Showing posts with label damage from free radicals. Show all posts
Showing posts with label damage from free radicals. Show all posts

Monday, June 3, 2013

What the Heck are Antioxidants Anyway?

Antioxidants is another one of those buzz words you’ll hear in nearly any conversation these days when the topic is healthy eating or healthy living.  There’s a good reason.  Antioxidants have the power to help you avoid illness, recover from injury, and expand longevity.  So, understanding what an antioxidant is, and how to get enough antioxidant benefits working in your body, is a worthwhile endeavor.


What is an antioxidant?


Antioxidants are substances that are anti-oxidation – substances that block oxidation from occurring in your body.  

Grandmother and granddaughter

Why is it important to inhibit oxidation?  Because oxidation to cells in the human body is what rust is to metal; it is the breaking down of your body at the molecular level.  And yes, that’s a bad thing.


Why you want to prevent oxidation in your body


When oxidation takes place, molecules experience a chemical reaction – the moving of electrons.  Sound familiar?  If you read our previous What-the-Heck-Is-This-Anyway article, What the Heck Are Free Radicals?, you know that the movement of electrons results from molecular instability and that unstable molecules spread, creating a chain reaction of free radicals that ultimately damages or destroys cells.  When your cells are destroyed en masse, you or an organ within you deteriorates. 

Think about those conditions that you normally associate with aging – dry skin, wrinkled skin, arthritis in the joints, muscles shrinking, hearing or eyesight failing – all of these and other conditions of aging are largely the collective effect of oxidation on your cells. Your cells naturally use oxygen, which can naturally generate free radicals. The damage from free radicals is what scientists believe causes not only aging but such serious illnesses too, such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Thus, anything that can put the kibosh on oxidation is something you want plenty of. 

That’s a lot of bad news.  The good news is that there are oxidation blockers – also known as antioxidants.   Antioxidants neutralize the free radicals by generously donating one of their own electrons, putting the breaks on the free radical chain reaction of electron stealing.


Where do I find antioxidants?


Your best source of antioxidants are foods that are high in vitamin A, vitamin C, or vitamin E.  These are the foods with the ability to remove potentially damaging oxidizing agents, empowering your body to stop the free radical molecules that damage your body’s cells.  Not only do the antioxidants in these foods help repair the damage from free radicals but also continue to prevent further damage.

Vitamins C and E in particular appear to protect your body from the destructive effects of free radicals.  Vitamin E and vitamin C are the most abundant and efficient antioxidants in your body. 
  • Vitamin C in particular does a bang-up job of combating the free radicals that occur as a result of pollution and cigarette smoke.  As well, high vitamin C intake appears to lower rates of many forms of cancer, but especially cancers of the esophagus, mouth, and larynx.
  • Vitamin E in particular squelches cardiovascular disease, which it does by defending your cells against LDL cholesterol oxidation and by preventing plaque from forming in your arteries.
There are many foods high in antioxidants – foods that are packed with naturally occurring vitamin E, vitamin C, and beta-carotene (vitamin A).  Your dietary hit list should include such foods as:
    Turmeric powder
  • Apricots
  • Bell peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Citrus fruits
  • Egg
  • Liver
  • Melons
  • Nuts
  • Oily fish
  • Seeds
  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Squash
  • Yams
There’s also an herb you likely have in your cabinet that is high in antioxidant compounds: turmeric.  Turmeric, which adds a golden-yellow color to foods and is popular in Indian recipes, is a powerful antioxidant.  To boost your turmeric input serve up some Turmeric Chicken, Sweet Potato, Corn and Kale Chowder with turmeric, or this Creamy Lentil Soup With Caramelized Onion recipe, also high in turmeric.


How do I get more antioxidants?


The answer is: don’t.  While scientists are increasingly confident that antioxidants help your body protect itself from free-radical oxidation damage, more is not necessary better.

Some recent studies suggest that the process of trying to max out on antioxidants, a process known as antioxidant therapy, has no effect on mortality and may even make matters worse. Trying to up your antioxidant intake by ingesting lots of vitamin pills has not proven out in these studies to be a safe alternative to getting your antioxidant vitamin intake from natural food sources. 

Some studies using vitamin pills even appear to suggest that they can have a negative effect on your body’s ability to fight free radicals, concluding that they had no benefit and, in the case of vitamin A, may have an adverse effect on the incidence of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Foods high in antioxidants


Best source of antioxidants: food


While studies have not yet identified why pills react differently in our bodies than foods with the same antioxidants, scientist believe it may be because many other substances within the antioxidant food sources are working in conjunction with the food's’ vitamins to create the beneficial antioxidant effects.

Until we understand why vitamin pills affect the body differently than vitamins sourced from food, just aim to get your antioxidants the good old fashioned way: from a healthy, balanced diet, which should include at least five to eight servings of vegetables and fruits, such as those listed above.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer