You’ve no doubt heard that certain foods like berries and wine should be consumed because they contain antioxidants (as if you needed a reason). Maybe they talked you into grabbing a bottle of expensive supplements off the shelf because of their great antioxidant properties. But what are antioxidants, and what do antioxidants actually do?
As long as you are a living, breathing person moving through the world, your cells fight a constant battle against free radical damage. Free radicals are molecules like reactive oxygen species (ROS) and reactive nitrogen species (RNS) that cause oxidation, DNA damage, protein modification, and in the worst case, cell death. And they are impossible to avoid. Free radicals are normal byproducts of cellular metabolism and exercise. It also accumulates free radicals from exposure to radiation, smoke, and everyday environmental pollutants.
If your body didn’t have a way to deal with these marauders, you’d be in a world of trouble. Fortunately, however, nature has an answer: antioxidants.
What do antioxidants do?
Antioxidants serve as a powerful first line of defense against free radicals, preventing their formation and neutralizing their effects.
Free radicals are complicated little molecules. On the one hand, they cause oxidative damage, or oxidative stress, in the body. Too much oxidative stress contributes to aging and probably all chronic diseases. That’s the bad new.
At the same time, oxidative stress is beneficial, even necessary, in the right amounts. In fact, the body is naturally happier in a state of mild oxidative stress. Mild oxidative stress is hormetic, which means that it causes beneficial adaptations that make you stronger, healthier, and more resistant to future stressors. The trick is to keep the balance right. That’s where antioxidants come in.
Antioxidants are responsible for maintaining the correct level of free radicals in the body (also known as redox homeostasis). For decades, scientists have believed that antioxidants work primarily by donating electrons to free radicals, making them less reactive and less destructive. More recently, researchers have also hypothesized that they might exert their effects in other ways, such as by acting on the microbiome either epigenome.
Types of antioxidants and where to find them
Your body makes some antioxidants on its own. Glutathione and uric acid are two endogenous antioxidants you’ve probably heard of. melatoninIt also has powerful antioxidant properties. Most, however, comes from food. Colorful plant foods get most of the credit for being high in antioxidants, but as you’ll see, nutrient-dense animal foods contribute here, too.
Antioxidants found in food include vitamins, minerals, and the various -noids detailed below.
Antioxidant vitamins and minerals
Vitamin A (retinol), vitamin C (ascorbic acid, ascorbate) and vitamin E (tocopherols, tocotrienols) all have been identified as antioxidant nutrients. Animal products (eggs, fish, organ meats, dairy products) are the best dietary sources of vitamin A. Fruits and vegetables, especially red bell peppers, citrus fruits, and guavadeliver the vitamin C you need, while nuts and seeds are better for vitamin E.
Certain minerals are also praised for their antioxidant properties, as they act directly as antioxidants or as cofactors of enzymatic reactions that dampen free radical damage. include copper, zinc, selenium, iron and manganese. To get more of these trace minerals from your diet, focus on shellfish, nuts and seeds, and organ meats.
Flavonoids (also called bioflavonoids) are polyphenolic pigment compounds that are present in most flowering plants. They tend to cluster under anthocyanidins, proanthocyanins and phenols. Research links flavonoids to many important health benefits, including being anti-inflammatory and protecting against diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. These effects are likely due, at least in part, to its antioxidant effects and its ability to chelate (bind with) metals that can increase free radicals. The flavonoid antioxidants also pack a double whammy by enhancing the antioxidant capabilities of vitamin C.
Find flavonoids in fruits and vegetables, tea and cocoa (a good reason to eat more dark chocolate).
Carotenoids are another type of polyphenol pigment. beta carotene is the most studied, but there are dozens more in the human diet, including lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene. Certain carotenoids, including beta-carotene, can also be converted to vitamin A.
Colorful fruits and vegetables contain carotenoids, especially those colored red, yellow, and orange. Skip the egg white omelets and stick to egg yolks for the lutein, too.
Antioxidant enzymes are superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT) and glutathione peroxidase (GPx). (The latter is not the same as glutathionealthough their activities are closely related. (Glutathione is also an important antioxidant, the so-called master antioxidant.)
Like the other antioxidants, these enzymes are widely found in Primal foods, such as dark leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables. Importantly, antioxidant enzymes work in conjunction with the mineral cofactors listed above, so don’t neglect those trace minerals.
How many antioxidants do you need?
You can’t really measure how many antioxidants you get in a day. A better approach is to focus on eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods like oysters, organ meats, and egg yolks, plus dark green leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables. Add a Brazil nut or two for selenium (don’t overdo it). Add other products to give it color.
If it sounds like you’re describing the Primary Plane Food Pyramid, you’re right. And that is not a coincidence. When you eat the way nature intended, you get the right balance of nutrients and enzymes without a lot of fuss. if you like food tracking, it certainly doesn’t hurt to watch your intake of the antioxidant vitamins and minerals discussed here. Make sure you hit the RDA most of the time.
Picky eaters may also consider supplement with antioxidants, though that strategy is surprisingly controversial. In any case, it’s preferable to get your nutrients packed into your whole food matrices when you can. You can’t overdo the antioxidants in whole foods, and you get all the other good stuff: other nutrients, fermentable fiber for your gut microbes, amino acids, and wholesome foods. fats—who come with them.
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