So… what exactly is an Antioxidant?
Looking through a chemistry lens, an antioxidant is a chemical that reduces the rate of particular oxidation reactions in a specific context, these oxidation reactions are simply chemical reactions that involve the transfer of electrons from a substance to an oxidising agent. An easy way to remember this is to simply break down the word ‘anti’ means against, in this case, the ‘anti’ describes the effect these chemicals have against oxidants, they are literally against oxidants.
Antioxidants are particularly important in the context of organic chemistry and biology: all living cells contain complex systems of antioxidant chemicals and/or enzymes to prevent chemical damage to the cells’ components by oxidation. The importance and complexity of antioxidants in biology is reflected in more than 142,000 scholarly articles in the medical literature.
A diet containing antioxidants from plants is required for good health since plants are an important source of organic antioxidant chemicals. Antioxidants are widely used as ingredients in dietary supplements that are used for health purposes such as preventing cancer and heart disease. However, while many studies have suggested benefits for antioxidant supplements, several large clinical trials have failed to clearly demonstrate a benefit for the formulations tested, and excess supplementation may be harmful. So the ideal way to get our antioxidant armor on is by consuming them in our food.
Ok, so quick re-cap, what we know so far is, antioxidants are chemicals that reduce oxidative damage to cells and biochemicals. Ok, so how does this apply to me? Well, researchers have found high correlation between oxidative damage and the occurrence of disease. For example, LDL oxidation is associated with cardiovascular disease. The process leading to atherogenesis, atherosclerosis, and cardiovascular disease is complex, involving multiple chemical pathways and networks, but the precursor is LDL oxidation by free radicals, resulting in inflammation and the formation of plaques.
Oxidants, usually referred to as ‘free radicals’ are produced as a natural by-product of the millions of biochemical processes undertaken by the body every minute. The same life-giving oxygen that supports all the functions of the body creates these harmful by-products which cause cell damage, usually to DNA, fats and proteins. Free radicals have a bad reputation for damaging cells through oxidation, they can enter the body through external influences such as exposure to the sun, pesticides and other kinds of environmental pollution. In addition, their levels are increased by mental and physical stress, the consumption of alcoholic beverages, unhealthy foods, and cigarette smoke.
Now imagine a metal pole left in the salty ocean without any protective casing or anti-rust paint – it starts to rust and eventually breaks down completely, this is oxidation. This is what happens inside the body, the free radicals in our bodies are like the salt in the water, and they cause a breakdown of our cells through oxidation. If our cells are left with no armor to combat this oxidation the amount of free radical oxidation can rise to an unhealthy level, and result in extensive damage to cellular components and accelerating the aging process. More importantly, it may contribute to a wide range of degenerative illnesses and reduce the body’s ability to deal with other problems, including cardiovascular malfunction, eye disease, and cancer.
So what’s our equivalent of anti-rust paint? Well, cue the antioxidants come to save the day. Antioxidants counter these effects by binding with free radicals before they can cause damage. They then convert them into non-damaging biochemical substances, assisting enormously with the reparation of cellular damage. Research suggests that the consumption of antioxidant-rich foods reduces damage to cells and biochemicals from free radicals. This may slow down, prevent, or even reverse certain diseases that result from cellular damage, and perhaps even slow down the natural aging process.
Since the discovery of vitamins, it has been recognized that antioxidants in the diet are essential for healthful lives. More recently, a large body of evidence has accumulated that suggests supplementation of the diet with various kinds of antioxidants can improve health and extend life. Certain antioxidant enzymes are produced within the body. Other antioxidants can be consumed throughout the diet. Some of the better known include the antioxidant vitamins beta-carotene, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and vitamin E.
Many health food companies now sell forms of antioxidants as dietary supplements. These supplements may include specific antioxidant chemicals, like resveratrol (from grape seeds), combinations of antioxidants, like the “ACES” products that contain beta carotene (provitamin A), vitamin C, vitamin E, and Selenium, or specialty herbs that are known to contain antioxidants such as green tea and jiaogulan. But nothing beats the antioxidants that we can ingest directly through our food.
A diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables provides a large supply of these antioxidants, to help eliminate damaging free radicals. The highest concentrations are found in fruits and leafy green vegetables, such as carrots, orange and red peppers, spinach and tomatoes. Cooking can destroy some antioxidants and interfere with the body’s ability to absorb them, so eating raw vegetables and fruit, and including sprouts in the diet can help. Steaming vegetables, as opposed to frying, microwaving or boiling, is also a good idea.
Natural products from the rainforests of the world are some of the best sources of natural antioxidants ever found. Fruits like acai berries are amazing in the health world because of the wide range and high number of antioxidants they contain, making them a perfect source of antioxidants. It’s no wonder that the acai berry has been dubbed one of the top 10 “superfoods” in the world.
The information presented here should not be interpreted as medical advice. If you need more information about Antioxidants, please consult your physician or a qualified specialist.