What is an antioxidant? You’ve heard the word countless times throughout your life, but if I were to ask you to define it, could you? And could you tell me why antioxidants are good for you? My guess, is you can’t. No hard feelings, that’s why you’re reading this, right!? Let’s expand your understanding about the role these super heroes play in our body and overall health. Off we go!
What Is An Antioxidant?
The roots of the word are anti (to oppose) and oxidant (oxidizing agent). Antioxidants work to prevent or delay the oxidation of our body and all the cells within it. In 7th grade science, my teacher explained it like this - the copper in a penny turns dull and even green, when exposed to oxygen. It becomes oxidized and deteriorates. Our bodies, unfortunately, are just like copper pennies in this sense.
Examples of antioxidants [R]:
- vitamin A
- vitamin C
- vitamin E
The longer our bodies are exposed to oxygen, and the longer we live, our bodies begin to oxidize, a chemical reaction that produces free radicals (cellular byproducts), which breakdown the human body and our physiological processes. [R] The more antioxidants you can get, the better, because they act like little super fighters for health in the body. The less antioxidants, the more oxidative your body becomes.
Antioxidants come from a lot of different sources. Our bodies naturally produce antioxidants (such as glutathione) and we get them from our diet, typically from fruits and vegetables. [R] These nutrients that come from food our bodies often do not produce, making them essential nutrients.
Still with me?
What Is A Free Radical In The Body?
Free radicals are a byproduct of cellular activities. Everyone has free radicals and our bodies will always be producing them, through the process of oxidation. Everything from the food we eat, to the exercise we perform, to the stress we endure, is creating free radicals. [R] Free radicals in the body can also be generated as a response to environmental factors/sources, such as pollution, sunlight, and smoke, for example.
Examples of free radicals
- hydroxyl radical
- nitric oxide radical
Free radicals are unique in that they have an uneven number of electrons. Why does this matter? Well, it makes them unstable, so they interact with other molecules easily. Since the molecule wishes to be stable, they take electrons from other molecules, which makes the other molecule unstable. [R] The stable molecule becomes unstable because it loses it’s electron to the byproduct, free radical, causing the otherwise healthy molecule to rapidly deteriorate because it has an unequal electron balance [R]
This is how the body breaks down, cell by cell, because of free radicals, and overtime this can lead up to big time damage, like an oxidizing penny turning green. This leads us to the next point - now that we know what a free radical in the body is, let’s dig into what oxidative stress does.
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What Does Oxidative Stress Do?
When free radicals cause oxidative stress in the body, the cells and tissues begin to deteriorate. [R] If it happens long enough, and intensely enough, it can lead to disease that can be otherwise delayed and/or prevented. While yes, we all age and can’t live in test tubes where we’re not exposed to oxygen, we’ll all experience oxidative stress. A major imbalance of free radicals to antioxidants is what you want to avoid over time.
So what is an antioxidant with relation to oxidative stress? Cells that produce antioxidants are able to neutralize free radicals to maintain a healthy balance.
Things that cause oxidative stress:
- Chronic Stress
- Cigarette Smoke
- Systemic Inflammation
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Why Are Antioxidants Good For You?
Antioxidants are great at donating an electron to free radicals missing an electron so that it doesn’t steal them from healthy molecules in the body. This stabilizes them and ends their oxidative and destructive conquest on otherwise healthy cells. [R]
Antioxidants are unique in their chemical behaviors and biological properties. All antioxidants work together like a team, remaining stable, continuing to control and otherwise volatile free radical environment. The more antioxidants you can get, the most positive of an environment you have.
Is All Oxidative Stress Bad?
No, not all oxidative stress is bad. Exercise results in oxidative stress but it’s mainly for regulatory processes and beneficial effects. The oxidative stress is temporary, and while it may increase free radicals, these free radicals actually regulate tissue growth and help the body to produce antioxidants on its own. [R]
Conditions of long-term oxidative stress [R]:
- Chronic Inflammation
- Neurodegenerative Diseases (Alzheimer’s/Parkinson’s)
- Cardiovascular Conditions (HBP, Atherosclerosis, Stroke)
- Chronic Fatigue
- Male Infertility
Another type of oxidative stress is mild and it works to protect the human body from things like disease and infection. That being said, if the oxidative stress is long term, whether someone overexercises or has poor immune function, the body and it’s biological processes (DNA, protein, etc.) can be damaged greatly.
