The Power of Antioxidants
Many of us are familiar with the term, antioxidants. They protect us from free radical damage and are found in many different fruits, vegetables and even certain types of tea. Through all the information, it might get lost that antioxidants are truly powerful substances that protect the body from cell damage. They are as common as that anti-aging nutrient Vitamin C and as unheard of as bilberry that can help one from night blindness, but are a necessary part of healthy nutrition.
What are Oxidants and Oxidative Stress?
Oxidants are shorthand for oxidizing agents or oxidizing materials. In general, they are substances that are short on electrons, so take them from other substances, namely our body’s molecules. This process may render them unstable, and when this take place on a regular basis, the process of oxidative stress begins. Free radicals are the most commonly known oxidizing agents and can be created from our internal metabolic processes or found in foods like processed meats and some unhealthy fats and oils.
The Problem with Oxidative Stress
While oxidation is a normal process that results in metabolic waste, oxidative stress is an unhealthy state where the body has an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants. Oxidative stress can damage cells and is linked to a host of health issues such as:
- Chronic internal inflammation
- Premature aging
- Heart disease
- Atherosclerosis (hardening of blood vessels)
- Neurodegenerative diseases (like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease)
- Certain cancers
As we age, our bodies lose the ability to fight the effects of oxidative stress. At the same time, heavy exercise, pollution, smoking, medications and alcohol can all increase oxidative stress. But antioxidants and the foods they are found in can go a long way in neutralizing free radicals or preventing the damage they do to our cells.
The Power of Antioxidants
Our bodies rely on a healthy diet to help fight oxidizing agents and free radicals from the outside, and to maintain toxins from our internal processes, as well. Antioxidants help us in the fight against oxidative stress, and play a role in prevention of many health issues.
The term, “antioxidants,” is not truly a group of substances, but more a description of what some substances can do. While some are made internally, our best source of antioxidants is in the foods we eat. And while it is common knowledge that fruits and vegetables are a great source of powerful antioxidants, it might be surprising to learn that some common nutrients are also in this category. Some common antioxidants include:
- Vitamin A, C and E
This is only a partial list and each antioxidant has its own function, which is why nutritionists encourage people to eat a variety of healthy foods.
The Benefits of Antioxidants
Each antioxidant has a different function for various benefits, and we need a variety of them for good health. Some benefits of antioxidants include:
- Protect Your DNA – Oxidative stress from free radical damages DNA, and as we age the ability to neutralize free radical damage lessens. This is why it becomes more important to consume foods and superfoods with antioxidants throughout adulthood.
- Protect Brain Function – Free radical damage doesn’t stop at skin cells, they can harm or damage brain cells, too. But studies show that the antioxidants luteolin and flavonoid diosmin improve brain function while lowering oxidative stress. (1)
- Better Eyesight – Some antioxidants protect eye health, which is important since cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD) affect millions of people every year. In fact, according to the American Optometric Association, AMD is a leading cause of blindness in mature adults, yet studies by the National Eye Institute have shown that antioxidants can delay or even prevent this debilitating health problem.
- Diabetes – People with diabetes have increased free radical activity accompanied by decreased antioxidant protection, which leads to a higher rate of oxidative damage. And while studies find no evidence that synthetic (man-made imitation) antioxidants do not provide significant protection it is widely accepted that the antioxidants found is food sources are beneficial.
- Anti-Aging – The free radical theory of aging simply states that we age prematurely when our cells are in a state of oxidative stress. Antioxidants can protect us from the effects of free radicals and can help repair the damage. And those who exercise, endure higher levels of stress, lack fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet or who live in higher pollution areas can all benefit from consumer higher amounts of antioxidants to combat the higher risk of oxidative stress from each of these risk factors.
Sources of Antioxidants
It is generally agreed by nutritional experts that food is the best source of antioxidants. As far as supplements, synthetic (or fake) antioxidant supplements should be used with caution while supplements that contain antioxidants from whole food sources can be beneficial.
Because different foods contain different nutrients and antioxidants, consuming a wide variety of healthy foods will help you get a variety of each. The following is a list of some important antioxidants and the foods that provide them:
- Carotenoids are antioxidants that support eye health, immunity and reduce cancer risk. Some of these foods include carrots, spinach, kale, oranges, yams and tomatoes.
- Flavonoids can reduce the risk of certain cancers, is anti-inflammatory and protect skin. They are found in apples, grapefruits, onions, ginger, coffee and green tea.
- Ellagic acid also reduces cancer risk as well as internal inflammation. Foods that are rich in ellagic acid include blueberries, strawberries, grapes, pomegranates, pecans and walnuts.
- Resveratrol is mainly found in grape skins, making red wine a fun and popular antioxidant beverage for some. This antioxidant supports brain and heart health and can be found in blueberries, strawberries, pistachios and dark chocolate.
- Glucosinolates are antioxidants found mostly in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts and bok choy. They are known to support metabolic function, help with internal inflammation and even protect from cancer.
Making healthy and wholesome foods choice like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes a focus of your meal plan can improve your health by boosting antioxidant levels. And a healthy diet provides more energy and immune support so you can enjoy life without health issues. When you cannot get enough antioxidants in your diet, consider supplementing with whole food sources to maintain balance in your diet and health.
1 Yoo DY, Choi JH, Kim W, et al. Effects of luteolin on spatial memory, cell proliferation, and neuroblast differentiation in the hippocampal dentate gyrus in a scopolamine-induced amnesia model. Neurol Res. 2013;35(8):813-820. doi:10.1179/1743132813Y.0000000217