Antioxidants could perhaps be the most studied compounds in the history of humanity. And they are so for a reason. In this post, we discuss that very reason. Just keep reading to know what are antioxidants, what do they do for you and ofcourse the benefits of antioxidants.
Table Of Contents
- What Are Antioxidants?
- What’s With These Free Radicals?
- What’s The History Of Antioxidant Discovery?
- What Are The Different Antioxidants?
- What Are The Health Benefits Of Antioxidants?
- What Are The Foods Rich In Antioxidants?
- What About Antioxidant Supplements?
- How To Include Antioxidants In Your Diet
- What Is The Recommended Daily Intake Of Antioxidants?
- Any Risks Associated With Antioxidants?
What Are Antioxidants?
They are the good stuff. Your anatomical superheroes, all set to salvage your body from the dark clutches of the bad guys (the free radicals, we mean). They are the natural compounds found in plant-based foods that fight the harmful free radicals. The most familiar antioxidants are vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and other related carotenoids, and minerals like manganese and selenium.
Before we get any further and understand more about antioxidants, we must first acquaint ourselves with free radicals and their potential ill effects.
What’s With These Free Radicals?
Free radicals can damage your body’s cells and genetic material. They are generated by the body as a by-product of turning food into energy. And they might also exist in the food you eat and the air you breathe. Some free radicals are produced by sunlight’s action on your skin. So to say, free radicals are inevitable. But thanks to antioxidants, they are not invincible.
Free radicals are basically molecules with unpaired electrons, which makes them unstable and chemically reactive. When we are young, our cells harbor a defense system called superoxide dismutase (SOD) that helps fight these free radicals – but as we age, SOD doesn’t work so well. This allows the free radicals to damage our cells, and with time, these accumulated detrimental effects of free radicals show up as aging, fatigue, and other serious ailments like cancer.
How antioxidants fight these free radicals and the resultant oxidative stress is quite simple – they neutralize the free radicals. This reduces their harmful effects on the cells.
Oxidation is one natural process that happens to all. And since it is natural, a diet rich in antioxidants is important to keep the levels of free radicals low and maintain good health. As we age, our body’s natural defense against free radicals and the resultant oxidative stress becomes less effective – which is why a diet rich in antioxidants can help one prevent most of the age-related diseases.
That should help us better understand antioxidants and their benefits. And it’s important we know a bit about their history (as to when they were discovered) as well.
What’s The History Of Antioxidant Discovery?
Though we don’t exactly know who discovered antioxidants, these substances have been mentioned in medical literature dating back to the early 19th century. But by the way, each antioxidant has its unique story of discovery. For instance, vitamins C and E were first researched by doctor Henry A. Mattill during the 1920s to 1950s (1).
And then, we have Joe McCord, another researcher who had discovered superoxide dismutase, which is an antioxidant enzyme.
As of today, the level of antioxidants in any food is determined by the ORAC (oxygen radical absorption capacity) score. ORAC works by testing the ability of a plant to absorb and eliminate free radicals.
Oh yes, we understand. We were here to discuss the benefits of antioxidants, right? Then, why all this? Well, that’s how important this entire deal is – we shouldn’t just be taking antioxidants. We must also understand them. But hey, hold on a bit, and we will get there.
What Are The Different Antioxidants?
It’s important you get a wide variety of antioxidants, and not stick to just one or two. The list of antioxidants consists of those that can be manufactured in your body, and those that cannot be. You can also consider these the different types of antioxidants.
Antioxidants that can be manufactured by your body:
- Glutathione, which protects your cells from oxidative damage
- Alpha-Lipoic acid, which modifies gene expression to reduce inflammation
- CoQ10, also called ubiquinone, which helps reduce the normal signs of aging
Antioxidants that cannot be manufactured by your body:
- Resveratrol, which is found in grapes and red wine, and is known to ward off certain signs of aging (curcumin, which also belongs to the same family of nonflavonoid polyphenols)
- Carotenoids, which are naturally occurring pigments of fruits and vegetables that have powerful antioxidant properties (lycopene and carotenes are two such antioxidants in the family)
- Astaxanthin, which is one of the most powerful antioxidants that scavenges free radicals (others in the same family include lutein and zeaxanthin)
- Vitamin C, which is also called the grandfather of antioxidants and offers astonishing health benefits
- Vitamin E, which is a family of eight different compounds
- Selenium, which is an essential trace mineral.
We also have enzymatic antioxidants that break down and remove free radicals – these include superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase. Non-enzymatic antioxidants interrupt the free radical chain reactions. They include vitamins C and E and glutathione.
