You hear a lot about antioxidants being really good for you, but what actually are they?
Antioxidants are chemicals (both naturally occurring and man-made) that can prevent or slow cell damage. An “antioxidant” is actually not a substance; it’s a behaviour. Any compound that can donate electrons and counteract free radicals has antioxidant properties. And what are free radicals you might ask?? Good question!
Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms with an odd (unpaired) number of electrons and can be formed when oxygen interacts with certain molecules. Once formed these highly reactive radicals can start a chain reaction, like dominoes. Their chief danger comes from the damage they can do when they react with important cellular components such as DNA, or the cell membrane. Cells may function poorly or die if this occurs. It’s rarely a good idea to mess with cell structure, and it can get a bit messy when the cells undergoing oxidative stress contain DNA. Oxidative stress has been linked to serious diseases like cancer, heart disease, stroke, aging, diabetes, arthritis, fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune diseases, cognitive decline, and eye conditions like macular degeneration.
To prevent free radical damage the body has a defence system of antioxidants.
Natural antioxidants are mainly found in fruits and vegetables, marine plants, and some seafood that eat marine plants. There are thousands of antioxidant compounds out there, but the most common dietary ones are vitamins A, C, and E, beta-carotene, and lycopene. Antioxidants can also be produced artificially and consumed in supplement form.
What Do Antioxidants Do?
Antioxidants in Action
Antioxidants are one of the first lines of defence that the body employs to keep free radicals in check and prevent them from causing a domino effect of damage on other cells. Antioxidant compounds can “donate” electrons to unstable free radicals so they don’t have to snatch electrons from unsuspecting nearby cells. Antioxidants can also help repair cell damage caused by free radicals.
S0, what’s the catch?
As is often the case with health buzzwords, antioxidants aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. There’s very little actual scientific proof that antioxidants are the magic bullet to protect us from heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
In fact, some studies have shown that consuming extra beta-carotene can actually increase risk of lung cancer in smokers. Several randomized trials have confirmed that cancer patients who took antioxidants supplements during their treatments actually had worse outcomes. In one randomized trial, women who took antioxidant supplements had higher rates of skin cancer than those who didn’t.
Studies involving heart disease and strokes show that antioxidants (even when used in various combinations) have a largely placebo effect (the only exception is vitamin E, which significantly benefited women with cardiovascular disease).
Also, recent research has disproven the idea that all free radicals are inherently bad for health. The body actually requires a certain amount of these infamous compounds to kill cancer cells and bacteria, among other tasks. Overloading on antioxidant supplements can disrupt these beneficial free radical behaviours, leading to disease or illness.
While we don’t know exactly how dietary antioxidants affect disease, a healthy diet with plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, and grains is always beneficial.
Where to Find Antioxidants.
The best food sources of antioxidants include the following……..
Vitamin E is found in nuts, whole grains, vegetables, and vegetable oils.
Vitamin C is found in high quantities in citrus fruits, tomatoes, berries, and green leafy vegetables.
Vitamin A is found in sweet potato, rock melon , broccoli, squash, carrots, kale, prunes, and apricots.
Beta Carotene is found in pumpkin, sweet potato, carrot, and squash.
Selenium is abundant in brazil nuts, seafood and shellfish, red meat, grains, eggs, garlic, and milk.
Lignans in flaxseed, barley, rye, and oats.
There you have it! Antioxidants, free radicals, fresh whole food……all sorted!