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You’ve probably heard about antioxidants. Many different foods and products contain them and claim to offer all sorts of health benefits. Commercials say that if you drink this or eat this or take this, you’ll be getting loads of antioxidants.
But what exactly are antioxidants? Do they really help you? Where can you get them? And should you be making an effort to get them into your body?
Consider this a beginner’s primer on antioxidants. We’re going to break down the what, why, and how so that you have a firm grasp on the nuances of the subject.
Antioxidants are substances that reduce damage due to oxygen, such as the damage caused by free radicals. Well-known antioxidants include enzymes and other substances, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene. These counteract the damaging effects of oxidation.
The human body is made up of substances like proteins, fats and DNA, which are essentially large molecules with dozens, hundreds, or thousands of atoms joined together. Humans maintain their structure and function by chemical reactions known as “metabolism”.
In these chemical reactions, bigger molecules are broken down into smaller molecules, and smaller molecules are organized into bigger molecules. In order for a molecule to be stable, it must contain the right amount of electrons. If the molecule loses an electron when it isn't supposed to, it can turn into a free radical.
Free radicals are unstable, electrically charged molecules in the cells that can react with other molecules and damage them. They can even form chain reactions, where the molecules they damage also turn into free radicals.
Stephanie Liou notes:
Free radical-generating substances can be found in the food we eat, the drugs and medicines we take, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. These substances include fried foods, alcohol, tobacco smoke, pesticides, air pollutants, and many more. Free radicals can cause damage to parts of cells such as proteins, DNA, and cell membranes by stealing their electrons through a process called oxidation.
This is where antioxidants come in. If a molecule loses an electron and turns into a free radical, the antioxidant molecule steps in and "gives" the free radical an electron, effectively neutralizing it.
Although free radicals sound like a dangerous thing (and they can be if there are too many in your body), free radicals are also responsible for destroying infections and bad bacteria that enter our bodies. We must maintain a balance between antioxidants and free radicals to obtain optimal health.
We often hear from the news, healthcare professionals, homeopathic professionals, and others in the medical field that antioxidants provide very specific benefits to our bodies. And there’s much truth to this advice.
Not only do they work to keep free radicals balanced, antioxidants may be good for your heart health and may also help to lower your risk of infections and some forms of cancer. While there is still research being done in these areas, the results have been promising thus far.
Antioxidants are also thought to have a role in slowing the aging process and preventing heart disease and strokes, but the data is still far from conclusive. Therefore from a public health perspective it is premature to make recommendations regarding antioxidant supplements and disease prevention.
New data from ongoing studies will be available in the next few years and will shed more light on this constantly evolving area.
Perhaps the best advice, which comes from several authorities in cancer prevention, is to eat 5 servings of fruit or vegetables per day. We’ll simply say this: antioxidants certainly won’t hurt you and they could play a significant role in your health as you age.
Antioxidant-rich diets also appear to protect against stroke and may also help decrease artery stiffness, prevent blood clots from forming, and lower blood pressure and inflammation.
High-antioxidant fruits and vegetables, such as berries and greens, have been found to minimize systemic inflammation significantly more effectively than the same number of servings of more common low-antioxidant fruits and veggies, such as bananas and lettuce.
As a bonus, fruits, vegetables and whole grains high in antioxidants are also typically high in fiber, low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and good sources of vitamins and minerals.
Antioxidants are not only put into the body through metabolism – some are also stored in the body. The human body even generates its own antioxidants, such as the cellular antioxidant glutathione. Plants and animals, and all other forms of life, have their own defenses against free radicals and the oxidative damage caused by them. Therefore, antioxidants are found in pretty much all foods of plant and animal origin.
However, in order to protect and repair the cells in your body, it is important to make sure you are getting enough antioxidants through the food you eat and/or nutritional supplements.
The most studied antioxidants are vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and selenium. Vitamin C, which is a water-soluble vitamin, cannot be stored in the body, so it’s important to get some regularly in your diet. Sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits, green peppers, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, and strawberries.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means that it can be stored in the liver and other tissues of the body. Sources of vitamin E include wheat germ, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables.
Beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body, is a defense against a particular type of free radical and has been found to decrease free-radical damage. Food sources of beta-carotene include green leafy vegetables, carrots and other yellow and orange fruits and vegetables.
Selenium is a trace element with antioxidant properties. Food sources of selenium include seafood, brazil nuts, eggs, meats, and whole grains.
The best sources of antioxidants are fruits and vegetables. Those highest in antioxidants are berries (strawberries, blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, and raspberries); apples (with peel) are good sources of antioxidants; grapes and most citrus fruits have high levels of antioxidants; stone fruits (peaches, nectarines, apricots, cherries, plums and prunes) and tropical fruits (banana, dates, mango and guava) also have significant amounts of antioxidants.
Many vegetables are also high in antioxidants: Artichokes, kale, and bell peppers top the list of vegetables high in antioxidants. Other options include asparagus, beets, broccoli, red cabbage, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes.
Nuts and seeds are also good sources of antioxidants. Walnuts, pistachios, pecans, hazelnuts, and almonds are some of the top nuts for antioxidant content. Not crazy about nuts? Try sunflower, sesame or ground flaxseed in recipes. Legumes — such as kidney beans, edamame, and lentils — also pack an antioxidant punch.
You can also count on some everyday drinks to help with your antioxidant intake. Toast your health with antioxidant-rich fruit juices, such as pomegranate juice, or a glass of red wine. Even coffee and tea have antioxidants. And while you're celebrating, enjoy a nibble of dark chocolate for another antioxidant boost.
Remember, when it comes to adding antioxidants to your diet, no one food or food group should be your sole focus. Instead, be sure to incorporate a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and drinks into your diet.
Oftentimes, we are too quick to jump to manufactured supplements to balance our intake of appropriate nutrients. However, antioxidant supplements can be useful in supplementing your diet.
Always tell your doctor if you are using a dietary supplement or if you are thinking about combining a dietary supplement with your conventional medical treatment. It may not be safe to skip your conventional medical treatment and rely only on a dietary supplement. This is especially important for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Some helpful supplements include:
The research clearly shows that the metabolism of antioxidants is crucial in sustaining life. Without a proper balance of antioxidants and free radicals, damage will be done to the cellular structures of the body.
We can prevent damage, slow aging, and maintain a healthy body by ingesting sources of antioxidants daily and remembering that supplements are not a good substitute for the antioxidants found in our food supply. In the case of antioxidants, natural is definitely better.
So eat up! Enjoy those veggies and that coffee!