We all know antioxidants are supposed to be good for us, but most people have no idea what they are or how they work. The reality is, antioxidants aren’t really a thing or a specific substance. Instead, they’re much more of a fighting machine found in a variety of food sources. They fight off free radicals that are linked to causing serious diseases and illnesses, including cancer and heart disease. But what does this really mean for your health and how can you benefit from them? That’s exactly what we cover in this article.
- 1 What Are Antioxidants?
- 2 Free Radicals, Antioxidants and Oxidative Stress
- 3 Factors That Contribute to Excessive Free Radicals
- 4 The Effects of Oxidative Stress
- 5 Where Do Antioxidants Come From?
- 6 How to Prevent Oxidative Stress
- 7 Extra Tips for Increasing Your Antioxidant Intake
- 8 Health Benefits of Antioxidants
What Are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants can be summed up as molecules that fight free radicals in the body. However, they aren’t so much of a thing, as they are an action. Instead, the term ‘antioxidant’ more so describes how a substance works. For example, there are hundreds and even thousands of items that can act as antioxidants, which means that these items have the ability to hunt down free radicals from the body cells to prevent and reduce the damage caused by oxidation. In simpler terms, antioxidants in a substance means that that “substance” can protect cells from free radicals.
Free Radicals, Antioxidants and Oxidative Stress
In order to understand how antioxidants work, you need to first understand free radicals. These are unstable atoms or molecules that can damage cells and cause aging and illness. They come from external sources, such as X-rays, cigarette smoking, air pollutants, and chemicals. They aren’t all bad though, as the body needs them to kill invading bacteria, which is why they also come from normal essential metabolic processes in the body.
However, if free radicals overwhelm the body and make it difficult to regulate them, this causes the body to go into a state called oxidative stress and the free radicals begin to unfavorably alter lipids, proteins, and DNA. This is also when they start to trigger a number of diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, and many others associated with aging.
Thus, it’s imperative to maintain a balance of free radicals and antioxidants for proper physiological function. But since most antioxidants come from food sources, if you aren’t eating enough of the right foods, the free radicals are likely taking over.
To sum all of that up, you need free radicals to fight off bacteria but if you aren’t producing or eating enough antioxidants, the free radicals can begin to wreak havoc on your body. Eating more antioxidants will help maintain a proper balance free radicals for optional health.
Factors That Contribute to Excessive Free Radicals
In an ideal world, the body produces the right amount of free radicals and you eat enough antioxidants to maintain the necessary balance for optimal health. However, there are many lifestyle, stress, and environmental factors that cause excessive amounts of free radicals to form in the body, such as:
- Air pollution
- Cigarette smoke
- High blood sugar
- High intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids
- Excessive sunbathing
- Bacterial, fungal and viral infections
- Antioxidant deficiency
- Excessive intake of magnesium, copper, iron and zinc
- Too little or too much oxygen in the body
- Intense or prolonged exercise
- Excessive intake of antioxidants, such as Vitamins E and C
The Effects of Oxidative Stress
Now that we understand that oxidative stress is what occurs when there is an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants, the next step is to understand the effects this can have on your body. When the body’s antioxidant levels are too low and the free radicals are overwhelming your system, they can start damaging your fatty tissue, DNA and proteins. These three things make up a large portion of your body, resulting in damage that can lead to an abundance of possible health concerns and diseases, such as:
- High blood pressure
- Inflammation and inflammatory conditions
- Heart disease
- Neurodegenerative diseases
Where Do Antioxidants Come From?
While it’s impossible to avoid exposure to free radicals and oxidative stress entirely, there are thousands of substances that act as antioxidants; your body produces some of them to keep free radicals in check. However, most antioxidants come from the food you eat, especially from fruits, vegetables and other plant-based whole foods. Many vitamins are also effective antioxidants, such as vitamins A, E and C.
