An Introduction to Antioxidants and Associated Benefits
Edited and Published by Wellness Monster Louise
Generally the term “antioxidant” is associated with a substance, vitamin or food that is “good for you.” But does anyone really know what antioxidants are? Most people agree that if something is high in antioxidants then it is good for them; and most people seem to stop asking questions right there! Fewer people understand why antioxidants help keep them healthy, as well as being able to define the term. So let us clear up a few of the basics when it comes to antioxidants and why they are so good for the human body.
Antioxidants in the Body and in Food
The medical definition of antioxidant is “An agent that inhibits oxidation; any of numerous chemical substances including certain natural body products and nutrients that can neutralize the oxidant effect of free radicals and other substances” (Medical Dictionary). By breaking down the definitions of the words included, we know that an inhibitor stops something else from happening, and oxidation removes hydrogen. So what does all of that mean? The free radicals are oxygen containing molecules with an uneven number of electrons, and with them being uneven, this allows the free radicals to easily react with other molecules, steeling their electrons and creating more free radicals. However, the antioxidants are molecules that are able to donate an electron to a free radical without making themselves unstable (Healthline.com).
Antioxidants keep the free radicals from being unbalanced and causing health issues. The free radicals perform oxidation, when in balance. The oxidation fights pathogens, which lead to infections. If there is an unbalance between the antioxidants and free radicals, the free radicals may cause damage to cells, DNA and proteins. When there are not enough antioxidants to keep the free radicals in balance, over time this can cause diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension), heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and possibly even cancer. This is known as Oxidative stress, which also contributes to aging.
What Are Free Radicals and How Do Antioxidants Help?
Everyone produces free radicals, but they are also exposed to them within the environment causing an increase in the number of free radicals in the body. The ozone, some pesticides and cleaners, cigarette smoke, radiation and pollution all contain free radicals. On the other hand, a good healthy diet including fruits and vegetables will contain antioxidants, balancing out the free radicals. The antioxidants will protect, as well as possibly reverse, some of the damage done by the free radicals (Familydoctor.org).
The science of free radicals and how antioxidants help can be complicated. To understand it in a simpler language, antioxidants help to keep the body healthy. They fight against diseases as well as increase the immune system. Avoiding certain environmental toxins such as tobacco and alcohol, ultraviolet rays from tanning beds or even the sun, and certain substances found in processed foods, will help to prevent free radicals from entering the body. They cannot be avoided completely as the body does produce them. But keep in mind, not having free radicals can be harmful as well as previously mentioned, they fight pathogens.
Antioxidants are also produced by the body, but may be found in foods such as milk, broccoli, tomatoes, nuts and seeds, sweet potatoes, watermelons, oranges, beef, chicken and so much more. Reading the labels in grocery stores when purchasing groceries will help to determine which foods are best for a diet. Foods rich in Vitamins A, C, & E, Beta-carotene, Lycopene, Lutein, and Selenium are what to look for. Antioxidants may also be found in multivitamins. When choosing a multivitamin, speak with your health provider or physician.
The Importance of Antioxidants: The REAL “Superfoods”
Without antioxidants, the body could freefall into major health issues. Truthfully, most people would not live beyond childhood, or even beyond infancy, without antioxidants in the diet. All this is not to say that all foods bought should include antioxidants. As is with all things health related, more is not always better. Having too much antioxidants in the body can lead to cancer as well.
There are some foods even known as “superfoods”. Superfoods are foods that are either proven or purportedly proven to have larger doses of vitamins or minerals that help to fight illnesses and disease, improving the immune system. These superfoods are typically also thought to have a high level of antioxidants and those who buy into the superfood hype turn to these foods. However, most of the medical community will refuse to use the terminology “superfood,” being it is far too obscure of a term.
That said, a well balanced diet including fish, meats, fruits and vegetables will provide the necessary vitamins and minerals (LiveScience.com). There is nothing wrong with eating what is categorized as a superfood since generally speaking, these foods are still healthy. For example, blueberries, kiwi, beans and whole grains, nuts, seeds, kale, Swiss chard, collards, spinach, cabbage and broccoli, sweet potatoes, squash, salmon, sardines, and mackerel hold places within the superfood list.
In Conclusion: Bringing it Altogether
All of this is to say, antioxidants help to keep everyone healthy and improve the immune system. Antioxidants fight free radicals when they become unbalanced. When properly balanced, free radicals will help fight pathogens. Unchecked, these pathogens will cause illnesses. Free radicals are everywhere, not just produced by the body. Keeping a healthy lifestyle will help to keep the unnecessary free radicals from entering the body. While antioxidants are definitely produced by the body, obtaining them from the environment is also necessary to maintain a healthy diet. Foods rich in Vitamin A, C, & E, Beta-carotene, Lycopene, Lutein, and Selenium contain antioxidants. Most fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants. They may also be found in fish, meats, nuts and seeds.
Note: A healthy amount of antioxidants is great, but having too much of anything can have consequences, so it is definitely best to incorporate antioxidants into a diet in a healthy way and within safe daily limits. Though some foods being marketed as superfoods may be very healthy, it is still wise to have a fully balanced diet (and that includes MORE than just “superfoods”).
Healthy Antioxidants [ID 35594381 © Photowitch | Dreamstime.com]
Free Radicals and Antioxidants [Lobo, V., Patil, A., Phatak, A., & Chandra, N. (2010). Free radicals, antioxidants and functional foods: Impact on human health. Pharmacognosy Reviews, 4(8), 118–126.]
Superfoods and the Diet [ID 106294643 © Chernetskaya | Dreamstime.com]