Antioxidants are seemingly everywhere. At some point, you have undoubtedly either seen, heard or used the word to describe a food. Just like vitamins, you know that antioxidants are good for your body, and perhaps you even know to pair it with keywords such as “powerful” when describing them. However, do you know exactly what they are and what makes them powerful? Are they as useful to your body as you have assumed? And what about the arch-nemesis of antioxidants, the evil twins – free radicals? How do they come into the picture?
What are free radicals? Are they bad?
To understand antioxidants and why they are useful, you need to understand free radicals. In chemistry terms, a free radical is a molecule that is uncharged and has an unpaired valence electron. They can be formed when oxygen interacts with other molecules. Free radicals tend to be, with some exceptions, highly reactive towards themselves and other substances because of their unpaired electron. If you have no interest in science, you are probably saying “thanks, that’s really useful”. We sense your sarcasm, so here’s an easier way to understand free radicals.
In order to obtain energy and essentially survive, your body combines the food you digest with oxygen that you breathe in. This is part of a process called oxidation. It results in a loss of one electron. This results in an unstable molecule called a free radical. To make itself more stable this molecule steals an electron from a nearby molecule, in turn making that molecule even more unstable too. This creates a chain reaction that cascades and can cause damage inside your body when they react with important components like DNA or the cell membrane. It can cause those cells malfunction or even die.
Oxidative stress is another term associated with the process and it refers to the total load placed on organisms through this constant production of free radicals through normal metabolism AND other pressures that you or your environment may put on your body. These may be natural or artificial radiation, toxins inside your food, air and water; and other sources such as tobacco smoke.
However, before you jump the gun, understand that you need oxidation to survive. When your white blood cells encounter a bacteria, they utilize oxidation to destroy it. When a cell isn’t behaving the way it’s supposed to, your body once again uses oxidation to get rid of it.
Also, luckily, our bodies have a good defense against these assailants. And they are called antioxidants. So it’s only the imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants is what our main concern when it comes to health.
Just know this: Free radicals are “selfish” molecules that take electrons from other molecules, stabilizing themselves but making the other molecules highly unstable. This results in a domino effect and may cause damage inside your body if they react with your DNA or cell membrane. However, free radicals are not evil. In fact, they are part of a natural process called oxidation (using oxygen to metabolize food to convert it to energy) and they are crucial to your survival; but the imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants is what causes trouble.
What are antioxidants? Are they necessary?
An antioxidant is a substance that can prevent or delay some types of cell damage by hindering the oxidation process. The chain reactions that free radicals start (of stealing electrons) can be terminated by antioxidants. Some antioxidants can be produced by your body, others cannot. Antioxidants can occur naturally in plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, and even less healthy goodies like coffee, tea, wine, and chocolate. Your body’s production of these molecules can decline as you get older.
There are thousands of other antioxidant compounds. They all work and benefit different parts of your body, essentially equipping your body with the perfect combination of defenses to counter any biological problem. Here are some of the benefits of antioxidants:
Repairing molecules that are damaged – Certain antioxidants can repair molecules that were damaged, which is critically important when the damage is in your DNA
Blocking metal radical production – some antioxidants have the power to stop harmful chemicals like arsenic and mercury from forming free radicals by preventing a chemical reaction from taking place.
Stimulating your genes – Certain antioxidants can stimulate genes in your body and provide a natural defense
Shielding your DNA – Antioxidants, such as flavonoids, can protect your DNA from free radicals
Antioxidants are essentially a counter-balance mechanism created by your body to fight free radicals. However, before you load up on antioxidants here’s a few things to keep in mind.
Just know this: Antioxidants work to clean up the mess caused by free radicals and can even prevent them from causing damage. Some antioxidants can be produced by your body others can be obtained through food.
So just load up on antioxidants, right?
After reading about all the awesome benefits of antioxidants, and the harm that free radicals can cause, it’s simple to draw the conclusion that one should get as many antioxidants as possible. Well, it’s not that simple. In the 90’s antioxidants were hyped up by the media because researchers started linking free radicals to chronic conditions such as vision loss, diabetes, and even cancer. So naturally, the savior had to be antioxidants.
But everyone forgot the key to good health – balance. Too much of anything is bad for you. Antioxidants as well. Too much of antioxidants, and they may suppress your body’s ability to determine when to turn on its antioxidant defense system. However, it’s pretty hard to overdose on antioxidants from a diet alone and that’s why most experts agree that sticking to natural sources of antioxidants is often the best solution.
While antioxidant supplements have been gaining traction in recent years, some of them may have a placebo effect and others even a negative impact on certain diseases such as skin or lung cancer.
