Free radicals (pro-oxidants) are atoms or molecules with unpaired electrons. These highly reactive substances can be formed in a number of ways, and once formed they may use their reactivity to damage important cellular components – such as the cell membrane – or macromolecules like DNA. This damage can lead to mutation, impaired function, and even cell death. To minimize potential damage from free radicals, the body utilizes a defense system of antioxidants.
Antioxidants are man-made or natural substances that may prevent or delay some types of cell damage. Antioxidants are found in many foods, including fruits and vegetables. They are also available as dietary supplements. Examples of antioxidants include
Vegetables and fruits are rich sources of antioxidants. There is good evidence that eating a diet with lots of vegetables and fruits is healthy and lowers risks of certain diseases. But it isn’t clear whether this is because of the antioxidants, something else in the foods, or other factors.
High-dose supplements of antioxidants may be linked to health risks in some cases. For example, high doses of beta-carotene may increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers. High doses of vitamin E may increase risks of prostate cancer and one type of stroke. Antioxidant supplements may also interact with some medicines. To minimize risk, tell you of your health care providers about any antioxidants you use.
While there are many ways to describe what antioxidants do inside the body, one definition of antioxidants is any substance that inhibits oxidation, especially one used to counteract the deterioration of stored food products or removes potentially damaging oxidizing agents in a living organism.
Antioxidants include dozens of food-based substances you may have heard of before, such as carotenoids like beta-carotene, lycopene and vitamin C. These are several examples of antioxidants that inhibit oxidation, or reactions promoted by oxygen, peroxide and/or free radicals. (1) Research suggests that when it comes to longevity and overall health, some of the benefits of consuming antioxidant foods, herbs, teas and supplements include:
- Slower signs of aging, including of the skin, eyes, tissue, joints, heart and brain
- Healthier, more youthful, glowing skin
- Reduced cancer risk
- Detoxification support
- Longer life span
- Protection against heart disease and stroke
- Less risk for cognitive problems, such as dementia
- Reduced risk for vision loss or disorders like macular degeneration and cataracts
- Antioxidants are also added to food or household products to prevent oxidation and spoilage
Why do we need antioxidants, and what do specific antioxidants do inside the body once consumed?
Antioxidant sources, like antioxidant foods, herbs, spices and teas, reduce the effects of free radicals, also called oxidative damage/stress, which plays a major role in disease formation. The leading health problems facing us today — including conditions like heart disease, cancer and dementia — have been linked to increased levels of oxidative damage and inflammation. In simplest terms, oxidation is a chemical reaction that can produce free radicals, leading to other chemical chain reactions that damage cells.
According research published in Free Radical Biology & Medicine, the official journal of the Society for Redox Biology and Medicine along with the Society of Free Radical Research-Europe, proteins are often targeted by reactive oxygen species, also known as oxidants. (1a) We know how important proteins are to health, so protecting them is just one of the many reasons antioxidants and antioxidant foods are important.
Sources of antioxidants in your diet offer much-needed help in counteracting the damage done by things like blue light or sun exposure, a poor diet, smoking or using other drugs, taking medications, toxicity or chemical exposure, even high amounts of stress and other natural factors that increase the risk of age-related problems. In the process of fighting free radical damage, antioxidants protect healthy cells while halting the growth of malignant or cancerous cells.
Antioxidants are molecules that can safely interact with free radicals and terminate their reactivity before vital cellular components are damaged. Although there are several enzyme systems within the body that scavenge free radicals, the principle micronutrient (vitamin/mineral) antioxidants are vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and selenium. The body cannot manufacture these micronutrients, so they must be acquired by diet. In addition, there are many plant-derived nutrients (phytonutrients) that can act as powerful antioxidants in the human body.
It is impossible to completely avoid damage from free radicals. Free radicals arise from sources both inside (endogenous) and outside (exogenous) our bodies. Oxidants that develop from processes within our bodies form as a result of normal breathing, metabolism, and inflammation. Exogenous free radicals form from environmental factors such as pollution, sunlight, strenuous exercise, smoking, and alcohol. Unfortunately, no antioxidant system is perfect, so cells and DNA damaged by oxidation accumulate as we age.
benefits of antioxidants
Antioxidants come up frequently in discussions about good health and preventing diseases. These powerful substances, which mostly come from the fresh fruits and vegetables we eat, prohibit (and in some cases even prevent), the oxidation of other molecules in the body. The benefits of antioxidants are very important to good health, because if free radicals are left unchallenged, they can cause a wide range of illnesses and chronic diseases.
Antioxidants and Free Radicals
The human body naturally produces free radicals and the antioxidants to counteract their damaging effects. However, in most cases, free radicals far outnumber the naturally occurring antioxidants. In order to maintain the balance, a continual supply of external sources of antioxidants is necessary in order to obtain the maximum benefits of antioxidants. Antioxidants benefit the body by neutralizing and removing the free radicalsfrom the bloodstream.
Different Antioxidants Benefit Different Parts of the Body
There are a wide range of antioxidants found in nature, and because they are so varied, different antioxidants provide benefits to different parts of the body. For example, beta-carotene (and other carotenoids) is very beneficial to eye health; lycopene is beneficial for helping maintain prostate health; flavonoids are especially beneficial for heart health; and proanthocyanidins are beneficial for urinary tract health.
Antioxidants and Skin Health Benefits
When skin is exposed to high levels of ultraviolet light, photo-oxidative damage is induced by the formation of different types of reactive species of oxygen, including singlet oxygen, superoxide radicals, and peroxide radicals. These forms of reactive oxygen damage cellular lipids, proteins, and DNA, and they are considered to be the primary contributors to erythema (sunburn), premature aging of the skin, photodermatoses, and skin cancers.
Astaxanthin, followed by beta-carotene combined with vitamin E has been shown to be one of the most powerful antioxidant combinations for helping protect the skin from reactive species of oxygen.
Antioxidants and Immune System Support
Singlet oxygen can compromise the immune system, because it has the ability to catalyze production of free radicals. Astaxanthin and Spirulina have been shown to enhance both the non-specific and specific immune system, and to protect cell membranes and cellular DNA from mutation. Astaxanthin is the single most powerful quencher of singlet oxygen, and is up to ten times stronger than other carotenoids (including beta-carotene), and up to 500 times stronger than alpha tocopherol (Vitamin E), while Spirulina has a variety of antioxidants and other substances that are beneficial in boosting immunity.
Additional Ways Antioxidants Help Benefit One’s Health
Increasing one’s antioxidant intake is essential for optimum health, especially in today’s polluted world. Because the body just can’t keep up with antioxidant production, a good amount of these vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and enzymes must come from one’s daily diet. Boosting your antioxidant intake can help provide added protection for the body against:
• Heart problems
• Eye problems
• Memory problems
• Mood disorders
• Immune system problems
Top 10 High Antioxidant Foods
Top 10 High Antioxidant Foods List
Antioxidants may be easier to add to your diet than you might think. Based on ORAC scores provided by Superfoodly (based on research from a broad number of sources), below are some of the top antioxidant foods by weight:
- Goji berries
- Wild blueberries
- Dark chocolate
- Artichoke (boiled)
- Kidney beans