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Antioxidants: The important role they play in your health

We read about antioxidants quite a bit these days. Just about any article on health or foods that are good for your health will discuss antioxidants in some context. It would be easy to assume that everyone knows all there is to know about antioxidants. 

Most of us have read that antioxidants are essential to help prevent cancer. This is the main reason most articles and books talk about antioxidants. But there is much more to antioxidants than a kind of miracle chemical that is in certain foods. 

The chemistry of antioxidants is quite complex. The ways antioxidants work in our bodies is equally complex. That certain foods contain high levels of antioxidants leaves open the question as to how these chemicals work and precisely what they do.  

The key to antioxidants seems to be that the cure is in the same place as the illness. We get an excess of free radicals from our diet, and we provide ourselves with antioxidants through diet. It is mostly in the foods we eat that we find the solution found in antioxidants.   

What exactly are antioxidants? How do they work? What are good sources of antioxidants? And how do we safely include antioxidants in our diets and health programs? There is much more to antioxidants that the accessible sources explain. This guide will introduce you to the antioxidants and how they work.   

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are chemicals that inhibit the chemical process of oxidation. Oxidation naturally releases free radicals, which can cause damage to cells by breaking down the cellular walls. Free radicals can be introduced into the body by other means, often through chemicals that are dangerous to biological systems. 

Some primary antioxidants include vitamins C and E, and what are called carotenoids. These antioxidants are effective at inhibiting the damage caused by chemical forms that are especially dangerous to cells of all kinds. 

As the body processes and breaks down the components of things we eat, the metabolism will free those components that are useful. Still, the chemical reactions will also release what are called Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS). These include things like hydrogen peroxide and hypochlorite, but they also include a wide range of other destructive species.  ROSs react with proteins and membrane lipids in cells. They can also react with nucleic acids, which are the elemental building blocks of DNA. For these reasons ROSs, or free radicals, are a leading cause of a wide range of diseases, including cancer. 

Antioxidants are the primary chemical agent that blocks these free radicals from inflicting damage in our bodies. In addition to the antioxidants mentioned above, other varieties include flavonoids, tannins, phenols, and lignans. All of the chemicals can be derived from the foods you eat. 

There are some vital lifestyle and environmental factors that are known to cause excessive free radicals in the body. These include:

  • Air pollution
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Toxins
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar
  • Eating too many polyunsaturated fats
  • Too much iron, magnesium, copper, and zinc
  • Low oxygen to the body
  • Overly intense and prolonged exercise

While these things lead to excessive free radicals in the body, properly-getting antioxidants in your diet and supplements can combat these free radicals. But this is also a case in which a certain amount of prevention is essential. Avoid smoking, sugary foods, and keep alcohol consumption in moderation to prevent too many free radicals in your body. 

The best sources of antioxidants are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spice. Even cocoa is an excellent antioxidant. One of the collateral benefits of most of these antioxidants is that they are generally high in fiber and low in cholesterol, thus giving the added benefit of being good for your heart. 

Antioxidants benefits

The benefits of free radicals are difficult to list because they benefit the entire body. The way antioxidants help us is through a specific chemical function that has to do with how free radicals impact the body at the cellular level. 

Free radicals contain an unpaired electron. This is a negatively charged particle that needs to pair with a positively charged particle. In the absence of a free element to bond with the unpaired electron will tear at other bonded systems to attach to something. 

What this means is that free radicals literally break parks of cells apart to bond with the elements that make up the cell. Damage to cells and organs begins at the level of the chemical makeup of the cell. 

Antioxidants provide a free chemical site on which free radicals can bond and be safely eliminated from the body. By binding up the unpaired electron, free radicals are effectively converted into harmless elements that are either incorporated into our bodies or expelled through natural processes of elimination. The liver, for example, will remove these elements from the bloodstream, 

Free radicals that circulate have been linked to a number of common and fatal conditions. Free radicals are at least partially the cause of things like:

  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Declining brain function
  • Declining immune system. 

There are in fact, over 50 diseases known to be linked to the presence of free radicals. You can easily prevent these diseases by making sure your diet includes foods that contain antioxidants. 

Types of antioxidants

There are two basic types of antioxidants. Water-soluble antioxidants function inside and outside the cells. Fat-soluble antioxidants function on the cell walls. In both cases, they function by protecting the cellular tissue from damage from free radicals. 

The most common and most important dietary antioxidants include:

Vitamin C: This is water-soluble and also comes in a supplement. 

Vitamin E: Fat-soluble. Vitamin E plays a crucial role in protecting cell membranes from damage. 

Flavonoids: These are plant-based antioxidants. 

Curcuminoids: These are especially notable since they are found in things like turmeric and extra virgin olive oil and also have powerful anti-inflammatory properties.  Inflammation is a normal biological response, but chronic inflammation causes several serious illnesses. 

Sources of antioxidants

There are plenty of dietary sources of antioxidants. The good news here is that many of these foods are simply delicious—foods you eat anyway simply because you like them.

