Why Antioxidants Are Essential To Health
If you want to guard against premature aging and diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cataracts, and atherosclerosis, you need to have sufficient antioxidants in your body.
Antioxidants fight free radical damage. You may recall in your science class, a free radical is a molecule that has lost one of its electrons. It then goes about looking for healthy molecules and tries to “steal” an electron. This reaction is called “oxidation”.
The cells of your body where oxidation occurs become injured. Free radicals also create a “snowballing effect”, as molecules steal from one another, each one becoming a new free radical, leaving a trail of biological damage.
Free radicals can severely affect your DNA by disrupting the duplication and maintenance of DNA. This can lead to tissue and organ degradation and put you at risk for 60 different diseases, including cancer.
Free radicals are derived from our normal metabolic function, as well as toxins, processed foods, and polluted air. You are literally exposed to potential sources of free radical production everyday of your life.
The best antidote to free radical damage is antioxidants, which are electron donors. Antioxidants can break the free radical chain reaction by sacrificing their own electrons to feed free radicals without turning into free radicals themselves. As long as you have enough antioxidants in your body, you will be able to better resist premature aging and diseases caused by your everyday exposure to toxins and pollutants.
Many scientists believe that the main reason why humans have one of the longest natural lifespans in the animal kingdom is due to the wealth of antioxidants in our omnivorous diet. Human bodies also produce antioxidants that cannot be found in other creatures.
Types Of Antioxidants
There are many different types of antioxidants and the science behind it can be quite complex and confusing. Hence, some people focus on taking just one or two antioxidants in megadoses thinking that it is sufficient to maintain optimal health. In reality, because each type of antioxidant has its own special function, you actually need a wide variety of antioxidants to maintain your well-being.
The following are three basic classifications of antioxidants, according to their functions:
1. Lipid/fat- and water-soluble antioxidants
Both are required by the body to protect your cells since the interior of your cells and the fluid between them are composed of water, while the cell membranes are mostly made of fat.
- Lipid-soluble antioxidants – examples include vitamins A and E, carotenoids, and alpha lipoid acid.
- Water-soluble antioxidants – examples include vitamin C, plant polyphenols, and glutathione (GSH).
2. Enzymatic and non-enzymatic antioxidants
- Enzymatic antioxidants break down and remove free radicals by converting them into hydrogen peroxide, then into water. Enzymatic antioxidants cannot be found in supplements, they are only produced by the body. Examples include superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT), glutathione peroxidase (GSHpx), and glutathione reductase.
- Non-enzymatic antioxidants interrupt free radical chain reactions by doing a “first sweep” to disarm the free radicals. This helps prevent your enzymatic antioxidants from being depleted. Most antioxidants found in foods and supplements are of this type. Examples include carotenoids, vitamins C and E, plant polyphenols, and glutathione (GSH).
3. Small-molecule and large-protein antioxidants
- Small-molecule antioxidants work by mopping up the free radicals and carrying them away through chemical neutralization. Examples are vitamins C and E, glutathione (GSH), alpha lipoid acid, carotenoids, and CoQ10.
- Large-protein antioxidants act like “sacrificial proteins”. They “take the bullet” for crucial enzymes and DNA by absorbing free radicals and stopping them from attacking your essential proteins. A good example is albumin, found in blood plasma.
Best Antioxidant-Rich Foods
First, as mentioned earlier, you should not focus on just one or two antioxidants. It is essential that you take in a wide variety of antioxidants as they all serve different purposes.
Second, when it comes to obtaining nutrients, your diet should be the primary source since nutrients are best absorbed in a food matrix. Supplements should only be used as a backup or insurance, just in case your diet is less than optimal.
Fresh, organic vegetables
Most vegetables are loaded with potent phytochemicals or plant compounds that act as antioxidants. Many people eat the same two or three vegetables all the time. Instead, you should eat a wide variety of different ones.
Focus on the green leafy vegetables as well as the ones in different colors, such as white, yellow, orange, red, and purple. Make sure you do not miss the artichokes, especially the fresh ones in spring. They are not only a delicacy, but are also packed with antioxidants.
