Antioxidants are one way to protect your body against free radicals. But what are free radicals exactly, and what they do and how do you get antioxidant protection?
Short Answer: eat a wide variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. The longer answer follows below.
Free radicals are highly reactive molecules in our bodies that can cause damage to our brains, neurological systems, and other tissues. They are common by-products of normal reactions.
Fortunately our body has a couple of ways of deactivating these free radicals.
Free radical damage is caused when a free radical does damage to cells and kills them. Kill enough cells and you can kill the entire organism. Kill just enough cells and you can cause disease and illness. This cell damage has also been linked to aging.
Sun Exposure and Free Radicals
For instance, with increased sun exposure and constant tanning your skin will break down faster because of free radical damage. The same is true of smoking. Cigarette, pipe and cigar smoking will break down the skin faster causing you to appear older than you really are.
Antioxidant protection is one way your body can protect you against free radical damage.
The good news is that antioxidants are found in abundance in nature and whole foods. The bad news is that most of us don’t eat whole foods, fruits and vegetables.
Older blood tests weren’t able to fully assess if our bodies were using antioxidant protection against free radicals. Scientists knew that antioxidants would protect against free radicals in the test tube but they appeared to disappear in the body.
With more recent testing researchers are able to find these in the plasma.
Oxidative Stress – Balance is Key
The key is a balance of free radicals and antioxidants inside the body to protect against the free radical damage. Antioxidants can originate from inside the body or as part of our diet.
Oxidative stress reflects an imbalance between the systemic manifestation of reactive oxygen species and a biological system’s ability to readily detoxify the reactive intermediates or to repair the resulting damage.
Disturbances in the normal redox state of cells can cause toxic effects through the production of peroxides and free radicals that damage all components of the cell, including proteins, lipids, and DNA.
If there isn’t enough antioxidants manufactured for the amount of free radicals produced then it’s time to take in more antioxidant protection.
Antioxidant protection against oxidative stress comes from Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, minerals, Zinc, Magnesium, Copper, Carotenoid and flavonoids.
So if the protection comes from vitamins and minerals where does the damage come from? Free radicals can be produced from inside the body when you are under stress, smoke cigarettes, radiation from the sun (tanning), and foods containing heavy metals.
Dietary Sources of Antioxidants
People who eat fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of heart disease and some neurological diseases, and there is evidence that some types of vegetables, and fruits in general, may lower risk against some cancers.
Since fruits and vegetables happen to be good sources of nutrients and phytochemicals, this suggested that antioxidant compounds might lower risk against several diseases. The theory has been tested in a limited manner in clinical trials and does not seem to be true, as antioxidant supplements have no clear effect on the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
This suggests that these health benefits come from other substances in fruits and vegetables (possibly dietary fiber) or come from a complex mix of compounds. For example, the antioxidant effect of flavonoid-rich foods seems to be due to fructose-induced increases in the synthesis of the antioxidant uric acid and not to dietary antioxidants per se.
Antioxidants are found in vegetables, fruits, grain cereals, eggs, meat, legumes and nuts. Some, such as lycopene and ascorbic acid, can be destroyed by long-term storage or prolonged cooking.
Other antioxidant compounds are more stable, such as the polyphenolic antioxidants in foods such as whole-wheat cereals and tea.
The effects of cooking and food processing are complex, as these processes can also increase the bioavailability of antioxidants, such as some carotenoids in vegetables. Processed food contains fewer antioxidants than fresh and uncooked foods, as preparation exposes food to oxygen.
Supplementing your Diet
If you feel your diet doesn’t contain enough variety or you have bad eating habits it would be in your best interest to take a good multi-vitamin that contains many of the antioxidant protection vitamins and minerals.
Unfortunately your body doesn’t absorb vitamins the same from supplements as it does from your diet but when your diet isn’t adequate then they have to come from somewhere.
Remember, that with all things, it is easier to prevent an illness or condition than to cure it. Using antioxidants appropriately should help you to prevent diseases such as heart disease, degenerative dementia, and Alzheimers.
So to prevent free radical damage you should maintain a proper diet as much as possible and take supplements as needed; avoid too much sunlight, cigarette smoking, alcohol and use proven stress management techniques to reduce and manage the stress in your life.
Journal of American Academy of Dermatology: Cutaneous Photodamage, oxidative stress, and topical antioxidant protection
National Cancer Insitute: Antioxidant and Cancer Prevention
ScienceDirect: Lipid Peroxidation, Antiosicant protection and Aging
The Lancet: Antioxidant Protection
Penn State News: Probing Questions: how do Antioxidant Work?
Harvard School of public Health: Antioxidants: Beyond the Hype
Top Photo by Clint Budd