“Before we got started,” he said, “I was talking with a few others and, well, I thought I was the only one in the dark about what an antioxidant actually was. I mean, I know that they are important in our diet and all, but what the heck is it?"
Then another voiced, "A bunch of us really didn’t know".
Fred then continued before sitting back down, "Yep. But I guess I am the only one willing to look stupid enough to ask. So here goes, can you please explain to us what antioxidants actually are and why are they important?”
He had a great point, many of us have indeed heard the term ‘antioxidant’ and we have been told that antioxidants are important to our health but many of us have never been told why this is. Understanding this is important because understanding lead to taking action and all the information in the world is not going to impact our health unless we understand the importance enough to take action!
The concept of antioxidants is fairly complex, so, I’ll try to explain antioxidants in simple and easy language and in human terms, why they are important in our diets, to that end I have drilled this subject down to what I feel are 5 important points.
First point, what are antioxidants and how do they work. In order to understand how antioxidants work, we must start at the molecular level...
Don’t leave me here, remember I’m going to make this easy to understand, I promise. As you may know, all matter in the universe is made of atoms. Atoms are composed of a core with protons and neutrons, and a bunch of electrons that revolve around the core.
On the right is a simple diagram of an atom:
Now, on the left is an image of a fatty acid molecule. Each ball represents an atom.
Human beings and other organisms maintain their structure and function by chemical reactions. All the chemical reactions needed to sustain life are collectively known as metabolism.
Free radicals are unstable, electrically charged molecules in the cells, that can react with other molecules (like DNA) and they can cause damage at the molecular level. They can even form chain reactions, where the molecules they damage also turn into free radicals and go off and do even more damage.
This is where antioxidants come in... if a molecule loses an electron and turns into a free radical, the antioxidant molecule steps in and "gives" the free radical an electron, effectively neutralizing it. The wonderful thing about antioxidants is that they are able to lose (or in this case give away) an electron without themselves becoming a free radical.
This is the mechanism behind antioxidants. They donate electrons to free radicals, which neutralizes them and prevents them from causing harm and stops the possible chain reaction right then and there.
Antioxidants are simply molecules that fight damage by free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can harm human cellular structures. Antioxidants do this by giving electrons to the free radicals and there by neutralizing them.
And now on to the third point, OK, we must get rid of all free radicals then right?
Well, not so fast there partner, both antioxidants and free radicles are important to our health. There is a reason that free radicals are constantly being formed during metabolism. Sure, without antioxidants, they would destroy our bodies very quickly, but it is important to keep in mind that free radicals also serve important functions that are essential for our survival (1).
For example, the body's immune cells use free radicals to kill bacteria that try to infect us (2). As with so many things in the body, we need a certain balance... we need the right amount of free radicals, and the right amount of antioxidants to keep them in check. When this balance gets disrupted, things can start to go wrong. When the free radicals (which are also known as pro-oxidants) outnumber the antioxidants, this can lead to a state called oxidative stress.
During oxidative stress, important molecules in the body can become severely damaged, often this even leads to cell death. Several stress factors and lifestyle habits are known to promote excessive free radical formation and oxidative stress:
- Air pollution.
- Cigarette smoke.
- Alcohol intake.
- High blood sugar levels (3, 4).
- Consuming large amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids (5).
- Radiation, including excessive sunbathing.
- Infections by bacteria, fungi or viruses.
- Excessive intake of iron, magnesium, copper, or zinc (1).
- Too little oxygen in the body (6).
- Too much oxygen in the body.
- Intense and prolonged exercise, which causes tissue damage (7).
- Excessive intake of antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E (1).
- Antioxidant deficiency (8).
So, what you really need to understand at this point is this…
Our bodies need a certain balance between free radicals and antioxidants. When this balance is disrupted, it can lead to oxidative stress, which can cause all sorts of negative effects.
My fourth point is that antioxidants are essential for life and are found the very things we eat. As I have mentioned, free radicles are formed in our bodies and enter our bodies through many sources, but what about the antioxidants that we need to counter balance the free radicles?
Antioxidants are essential for the survival of all living things not just we human creatures. But, lucky for us, the human body actually generates some of its own antioxidants, such as the cellular antioxidant glutathione. Plants and animals, and all other forms of life, have their own defenses against free radicals and the oxidative damage caused by them. Therefore, antioxidants are found in pretty much all foods of plant and animal origin. Getting antioxidants from foods is important. In fact, our life depends on the intake of certain antioxidants – two of the most important being vitamin C and vitamin E.
Antioxidants can increase the shelf life of both natural and processed food products. Therefore, they are frequently used as food additives (15). For instance, vitamin C is often added to processed foods to act as a preservative.
There is a huge variety of different antioxidants found in foods. They can be broadly categorized into two groups, water-soluble and fat-soluble antioxidants. Water-soluble antioxidants perform their actions in the fluid inside and outside cells, whereas fat-soluble antioxidants act primarily in cell membranes.
Here is a list of a few important dietary antioxidants:
- Vitamin C: One of the most important water-soluble antioxidants and an essential dietary nutrient.
- Vitamin E: The main fat-soluble antioxidant that plays a critical role in protecting cell membranes against oxidative damage.
- Flavonoids: A large group of antioxidants found in plant foods. They have many beneficial health effects (16).
Many substances that happen to be antioxidants can also have other important functions. Notable examples include curcuminoids in turmeric and oleocanthal in extra virgin olive oil. These function as antioxidants, but they also have potent anti-inflammatory activity (17, 18).
So, what you really need to understand is this:
Our diet is an essential source of antioxidants. They are naturally found in foods of both plant and animal origin, but are found in especially plentiful amounts in vegetables, fruits, and beverages like coffee and tea. There are many different types of antioxidants in the diet, including vitamins C and E, as well as flavonoids. These substances can serve various other functions that are not related to the antioxidant activity.
Now Point five. By now the question you are probably asking yourself is “should I be taking supplements that contain antioxidants?”
The truth is that foods – and I am talking about real foods now not highly processed, bagged, boxed, canned, wrapped, and bagged foods, real foods have hundreds (if not thousands) of different nutrients that work synergistically. Taking just one or two isolated nutrients won't have the same beneficial effects. It simply does not work that way regardless of what the nutraceutical industry wants you to think. The best (and healthiest) strategy to ensure an adequate intake of antioxidants, is a diet rich in various vegetables and fruit (22), along with other healthy dietary habits.
However, low-dose supplementation, such as in multivitamin tablets, may be beneficial if you are deficient in certain nutrients or unable to follow a healthy diet. Low-dose, not the super high dose or highly concentrated forms of supplementation that the industry constantly wants to sell us at ridiculously high prices.
Adequate intake of antioxidants is an essential part of a healthy diet... but getting too much of isolated antioxidants (via supplements) can in some cases be harmful. At the end of the day, the best way to ensure that you get the right amount of antioxidants, is to eat a real food based diet that includes plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables.
So our Moms were right after all, we need to eat our fruits and vegetables, get plenty of exercise, and get a good nights sleep. Way to go moms!
The only other thing I would add to that is that we should grow as many of the veggies we eat as possible - these vegetables will be far superior to those you can find in a grocery store.