Sprouts are also concentrated sources of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. Pea and sunflower sprouts are high in protein too.
Berries are the best fruits you can consume. They are highest in antioxidants and lowest in sugar. The good news is that there is no significant difference between the antioxidant content in fresh, frozen or even dried berries. Goji berries, blueberries, elderberries, cranberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries have the most antioxidants (high to low).
This may surprise you, but beans are actually really high in antioxidants. The small red beans, red kidney beans, pinto beans and black beans are richest in antioxidants (high to low). So mix them up, make a bean chili or bean soup.
Herbs and spices
Typically, herbs come from the plant’s leaves and spices from the bark, stem, and seeds. Both have been used for thousands of years to flavor foods and treat illnesses. Always opt for fresh herbs and spices as they are more potent than the processed version.
Herbs and spices are amazingly abundant in antioxidants. The top ones are clove, cinnamon, oregano, turmeric, cumin, parsley, basil, ginger, thyme, garlic, and cayenne pepper. Incorporate different herbs and spices in your cooking everyday.
Nuts are packed with polyphenols, a form of antioxidants. The best ones are walnuts, brazil nuts, pistachios, pecans, almonds, peanuts, and macadamia nuts (high to low).
However, peanuts are not recommended as they are often heavily sprayed with pesticides and can be contaminated with a carcinogenic mold called aflatoxin.
Green tea contains a catechin polyphenol called EGCG, which is one of the most powerful antioxidants known today. Always buy high quality, organic green tea from a reputable source. Matcha tea and tulsi tea are two types of green tea with potent antioxidants.
Red wine and dark chocolate
Both red wine and cocoa contain resveratrol, an antioxidant that crosses the blood-brain barrier to protect your brain and nervous system. The resveratrol in red wine comes from the skin and seeds of grapes used to make wine. Because red wine is fermented with grape skins longer than white wine, red wine contains more reservatrol.
A number of studies have shown that drinking moderate amounts of red wine benefits the heart by raising HDL, the good cholesterol and reducing blood clot formation. However, if you do not currently drink, do not start as excess alcohol can be addictive. If you already drink red wine, do so responsibly and in moderation. That means up to two 5-ounce glasses a day for men and one for women.
The resveratrol in chocolate comes from the cacao beans. When selecting chocolate, look for higher cacao and lower sugar content. The darker the chocolate, the higher the cacao content. White chocolate has no cacao at all. Avoid chocolate with unsavory ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oil.
Astaxanthin is what gives wild salmon its pink color. It is a member of the carotenoid family, which includes beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, and zeaxanthin. It is the most powerful carotenoid when it comes to mopping up free radicals and is much more potent than vitamins C and E and beta carotene. Like resveratrol, it also crosses the blood-brain barrier. Some scientists are now calling this the world’s best antioxidant for protecting your eyes and brain and preventing wrinkles.
Apart from wild salmon, astaxanthin can also be found in lobster, crab, and wild shrimp. Please note that farmed salmon’s pink color is derived from artificial coloring, hence, it is substantially lower in astaxanthin.
Whey protein concentrate, eggs, and grass-fed meats
Glutathione is known as your body’s most powerful antioxidant. It is called the “master antioxidant” because it has the unique ability of maximizing the performance of all the other antioxidants.
Glutathione’s primary function is to protect your cells from oxidative damage, but it is also essential for detoxification. Glutathione can only be produced by your body. However, there are nutrients that can promote glutathione production.
Whey protein provides all the key amino acids for making glutathione in the body. Buy only organic whey from grass-fed cows to avoid the toxic chemicals used in factory farming. Choose cold-processed since heat destroys whey’s fragile molecular structure. Only use whey protein concentrate, not protein isolate as the latter is not a whole food. Other foods that boost glutathione production include raw dairy (not pasteurized dairy), eggs, and grass-fed meats.
Last but not least, exercise also boosts your glutathione levels. So incorporate some forms of physical activity everyday.