation effects and basically determining the incidences of many, many, many chronic diseases, which would include cancer and cataracts,” said Kennedy, a radiation oncology professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

“It used to be viewed by the AMA (American Medical Association) that a good diet containing all the usual levels of RDAs of things was enough and you really didn’t need a vitamin pill," she added. "Well, they’ve basically reversed themselves over the past several years and are making the statement that every American should be taking a daily vitamin pill for the prevention of chronic diseases -- and that includes cancer."

“I’ve certainly recommended that for people on the space station, as well as anyone else at NASA that’s flying and has a very high occupational radiation exposure and I would certainly recommend that for all those in Japan exposed to higher than normal doses of radiation," she said. "I think it’s just as important for them to be getting a vitamin tablet every day as it is to be taking potassium iodide."

If the radiation exposure levels of workers battling Japan’s crippled nuclear reactors are correct, the amount rivals what astronauts traveling beyond the protective bubble of Earth’s magnetic field would receive, though the types of radiation are different.

“Workers now at the plant -- (who) are apparently receiving high doses of radiation and they are not very well protected -- could be in a similar range (of exposure) to those that an astronaut will encounter during a solar particle event (solar storm),” said Marcelo Vazquez, who previously oversaw research at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven.

“The quality of radiation is quite different,” Vazquez, now an independent consultant, told Discovery News. “But those workers are apparently close to suffering acute radiation effects.”

With the long-term goal of sending humans beyond the space station, which orbits about 220 miles above the planet, NASA has been working on understanding how radiation affects the human body and what can be done to prevent, restrict and reverse its damage. Potential drugs and protocols, including extracts of blueberries and strawberries, are being studied.

“Anything that can be learned from the research can be applicable to Earth conditions, like what’s actually happening in Japan right now,” Vazquez said.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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