So it’s probably safe to say you’ve heard of antioxidants and know that they’re good for you. But what exactly are they? Are they just the latest health fad or are they actually beneficial to you and your children? Let’s take a look at what all the fuss is about.
What is an antioxidant?
Antioxidants are compounds that neutralize free radicals (oxidants). Many metabolic reactions in the body result in byproducts being formed and a common byproduct are unstable, reactive free radicals that if left in this state can rapidly cause damage to surrounding DNA, cells, tissues proteins and other important structures. The accumulation of free radicals in body can lead to diseases such as heart and liver disease and cancer. Antioxidants are thus required to keep the levels of free radicals low and prevent oxidative damage and diseases. So they are by no means the latest fad, they are truly beneficial.
We all need antioxidants, but those who generally need more than most are the elderly and aging population, people trying to conceive, pregnant and breastfeeding woman and developing children.
How do antioxidants prevent oxidative damage?
Free radicals (as a result of metabolic reactions) are left with an unpaired electron in their outer shell which they don’t like. They will go in search and steal electrons from surrounding molecules causing damage to important bodily structures. This damage can arise very quickly unless the body has a rich supply of antioxidants. Antioxidants sacrifice themselves, like jumping in front of a bullet to protect the body. They will donate one of their own electrons to free radicals to make them stable, meaning they do not need to steal electrons and cause damage to surrounding cells and structures. Once a free radical has a paired electron in its outer shell again, it is no longer a “free radical” and is stable once more.
The effect of oxidative damage
The body can handle a few free radicals lying around, but when they accumulate in large numbers, it can contribute too many different diseases and health problems. Most notably is their role in degenerative diseases.
Some common diseases and problems caused by free radicals:
- Infertility problems (damage to sex gametes)
- Contributes to a number of birth defects, miscarriages and stillbirth cases
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Deterioration of vision and hearing
- Inflammatory diseases (such as arthritis)
- Damage to nerve cells leading to neural disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s
- Acceleration of the aging process (dementia and wrinkles)
- Cancer (damage to DNA)
- Liver diseases
- Autoimmune diseases
What accelerates free radical accumulation?
There are a number of factors that can significantly raise the level of free radicals in the body, thus contribute to the resulting disease states. Some can be avoided, some are inevitable. These include: Smoking, alcohol, sunlight, sugary and saturated fatty foods, pollution, fatigue and stress. Smoking, alcohol, pollution and stress have been well linked to many cases of birth defects and complications, conception failure, cancer and liver disease. Sunlight is mainly responsible for skin damage, wrinkles, sunburn and skin cancer. Sugars and saturated fats are linked in particular to cardiovascular diseases.
Are there different types of antioxidants?
There are many different types of antioxidants which range in their potency and abilities. Some are only able to donate one electron, while more potent antioxidants can donate many electrons and have the ability to regenerate surrounding antioxidants. Different antioxidants can also work on specific free radicals and in specific areas of the body. So it’s important that you obtain a good variety of different antioxidants for them to have the best overall affect. The body also has its own antioxidant enzymes which are crucial for the prevention of oxidative damage. However the production and function of these enzymes require various nutrients from the diet.
Here is a list of some of the most common antioxidants:
Essential nutrients: We require these antioxidants every day. They include: vitamins A, C and E and the minerals, copper, selenium and zinc. While the vitamins are antioxidants themselves, the minerals are technically not antioxidants. These minerals are required for the production and function of many, very important antioxidant enzymes in the body.
Polyphenols: This group of antioxidants contains some of the most potent antioxidants due to their unique structure. The term for these antioxidants often gets mixed up because there are so many different types of polyphenols. The different types of polyphenols include: Proanthocyanidins (the most potent antioxidants), catechins, bioflavones and isoflavones.
Compounds: These particular antioxidants are also very potent, but are most known for their specific nature against certain free radicals and prevention of particular diseases. These include: Allium sulphur compounds, lycopene, lutein and β-carotene.
What are good food sources of these antioxidants?
Vitamin A – carrots, spinach, tomatoes and sweet potato
Vitamin C – citrus fruits, blackcurrants, capsicum and strawberries
Vitamin E – vegetable oils, nuts, avocados and seeds
Minerals (Copper, Selenium & Zinc) – seafood, lean meat, milk, nuts and whole grains
Proanthocyanidins – berries, grapes, wine and eggplant
Catechins – wine and green tea
Bioflavones – citrus fruits, tea, wine, dark chocolate, onions and apples
Isoflavones – soybeans, tofu, lentils, peas and milk
Allium sulphur compounds – garlic, onions and leeks
Lutein – green leafy vegetables, corn and tomato
Lycopene – tomatoes, pink grapefruit and melons
β-carotene – tomatoes, pumpkin, carrots and spinach
Tips for creating a diet to maximize the intake of these antioxidants
From the list, you can see a diet rich in fruits and vegetables will provide the best source and variety of antioxidants. Drinking red wine and green tea with a side of dark chocolate are handy additions. Combine these with servings of seafood and lean meat and you are set. For children and pregnant/breastfeeding women, wine can be substituted for more grapes and berries.
Many people see this huge list of fruits and veggies and immediately turn to drinking fruit and veggie juices. This is ok (better than soft drinks), but is not the best way to obtain antioxidants. The majority of the antioxidants in fruits and veggies are located in the skin or seeds. So when possible, to maximize your antioxidant intake, eat fruit and veggies with the skin on. Another alternative is drinking smoothies where the seeds and skin have been mixed in to the juice.
If you’re after a quick boost of the most potent antioxidants, then look for acai berry, blueberries, pomegranate, green tea, grape seed extract and tomatoes.