What Foods Are Highest In Antioxidants
The best way to increase antioxidants from your food is to fill your plate with lots of colors from both fruits and vegetables every single day. These are some of the foods highest in antioxidants and the type of nutrient they’re highest in:
Food sources of Beta Carotene
Carrots, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cantaloupe, winter squash, kale, spinach, apricots [R]
Food sources of Lutein
Broccoli, parsley, asparagus, pistachio, eggs, spinach, kale, corn, orange pepper, kiwis, grapes, orange juice, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, peas, green leafy vegetables [R]
Food sources of Lycopene
Watermelons, read oranges, pink grapefruits,Watermelons, read oranges, pink grapefruits, apricots, rosehips come andWatermelons, red oranges, pink grapefruits, apricots, rosehips, guava
Food sources of Vitamin A
Salmon, dairy products, green leafy vegetables, green, orange and yellow vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, squash and fruits such as cantaloupe, apricots, mangoes [R]
Food sources of Vitamin C
Bell peppers, broccoli, baked potatoes, kiwi, citrus fruits, guava, papaya, berries, tomatoes and most fruits and greens, peppers, strawberries, blackcurrants, brussels sprouts [R]
Food sources of Vitamin E
Wheat germ oil, nuts and seeds, almonds, hazelnut, sunflower seeds, flaxseed, Chia seeds, spinach, broccoli, peanuts, beet greens, spinach, collard greens, pumpkin, red bell pepper
Food sources of Selenium
Brazil nuts, fish, eggs, chicken, beef, poultry, sunflower seeds, Chia seeds, couscous, yogurt, yeast, pork, milk, chocolate, liver [R]
Food sources of Zinc
Poultry, seafood, beans, nuts, whole grains, dairy products, red meat, shellfish, eggs, dark chocolate [R]
Antioxidant Supplements Health Benefits - What To Look For
While I’d love to sit here and say all of our diets include the most fruits, vegetables, quality meats and seafoods and that we get all our nutrients from food, I can’t in good faith. Why? Because we’re missing quality nutrients - this is where supplements come into play.
Supplements are meant to be just that, supplemental, and they’re never intended to replace a well rounded diet. That being said, they can play a big role in reducing the negative signs of aging and improving overall health.
These are some of the supplements to look for that are highest in antioxidants (like EGCG [epigallocatechin gallate]) and the type of nutrient they’re highest in:
Antioxidant Supplements: Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
Antioxidant Supplements: Astaxanthin
Most powerful antioxidant. Improves blood flow, reduces oxidative stress, cardiovascular health, and brain health [R]
Antioxidant Supplements: Curcumin
anti-inflammatory, antimutagenic and antimicrobial properties [R]
Antioxidant Supplements: Grapeseed Oil
cardiovascular health, anti-inflammatory, immune health [R]
Antioxidant Supplements: Vitamin C
immune support [R]
Antioxidant Supplements: Lycopene
prostate health, cardiovascular health, lung health [R]
Antioxidant Supplements: Green Tea
brain function, cardiovascular health, skin health, anticancer properties [R]
Antioxidant Supplements: Lutein
vision and eye health [R]
Is Turmeric An Antioxidant?
We’ll close out on a note about the importance an potency of turmeric. Since we already mentioned the benefits of cur cumin as an anti-oxidant supplement, let’s dig into this powder that originated from Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. While it’s technically regarded as a spice, as time has continued on, turmeric has rebranded as a healthful supplement because of it’s active ingredient, curumin.
Curcumin has been shown to have strong antioxidant properties and anti-inflammatory effects on the body. It works to reduce pro-inflammatory messengers in the body and scavenges for free-radicals to reduce oxidative damage and stress. [R]
When choosing a turmeric supplement, we highly recommend one that combines curcmin with an ingredient derived from black pepper, called Bio-Perine, to maximize absorption. One of the most well-researched benefits of BioPerine is its proven ability as a bioenhancer. Dietary Piperine stimulates the digestive enzymes of the pancreas, enhances digestive capacity and significantly reduces gastrointestinal food transit time [R].
As a food additive, BioPerine can play a significant role in drug metabolism and nutrient absorption. This can be extremely beneficial especially when combined with nutrients, which have poor bioavailability and that are harder to digest such as Curcumin and Turmeric. Studies have indicated that when combined with Curcumin, Piperine can improve its bioavailability by up to 2000% [R].
What Is An Antioxidant: Takeaway
Why should you care about free radicals? Well now you’re not asking what is an antioxidant and why are antioxidants good for you, the important takeaway here is this - antioxidants prevent unnecessary free radical damage. If you can eat a colorful amount of fruits, vegetables, and quality meats, then you can improve the quality of your life, day by day. The goal isn’t to be as healthy as you can just for today, or tomorrow, it’s about being as healthy as you can be as long as you can!
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