It wasn’t that long ago when, upon hearing the term “antioxidant,” one would have heard the response, “Auntie who?” Today, it’s all the rage in health supplements. They’re equated with anti-wrinkles, anti-aging, anti-cancer and so much more. So, what are they? Do they really make us healthier? Should we be buying supplements? Here’s an introductory course on antioxidants.
The human body is truly a miracle by design. Electrons, neutrons and protons combine to make chemical elements. Chemicals combine to make chemical compounds and then cells. The cells react with each other to create systems. Systems connect and interconnect to become a living human being. It doesn’t take much to disrupt this delicately balanced system. Another true miracle is that the human body can continue to thrive after the amount of disruptions we throw at it.
One disruption at the molecular level is in the form oxidization. For a visual reference, think of rust on iron, patina on copper, and a host of foods that turn brown when cut, including apples, potatoes, mushrooms and avocados. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are highly unstable molecules (free radicals) that contain oxygen. They oxidize a variety of different molecules and create a chain reaction that causes even more damage before finally stabilizing. These free radicals form naturally in our bodies as we age, breathe and exercise. Even more free radicals are introduced by toxins and radiation. Before the reaction deteriorates, these criminals do a lot of molecular damage. This damage accumulates in our bodies to age us and wreak a lot of health havoc.
To protect against some of this damage, our heroes, antioxidants, come along to save the day. Some antioxidants stop the reaction shortly after it starts, while some prevent the reaction from starting. Both occur through oxidation of the antioxidant, chemically altering the molecule. Although antioxidants will not undo the damage already done in the body, they may allow the body to “catch up” and heal itself by slowing the rate of damage in the future.
Antioxidants are a group of nutrients that help protect your body from attack. There are many types of antioxidants, and each one does a different job. Here are a few critical antioxidants and the foods that contain them. Remember the foods that change color after being exposed to the air? Yep. They are there. The same properties that turn the apple brown will help to protect our bodies from molecular damage.
- Beta-carotene: found in apricots, cantaloupe, kale, mangoes, papaya, peppers, pumpkin, spinach, squash and sweet potatoes.
- Vitamin C: found in broccoli, cantaloupe, citrus fruits, leafy green vegetables, peppers, potatoes, strawberries and tomatoes.
- Vitamin E: found in almonds, avocado, leafy green vegetables, liver, olives, peanuts, seeds, vegetable oils, walnuts and wheat germ.
- Phytochemicals (Certain phytochemicals in these foods are recognized as antioxidants): onions, garlic, leeks, chives, tomatoes, carrots, watermelon, kale, spinach, turmeric, grapes, blueberries, strawberries, cherries, apples, grapefruit, cranberries, raspberries, blackberries, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts, legumes, natural cocoa powder, cauliflower, cabbage, seeds, citrus fruit peels, nuts, grapefruit, mushrooms and tea.
- Selenium: found in Brazil nuts, beef, brown rice, chicken, pork, seafood, and whole wheat bread.
- Ubiquinol (Co-Q 10): found in fish, meat, poultry, nuts and seeds.
Whoa! That’s a lot! Wouldn’t supplements be so much easier? Not really. Many antioxidants are not absorbed properly when taken in supplement form. Most are harmful if too much is consumed. Some antioxidants even interfere with the effectiveness of certain medications. It’s also very difficult to determine the proper amounts to be taken by each individual. A smoker will need more of one kind while someone who has had many x-rays will need a different kind.
Most nutrition experts agree that the very best way to get your antioxidants is to eat them fresh and mostly raw. For someone who is already healthy, eating a wide variety of healthy foods will allow your body to maintain its balance. For people who have a diet heavy in processed food, have had many x-rays or radiation treatment, take medications, drink, smoke, or are otherwise exposed to toxins, you may need a little extra help. One of the best lifestyle changes you can make to add antioxidants to your diet is to eat vegetables and fruit in every color of the rainbow. Believe it or not, there are many other foods that are rich in antioxidants, as well. Stay tuned for some follow up articles on this topic; you may find a way to include antioxidants in your diet you never knew before.
Meanwhile, how do you get your antioxidants? What is your favorite antioxidant-rich food? I’d love to hear from you!