Antioxidants, free radicals and oxidation are words that are commonly used these days. If we are concerned for our long term health then we must have an understanding of what they mean and the affect they have on our bodies.
When I first heard about antioxidants, I was a bit confused and didn’t fully understand what they were. So, I read a few books to try and understand their meaning and why they are so important for our health. Even though most of the information that I read was technical, I came to understand the basics. I understood what free radicals are, where they come from and what effects they have on our health. I also understood what antioxidants were and where they come from. I then knew how I could easily and cheaply maximize our dietary intake of antioxidants through food and dietary supplements.
So, what are antioxidants? To fully understand what antioxidants are, what they do and how they work, we first need to understand what free radicals are and how they affect our health.
What are free radicals? How Do Antioxidants Work?
Antioxidants are substances which deactivate free radicals and oxidants, rendering them harmless. In other words, they clean up as many free radicals as they can before damage occurs to the cells. Where damage has already happened, antioxidants come in to repair the problem.
It’s interesting to know that the older you get, the less your body produces antioxidants to keep free radicals in check. As these free radicals accumulate, health deteriorates and the aging process accelerates.What this basically means, if you have enough antioxidants, you stay healthy. If you don’t have enough of the right antioxidants, the free radicals can cause any of the long list of diseases. The older you get the more you need antioxidants.
There are many kinds of antioxidants, some of which are produced in the body, and others, like vitamin C, come from the foods we eat. Have you ever cut up a banana or apple and left them out in the air for a little while? Notice that they turn brown? That is oxidation, free radicals at work. They attack the cell walls and make a layer of brown mush on the surface of the fruit. How can you avoid this so that the fruit still looks fresh after sitting out for a while? Just dip it in lemon juice – vitamin C! You fight oxidants or free radical damage with an antioxidant.
So antioxidants, that are found in foods, vitamins, minerals and herbs can actually slow down the oxidation process and help fight the rust and rot caused by free radical damage in your body.
That’s why antioxidant foods and supplements are needed in our diets and the sooner they are included the greater the long term benefits. Many antioxidants also have other beneficial properties, such as being antibacterial and antiviral.
Types of Antioxidants
There are many types of antioxidants, those that are produced by your body and those that come from food sources. Foods contain a mixture of antioxidants and they work in conjunction with each other. Below is information on some of the main antioxidants that come from food sources.
The main antioxidant vitamins are vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin E.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that helps maintain the health of soft tissues like mucous membranes, skin, hair and eyes. Vitamin A comes from two basic forms, retinol and carotenoids. Retinol is found in animal food sources while carotenoids are found in plant food sources. It’s interesting to know that the biggest difference between these two forms of vitamin A is that retinol can become toxic if taken in large quantities over a period of time.
Vitamin C is an important water-soluble vitamin, but also a powerful antioxidant. It scavenges free radicals and oxidants and protects membranes from oxidant damage. Vitamin C is known to help keep your body’s immune system strong and healthy. Vitamin C is also needed by some enzymes to work properly, and also helps your body absorb iron.It also works together with vitamin E to prevent oxidation of LDL cholesterol (bad Cholesterol) that could form plaque in the arteries.The body does not produce vitamin C at all. So you must get it from your diet and supplements.
Vitamin E is also a fat-soluble vitamin and a powerful and important antioxidant. It is noted for its protective effects against heart disease. Vitamin E also supports normal blood clotting, helps prevent anaemia and is associated with healthy nerves, muscle, skin and hair.
As mentioned above, the effectiveness of vitamin E is enhanced by vitamin C. According to the book “The Super Antioxidants by Dr James F. Balch” (1998), one of the benefits of vitamin E is that it helps to reduce vascular stress caused by heavy eating. When a person eats a heavy fatty meal, blood flow decreases for the next two to four hours. This is the lethargic feeling you get after eating a heavy meal. Studies showed that if you take vitamin C and E before a heavy meal, that problem will be prevented. So, next time you eat a heavy or high-fat meal, just take some vitamin C and E beforehand. Seeds and nuts are a great source of vitamin E, especially almonds.
All minerals have antioxidant activity, but not one can be produced by the body. All minerals must be acquired through your diet and supplements. They are essential in the body, since vitamins cannot function without the help of minerals. Two important antioxidant minerals that are talked about often are selenium and zinc.
Selenium is only needed in minute proportions and is essential in the production of certain enzymes in the body. Selenium also works together with vitamin E. Together they increase each other’s effectiveness. It is known to have many health benefits like helping to strengthen our immune system. It has also been known to be important for cancer prevention. It helps also to keep our heart, liver and pancreas healthy.
The best food sources of selenium are organ meats, seafood, grains, nuts, seeds, broccoli and onions. It is also found in herbs like alfalfa, hawthorn berry, garlic, ginseng and parsley. It only takes, one to three Brazil nuts a day to provide you with enough selenium.
Zinc is important for the production of enzymes in the body. It has also been known to enhance the immune system at the cellular level. Zinc is known to be a potent fighter of the common cold. That’s why you might have seen “contains zinc” advertised on the labels of multivitamin supplements, cough drops or lozenges.Zinc together with selenium is known to be good for prostate health.The best food sources of zinc are shellfish, lean meat, milk, grains, lentils and nuts.
Most antioxidants are nutrients that come from foods. The foods with the majority of antioxidants are plant-based like fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and herbs. Unfortunately, many people in western society eat a diet that provides an insufficient amount of dietary antioxidants. That’s why it’s imperative to have a large portion of your diet as plant-based foods because that’s where the antioxidants are.
If you can eat organically grown, great! If you can grow your own fruits and vegetables, even better! I get the majority of my vegetables from my parent’s backyard, where I know they are grown organically, no chemicals or pesticides used and taste fantastic!
Antioxidant Health Supplement
It’s always best to get your antioxidants from natural food sources and consume a diet that is rich in plant-based foods. Unfortunately, due to a number of factors, some people do not consume enough fruits and vegetables on a daily basis.
Are you eating enough fruits and vegetables? Here in the US, the recommended daily amount of fruit and vegetables is approximately five servings a day. If you find it hard to follow the daily recommendation, you can always add an antioxidant health supplement.
There are also a number of environmental and lifestyle factors, for example, smoking, pollution and processed foods, which affect our body’s ability to absorb and utilize the required nutrients from our food. Again, that’s why it’s a good insurance to take supplements.