With many thousands of different nutritional supplements available, touting all kinds of health benefits, it can be difficult for a health-minded person to figure out which ones are the most important. It turns out, antioxidants are extremely import for maintaining health.
If you cut an apple and let it sit out, it turns brown, right? It oxidizes. But, if you squeeze some orange juice onto it, it stays white much longer. That's because the vitamin C in the orange juice is an antioxidant.
To understand how this works in your body, let's first talk about free radicals.
What are free radicals and why are they bad?
A free radical is an atom or molecule that is unstable due to at least one unpaired electron in its outer shell; in the human body it is usually an oxygen molecule that has lost an electron and will seek to stabilize itself by stealing an electron from a nearby molecule . Once it “steals” the electron, the victim molecule from this theft becomes itself a free radical, and goes hunting for an electron “fix.” , creating a deadly chain reaction that damages cells.
"Oxidation” is the term applied to this process of combining an atom or molecule with oxygen by giving up one or more electrons. Hence “oxidation” produces “free radicals” in the human body.
Why does oxidation occur in the body?
Oxidation is necessary for the breakdown of our food, and also as part of the immune process for fighting off viruses and bacteria.
However, like many bodily processes, as we grow older, these oxidized cells are not replaced as quickly with healthy new cells. The damaged cells hang around and can't perform their tasks, resulting in impaired bodily functions, or worse, DNA damage. At the same time, the body's natural production of antioxidants slows down, leaving a backlog of damaged cells waiting to be replaced.
In addition there is further oxidative attack on the cells from the environment, and our lifestyle. These sources include herbicides, pesticides, auto fumes, chlorination in our water, x-ray exposure, UV radiation, tobacco smoke, and stress. There are dietary threats also, such as unhealthy foods and alcoholic beverages. For example, you may have heard about the dangers of consuming oxidized fats, particularly in the form of rancid oils.
What kind of health issues can result from free radical activity?
Free radical damage is believed to play a role in many health issues, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, destruction of DNA, cancer, and accelerated aging, with the destruction of DNA being the most serious.
There is an interesting list of studies correlating antioxidant intake with lower risk of disease here.
Antioxidants to the rescue!
Antioxidants are molecules that donate an electron to a damaged molecule, but remain stable themselves, thus stopping the “domino effect,” repairing damage, and preventing more from occuring. Antioxidants occur naturally as vitamins, phyto chemicals, and other substances, such as Alpha Lipoic Acid.
What does ORAC mean?
Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity.
ORAC is the measurement used to measure the antioxidant capacities in a particular food. For example, the ORAC value of 100 grams of raw unprocessed cacao is 28,000, and the ORAC value for 1 red delicious apple is 5900.
How can we get more antioxidants to neutralize these free radicals?
We've all heard about the benefits of eating foods that are dark or colorful. These plants have evolved pigments to protect themselves from the the UV in sunlight, and these can protect us from free radicals in the same way.
Some foods found high in antioxidants (see ORAC defined above) by the USDA: raw unprocessed cacao, small red beans, wild blueberry, blueberry, cranberry, artichoke hearts, prune, raspberry, apple, pecan, cherry, black plum, russet potato, black beans.
High levels of antioxidants are also found in broccoli, spinach, carrots, artichokes, cabbage, asparagus, avocados, lettuce, sweet potatoes, squash, kale, cereals, walnuts, pistachios, almonds, and cashews.
Beverages include coffee, black tea (watch out for the caffeine!), green tea, red wine, and beer. Here is something I didn't know before: adding milk or other dairy to your antioxidant-rich drink blocks the antioxidant activity!
You can see some foods with their ORAC values here.
Vitamins C and E have antioxidant properties, but be careful! Not all vitamins and supplements are created equal and generally you get what you pay for. Look for vitamins that are high quality and food-based.
Selenium, carotenoids, flavonoids, and some minerals spices also have antioxidant action. Some of the antioxidants that have have become familiar are resveratrol, ashwaganda, quercitin, and astaxanthin. Many antioxidants have concentrated activity in specific areas of the body.
Curcuminoids, found in turmeric, have been recognized and clincally studied for their stellar antioxidant capacity. This is in addition to their superior effectiveness as an herbal pain-killer.
Keep it Natural
There has been some evidence popping up in studies, that taking megadoses of synthetic antioxidants can actually be harmful. So read the labels! And choose the natural, food-based, pure forms of all your supplements whenever possible.