Just know this: The balance between antioxidants and free radicals is crucial. Too many antioxidants taken through supplements may actually impact your health negatively while getting them naturally through a healthy diet is the way to go.
The best way to utilize antioxidants
When it comes to obtaining nutrients and antioxidants, your primary source should not be supplements. Supplements won’t make up for a bad diet. Instead, a balanced, unprocessed diet filled with healthy, raw organic foods, most specifically veggies and fruits, will help you get the nutrients your body needs for optimal health.
Here are some great sources that are rich in antioxidants:
Fresh, organic veggies. Plant compounds that act as antioxidants, called phytochemicals, can be found in green leafy vegetables. They can reduce inflammation and eliminate carcinogens. To get the most out of your veggies, they need to be consumed raw, steamed or in the form of juice (and pulp). Sprouts (we recommend sunflower and pea for their protein) can be a great source of antioxidants, enzymes, vitamins and minerals.
Fresh, organic fruits. Berries can be the best and most abundant source of antioxidants. Cranberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries contain phytochemicals that can prevent damage to DNA. They can also be great sources of vitamin C, carotenoids, carotenes and powerful nutrients.
Nuts. Hazelnuts, walnuts, and pecans can be a great source of antioxidants and have a myriad of other health benefits. However, it’s important to look for raw and organic nuts that have not been pasteurized nor irradiated. Try to minimize your consumption of peanuts.
Spices & Herbs. These are also loaded with antioxidants. Both have been used for millennia for their power in treating illnesses.
Green tea. We mentioned the power of green tea. It is rich in the antioxidant EGCG, which is considered among some of the more powerful antioxidants. It has been linked to lowered risk of stroke, heart attack, glaucoma, high cholesterol, and more. However, before you grab any tea of the shelf, remember that all teas are not created equal and some may contain hazardous plastic (which leak into tea when brewing), fluoride, and contaminants obtained while growing. To ensure you are getting the best, look for organic, loose-leaf tea from reputable sources.
Just know this: The best way to obtain antioxidants is through clean and healthy food.
These lifestyle changes may increase antioxidant effectiveness
A good quality and healthy lifestyle can enhance what you get out of your antioxidant-rich diet. However, a poor lifestyle can do the opposite and actually contribute to free radical formation. It’s important to combine the two for optimal health. Here’s what you can do aside from a healthy diet:
Reduce and slowly eliminate sugar. Sugars have been linked to more health problems than one person can read. It’s no surprise that sugar can contribute in free radicals forming inside your body. Reducing and eliminating sugars can reduce the total oxidative stress on your body. Focus on eliminating any unnatural sources of sugar, especially from processed foods (and drinks).
Exercise regularly. Exercise in moderation is one of the best things for your health. It can also improve your body’s ability to produce antioxidants. You don’t need to become an athlete to reap the benefits of exercise, just 150 minutes of moderate and 75 minutes of vigorous exercise is recommended weekly. That’s just a little over 30 minutes a day. You can do it!
Limit and eliminate alcohol. Alcohol has been linked to increased oxidative stress and eliminating it or reducing it is a great step for your health.
Get sleep. Sleep is crucial to a healthy lifestyle. It can be detrimental to your body in so many ways to get too little or too much sleep. While you can survive without sleep, a good sleep is a cornerstone of good health.
Avoid smoking. Smoking can help form free radicals, which can also accelerate aging process. It prevents your skin from absorbing nutrients and can accelerate aging and wrinkling. It can also contribute to a variety of other diseases such as lung cancer. Avoid being around people who smoke, because the effects can be just as severe to your health.
Manage stress. Numerous health issues have been linked to stress. Stress can make problems surrounding free radicals even worse.
Other things that can contribute to free radical formation include fried foods, pesticides, and air pollutants.
Just know this: An antioxidant-rich diet needs to be combined with a healthy lifestyle. An unhealthy lifestyle can enhance free radical formation.
Don’t be fooled by the supplement industry
There’s a long line of people waiting for studies to come around so they can profit from them in one way or another. Media outlets spin studies into something that people will want to click on and read. Through this frenzy, companies develop products that capitalize on that. All without firm studies confirming their benefits. The antioxidant craze is no different. Yes, antioxidants are in fact, powerful and crucial to your body, but so are free radicals. The balance of them is what is key to good health.
Focus on getting plenty of antioxidants through a healthy diet and lifestyle. It’s important to note that antioxidant supplements can have benefits but it’s crucial to find the balance between too little and too much. Also, remember that vitamins and supplements are not regulated in the same strict way as food or drugs are by the FDA. Do thorough research when selecting something that will become part of your daily intake.