Some examples of food sources that increase your antioxidant levels are:
- Citrus fruits
- Dark leafy greens, such as spinach and kale
- Red delicious apples
- Granny smith apples
- Gala apples
- Russet potatoes
- Green Tea
How to Prevent Oxidative Stress
Each antioxidant has its own unique function. They are not interchangeable, which is why it’s imperative to have a varied diet. An effective way to prevent oxidative stress is to eat five servings of antioxidant-rich foods each day. To give you an idea of how to switch up the types of antioxidants you eat, here is a more detailed breakdown of the different options:
Fruits: cranberries, red grapes, peaches, raspberries, strawberries, red currants, figs, cherries, pears, guava, oranges, apricots, mango, red grapes, cantaloupe, watermelon, papaya, and tomatoes.
Dried Fruits (water removed and no added sugars): dried pears, plums, apples, peaches, figs, dates and raisins.
Vegetables: broccoli, spinach, carrots, potatoes, artichokes, cabbage, asparagus, avocados, beetroot, radish, lettuce, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkin, collard greens and kale.
Spices and Herbs: cinnamon, oregano, turmeric, cumin, parsley, basil, curry powder, mustard seed, ginger, pepper, chili powder, paprika, garlic, coriander, onion, cardamom, sage, thyme, marjoram, tarragon, peppermint, oregano, savory, basil and dill weed.
Nuts: walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachio nuts, almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts and peanuts.
Beverages: Apple juice, cider, tomato juice, pomegranate juice, pink grapefruit juice, green tea, black tea, plain tea and coffee, as well as red wine and beer (in moderation).
Extra Tips for Increasing Your Antioxidant Intake
As a rule of thumb, foods with darker, richer colors, such as orange, yellow, blue, and red tend to be higher in antioxidants. Here are some additional tips to help you increase your antioxidant intake:
- Include a fruit or a vegetable every time you eat a meal or snack
- Enjoy a cup of green tea, matcha or coffee every day
- Pay attention to the colors on your plate and add in more foods rich in color
- Add a dash of spice into your meals with turmeric, cumin, oregano, ginger, cinnamon and clove)
- Snack on nuts, seeds, and dried fruit (make sure there is no added sugar or salt)
Additionally, you’ll want to increase your exercise as this activates the body’s antioxidant defense systems.
Health Benefits of Antioxidants
The health benefits of antioxidants seem obvious. After all, they fight off free radicals that can lead to serious diseases and illnesses. However, knowing the specific benefits that come from using antioxidants to neutralize free radicals can be an excellent source of motivation to get more antioxidants in your diet.
No one likes the big ‘C’ word, including antioxidants. Research shows that antioxidants may have the ability to prevent some of the damage caused by free radicals that can lead to cancer.
Enhance Mental Health
The brain is particularly vulnerable to free radicals, and the hippocampus (the area involved in learning and memory) is largely at risk as oxidative stress kills the cells in this area of the brain. This can reduce learning and memory, and lead to mood disorders, such as depression. Thus, getting more antioxidants into your body can help keep free radicals and your mental health in check.
Improve Eye Health
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the most common cause of permanent vision loss in people over the age of 60. Antioxidants can help lower your risk of developing it by 25%. If you already have AMD, antioxidants can help you keep more of your eyesight.
Additionally, antioxidants can help lower the risk of cataracts and slow down the progression of cataracts, allowing you to maintain more of your vision longer.
Protection Against Inflammation
Antioxidants can help protect against inflammation, which is known to play a role in diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and cancer.
Improve Heart Health
Research suggests that eating more antioxidants can help lower your chance of developing heart disease and stroke.
Protect Brain Health
Oxidative stress has been linked to damaging and killing off brain cells, and contributing to the development of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s disease. Research has found that antioxidants can not only fight off these free radicals, but they can also reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
Exposure to free radicals is everywhere – from the air you breathe to the products you use, and oxidative stress is impossible to avoid entirely. However, increasing your antioxidant levels and decreasing your exposure to free radicals as much as possible can significantly reduce the effects of oxidative stress on your body.