And then we have flavonoid polyphenols, which consist of proanthocyanidins, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), quercetin, luteolin, and genistein.
We also have isothiocyanates that, some studies say, are especially beneficial for treating cancer (research is lacking though).
All of this would mean nothing if not for the benefits. So, here you go.
What Are The Health Benefits Of Antioxidants?
Antioxidants fight the disease-causing free radicals, and this is where all of their benefits come from. This act of antioxidants helps fight the signs of aging and prevents several diseases like inflammation, diabetes, heart disease, and vision loss. Antioxidants also play an important role in boosting immunity.
1. Delay Aging
This probably has been repeated so often that it is almost like a proverb now.
Antioxidants delay the aging process, and there are a million studies to prove that. One of them was conducted in Italy, which speaks of how effective antioxidant supplementation is on the aging process. Antioxidants delay or inhibit oxidation, and this improves the body’s defenses and prevents age-related diseases. Vitamins C and E and carotenoids – all of these work perfectly well in this aspect (2). The antioxidant status of an individual is an important determining factor for the age-related diseases (3).
By reducing oxidative stress, antioxidants help us live better lives. And the most prominent of those benefits are for the skin – antioxidants have been found to delay the signs of skin aging (4). They might also prevent hair fall and improve hair health from within – as oxidative stress is also one of the causes of deteriorating hair health.
2. Fight Inflammation
Lack of antioxidant compounds in the daily diet can lead to inflammation and the resultant degenerative diseases. The natural antioxidant sources can even be used as preventive medicine, as per studies (5).
Oxidation happens when oxygen molecules lose an electron and become unstable and morph into free radicals – the unstable oxygen molecule tries to steal an electron to regain stability. This creates a domino effect, causing inflammation. Antioxidants prevent oxidation right in its tracks, thereby averting inflammation in the process (6).
3. Prevent Heart Disease
Antioxidants sure do prevent heart disease. But it takes a network of different antioxidants to achieve that. A network of antioxidants is far more effective in neutralizing free radicals (7). Which is why it is important to consume various foods rich in antioxidants (we will get to antioxidant-rich foods in a while).
Various studies have also shown that intake of antioxidants (like beta-carotene and vitamin C) is inversely proportional to cardiovascular disease (8).
Though there is no research if all antioxidant supplements can offer the same benefits to the heart, natural foods rich in the compounds certainly do (9). Antioxidants have also been found to positively change cholesterol levels, averting heart disease (10).
4. Improve Eye Health
Reports published by the American Optometric Association state that antioxidant supplements can cut the risk of advanced AMD (age-related macular degeneration) by as much as 25 percent (11).
Talking about antioxidants for eye health, astaxanthin could be the best in the league. It is 65 times more powerful than vitamin C and is known to reduce DNA damage far more effectively (12). Other powerful antioxidants for eye health include lutein and zeaxanthin, which can help prevent cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
5. Help Prevent Diabetes
Studies have shown that diabetes is often accompanied by an increase in the formation of free radicals, harmful compounds that we saw can be countered by antioxidants (13). Glucose overload in the blood can also damage cells through oxidative stress, leading to diabetes. Antioxidants, as per studies, can prevent this (14). Use of antioxidants reduces oxidative stress and greatly alleviates most of the diabetes complications.
Other studies also show that a diet rich in plant antioxidants can help blood sugar. The plant antioxidants, especially the polyphenols, were found to lower blood sugar levels (15).
6. Might Cut Cancer Risk
Studies show that the total antioxidant status drastically decreases during cancer, and consuming high antioxidant foods can help improve the symptoms (16). Several other laboratory studies have stated that antioxidants can prevent free radical damage most prevalent during cancer. However, more research is required to substantiate the efficacy of antioxidants in cancer prevention (17).
In this regard, we would like to conclude that several animal studies and laboratory trials did prove that antioxidants can slow down or even prevent cancer development. But large-scale studies have given us inconclusive results (18). So, we recommend you talk to your doctor before using antioxidants for this purpose.
7. Boost Brain Health
It is but obvious that as our brain ages, the nerve cells have a tough time protecting themselves from the damaging free radicals. These free radicals, if left unchecked, can lead to serious neural ailments like Alzheimer’s, dementia, and even depression.
The vitamin E also prevents cell damage, and so does vitamin C. Another antioxidant called quercetin was found to reduce learning and memory impairment as the brain ages (19). Antioxidants can also be beneficial in cutting the risk of neurodegenerative disease.
Vitamin C, as per studies, has a preventative role against stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s syndrome, and Huntingdon’s disease (an inherited brain disease that results in the death of brain cells) (20). Antioxidants are also known to treat mood disorders.