Dark Chocolate

This is healthier than other forms of chocolate. It has more nutritional value, and it is much higher in antioxidants.  Any diet that is rich in plants is high in antioxidants. Plant-based foods naturally contain antioxidants. 

Berries, green, tea, and coffee

Here are some of our favorites. Since most of us start the day with coffee, we are already getting a dose of antioxidants in our morning ritual. Green tea is a great alternative, and berries make a fine addition to any breakfast. 

Meat products and fish

Both are rich in antioxidants. You should pay attention to your meat intake since this can offset the benefit of antioxidants with other things like too much cholesterol.  

Antioxidants tend to increase the shelf-life of many foods. They are frequently added to food products as a preservative. For example, vitamin C is often added to processed foods to preserve the product. 

Pecans

These are a great source of healthy fats and minerals, plus contain a high amount of antioxidants.

Artichokes

Are especially rich in the antioxidant known as chlorogenic acid. Studies suggest that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of chlorogenic acid may reduce the risk of certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Kale

A cruciferous vegetable, kale is a member of the group of vegetables cultivated from the species Brassica oleracea. Other members include broccoli and cauliflower. It is one of the most nutritious greens on the planet and is rich in vitamins A, K and C. It’s also rich in antioxidants. 

Red Cabbage

Also known as purple cabbage, it is rich in vitamins C, K and A, and has a high antioxidant content.

Beans

This is a diverse group of legumes that are inexpensive and healthy. They are also incredibly high in fiber and are a great source of antioxidants. 

Beets

Also known as beetroot, are the roots of a vegetable scientifically known as Beta vulgaris. They have a mild taste and are a great source of fiber, potassium, iron, folate, and antioxidants. Beetroot is also extracted for antioxidant supplements.  

Spinach

This is one of the most nutritionally dense vegetables. It's loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, and is incredibly low in calories. 

Antioxidants side effects

The best way to get antioxidants is through a diet that includes antioxidant-rich foods. These will generally have no side effects. 

If you have difficulty eating a balanced diet, antioxidant supplements can provide what you need. It is recommended that you use a low-dose antioxidant supplement. Side effects associated with antioxidants include:

  • Signs of an allergic reaction, like rash; hives; itching; red, swollen, blistered, or peeling skin with or without fever; wheezing; tightness in the chest or throat; trouble breathing, swallowing, or talking; unusual hoarseness; or swelling of the mouth, face, lips, tongue, or throat.
  • Stomach ache or vomiting.
  • Severe diarrhea.
  • Awful constipation.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Numbness and tingling.

Most of these are rare and are usually the result of taking too much of an antioxidant supplement. In addition to these side effects, there is what is known as the antioxidant paradox. This is a condition in which there are so many antioxidants in your system that they do just as much damage to cells as free radicals. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that natural antioxidants derived from a healthy diet that includes antioxidant-rich foods appear to provide more benefits from the antioxidants themselves. In studies that compared people who got antioxidants in their diet with those who took antioxidant supplements that contained the same level and the same kinds of antioxidants, the people who relied on dietary antioxidants saw more significant benefit than those who took the supplements. There appears to be a synergistic effect that comes with antioxidants that are in foods that isolated antioxidants cannot provide.

Antioxidant dosage

If you take an antioxidant supplement, it is recommended that you take a low-dose supplement, one that includes antioxidants in something like a multivitamin. 

We see above that it is easy to get a boost of antioxidants in your diet. There is such a wide range of dietary sources of antioxidants that are just eating a healthy balanced diet that will provide you with all the antioxidants you need. 

Conclusion

Medical science has revealed a number of causes for many of the conditions that affect contemporary life. From heart disease to cancer, it is now known that many of the sources of these issues lie in the things we eat. Lifestyle and diet are the main causes of modern health problems. Thankfully, the prevention is in the same source. Getting enough antioxidants in your diet can go a long way toward promoting health and avoiding these health problems. 

Antioxidants are known to help prevent cancer and heart disease, among a myriad of other problems. Antioxidants reduce or eliminate free radicals in the body. Free radicals are the chemical leftovers from oxidation as our metabolism breaks food into usable forms. Free radicals tear away at cell ways and cellular tissue, and this leads to things like cancer.

By getting plenty of antioxidants in your diet, you provide your body with a steady source of chemicals that bind with free radicals and make it possible for your body to get rid of them. 

Perhaps the best news about antioxidants is that we can get plenty of them by eating things we already love. Coffee, for example, is one of the best sources of antioxidants. Our simple morning coffee helps keep us healthier than we imagined. 

There are some excellent antioxidant supplements available. Just make sure you keep your dosage low and do not overdo it with antioxidant supplements. Some multivitamins already contain antioxidants for added health. 

The main thing is to pay attention to eating the right foods. By including antioxidant-rich foods, you maintain your health and help ward off some severe illnesses. 

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