8. Improve Immunity
As per a Spanish study, antioxidant nutrients like vitamins C and E, selenium, beta-carotene, and zinc help improve the immune function – thereby offering protection against infections caused by bacteria, parasites, or viruses (21).
Alpha-lipoic acid, another important antioxidant that we discussed, is found to be more potent than vitamins C and E in strengthening the immune system (22).
9. Enhance Lung Function
Inflammation and oxidative stress increase the chances of developing lung diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Some of the antioxidants that can be useful for this purpose include beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, and resveratrol.
Antioxidants like vitamin C are also found to improve lung function in children (23).
That’s with the benefits. Also, there is one very special use of antioxidants. They prevent rancidity. They are often used as preservatives in fat-containing foods to slow the onset of rancidity (which happens due to oxidation). Natural oxidants that are used for this purpose include vitamins C and E (ascorbic acid and tocopherols, respectively).
You saw all that is good about antioxidants, but how do you get them? Simple. By eating the foods rich in them.
What Are The Foods Rich In Antioxidants?
Based on research (and the ORAC scores), here is the list of some of the foods quite rich in antioxidants. Please understand that the higher the ORAC score, the higher the antioxidant capacity.
- Dark chocolate (ORAC score of 20,816)
- Pecans (ORAC score of 17,940)
- Elderberries (ORAC score of 14,697)
- Wild blueberries (ORAC score of 9,621)
- Boiled artichokes (ORAC score of 9,416)
- Cranberries (ORAC score of 9,090)
- Kidney beans (ORAC score of 8,606)
- Blackberries (ORAC score of 5,905)
- Cilantro (ORAC score of 5,141)
- Goji berries (ORAC score of 4,310)
Other great sources of antioxidants include tomatoes, pomegranates, carrots, pumpkin seeds, strawberries, broccoli, kale, sweet potatoes, red wine (or grapes), and squash. Consuming at least 4 servings of these antioxidant-rich foods on a daily basis can help you maintain optimal health.
The foods are great. But supplements?
What About Antioxidant Supplements?
Though taking antioxidants from natural food sources could always be the best, certain types of antioxidants can be helpful when taken in the supplemental form as well.
Some of the top antioxidants that come in supplemental form include
- Vitamin C
- Lavender essential oil
- Frankincense essential oil
You can check with your doctor or nutritionist and opt for these antioxidant capsules or tablets on their advice.
Wondering how to include antioxidants in your diet? Well, here’s how.
How To Include Antioxidants In Your Diet
You can make your diet rich in antioxidants the following ways:
- Consume the foods we listed on a daily basis.
- You can have a fruit or vegetable every time you eat something.
- Green tea works great too. You can have it daily.
- Spice up your meals with spices like turmeric, ginger, clove, cinnamon, and oregano.
- Snack on nuts, like dried fruits, Brazil nuts, or sunflower seeds. But ensure there is no sugar or salt added.
But can you have too many antioxidants? That’s an interesting question.
What Is The Recommended Daily Intake Of Antioxidants?
Here, we talk with respect to some of the most common antioxidants that we discussed in this post.
The RDA of
– vitamin A is 1076 milligrams
– vitamin C is 107 milligrams
– vitamin E is 9 milligrams
However, we want to tell you that there’s no specific upper limit for antioxidants as a whole. The best way to ensure you get a complete supply of antioxidants is to consume 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day and 6 to 11 portions of grains every day (half of these portions can be whole grains).
Now, is everything good about antioxidants? Or do we have anything else to consider?
Any Risks Associated With Antioxidants?
Be mindful of selenium, especially when you are taking antioxidant supplements. The upper limit is 400 mcg per day, and doses higher than that can pose a health risk.
Excess intake of beta-carotene might give your skin an orange pigment. But this disappears if you reduce its intake. However, excess of beta-carotene in smokers or former smokers might carry a risk of lung cancer – if supplemented with beta-carotene.
A few other things to be kept in mind:
- Take antioxidant supplements along with meals. This enhances absorption and cuts the chances of an upset stomach.
- It is recommended you take selenium and vitamin E together as they facilitate each other’s absorption.
We need to be pro antioxidants. And now that you have understood the importance of antioxidants, share the knowledge.
Tell us how this post has helped you. Do let us know by commenting in the box below.
Expert’s Answers For Readers’ Questions
Are vitamins antioxidants?
Not all. Like we saw, vitamins A and C are antioxidants.
Are antioxidants safe? Any other ill effects they might have?
Yes, they are safe. Obviously. And apart from what we discussed, there are no other ill effects of antioxidants. Stick to the servings of fruits, vegetables, and grains, and you are good to go.
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