The four most common causes of death in America are not drunk drivers, violent killings, AIDS, or illegal drugs; they are:
- Heart disease
- Chronic lower respiratory diseases
Americans spent over $7,400 per person in 2007 for health care, the highest in the world, yet our life expectancy is ranked number 45. Japan, on the other hand, spent less than 40% of what we did but the life expectancy is ranked number three in the world!
As Americans continue to spend more on health care, the death rates from these chronic degenerative diseases keep going higher. The data reveals that countries that eat less processed foods and more natural foods have less diseases and a longer life span. Research studies have also shown that almost all of these chronic diseases can simply be prevented through diet and lifestyle changes.
So, with the amount of processed foods that Americans eat on a regular basis (and definitely more than what the Japanese eat), are we depriving our bodies of certain nutrients found in natural foods that might help prevent us from these chronic diseases?
Lately, there has been a lot of talk about the benefits of antioxidants. In the following, we will look at what antioxidants are and their role in human health and disease prevention. We will also discuss the best way to get your antioxidant nutrients, be it diet or supplements.
What Causes Aging & Diseases?
More and more health science researchers have come to the conclusion that oxidation is the cause of cell damage and aging.
Oxidation is a chemical reaction where two or more substances interact, resulting in the loss of at least one electron. Examples of oxidation are a freshly cut apple turning brown, a bicycle fender becoming rusty, or a copper penny turning green.
Oxidation inside the body is introduced by stress, excessive sun exposure, environmental pollutants, cigarette smoke, alcohol, and unhealthy processed foods.
Oxidation creates free radicals that are highly unstable and reactive. Free radicals are atoms with unpaired electrons; they attack the nearest stable molecule (with paired electrons) to steal its electron. When the attacked molecule loses its electron, it becomes a free radical itself, hence, creating a chain reaction. Once the process is started, it can cascade and result in cell damage.
Your entire body, including your DNA, is under endless, daily assault from the free radicals. Excessive oxidation weakens the immune system, speeds up the aging process, and is linked to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, arthritis, many types of cancer, diabetes, eye diseases (age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma), heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, and Parkinson’s disease.
Antioxidants Against Aging & Diseases
As nature always has a way to take care of itself, researchers found that antioxidants perform beneficial functions against free radicals:
- Antioxidants block the process of oxidation by binding with free radicals and neutralizing their harmful effects, hence, shattering their destructive chain reaction of cell damage.
- Antioxidants scavenge the initiating radicals and destroy them before oxidation is set in motion. Hence, when your body has enough antioxidants to counteract the free radicals, aging is delayed and diseases caused by harmful free radicals are avoided.
Health Benefits Of Antioxidants
As stated before, antioxidants are nutrients that inhibit oxidation; they bind with free radicals and make them stable. Some antioxidants like catalase, glutathione peroxidase, and superoxide dismutase are produced within the body, while others have to be obtained from the diet. The following are some of the more commonly known antioxidants and their health benefits:
Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) is found in meats and vegetables such as red meats, liver, and Brewer’s yeast. ALA is a powerful antioxidant that helps regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reduces inflammation, detoxifies the body of heavy metal, and enhances the immune system. ALA also has the ability to regenerate other antioxidants such as vitamins C, E, glutathione, and coenzyme Q10. So, when your body has used up these antioxidants, if there is ALA around, it helps regenerate them.
Carotenoids (e.g. beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, and zeaxanthin) are the principal pigments responsible for the red, orange, yellow, and green colors of fruits and vegetables. Carotenoids help prevent night blindness, cataracts, macular degeneration, enhance immunity, protect against cancer formations, promote cardiovascular health, and relieve symptoms of both osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) or ubiquinone, is found in meats, fish, and vegetable oils, and is mostly made by your liver. CoQ10 has shown to benefit congestive heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, muscle weakness, chronic fatigue syndrome, breast cancer treatment, AZT/AIDS treatment, and type II diabetes. CoQ10 improves athletic endurance and increase energy levels.
Flavonoids are compounds abundantly found in fruits and vegetables (e.g. blueberry, ginger, onion, tea). Flavonoids have anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-tumor, anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-allergenic effect. They can also widen blood vessels and prevent blood clots.
Glutathione Peroxidase (GSH) is the body’s most abundant natural antioxidant and is synthesized within the body cells. GSH protects the vision, boosts the immune system, helps turn carbohydrates into energy, and prevents the buildup of oxidized fats in arteries. It also plays an important role in detoxifying substances such as alcohol, pesticides, and drugs.
Resveratrol is an anti-inflammatory substance found in the stems, leaves, and skins of red grapes, and peanuts. Due to the fermenting process, a glass of red wine contains much more resveratrol than a glass of grape juice or a handful of peanuts. Resveratrol helps prevent blood clots by keeping blood vessels open and pliable, hence, lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease. It also discourages tumor growth and the development of colon cancer.
Vitamin C, also called ascorbic acid, is one of the most powerful and well-known antioxidants abundantly found in fruits and vegetables. It helps maintain healthy collagen in the skin, repair damaged tissue, promote healthy teeth and bones, and boost the immune system. Vitamin C functions as an anti-inflammatory and helps the body absorb iron. It combats free radical formation caused by pollution and cigarette smoke, and helps recycle oxidized vitamin E.
Vitamin E, or alpha-tocopherol, is a primary defender against oxidation. The best sources are nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils. It boosts the body’s immune system, helps ease respiratory problems, reduces the risk of heart disease, various types of cancer and cataracts, slows the progression of some neurological diseases, and is anti-inflammatory. Vitamin E recycles oxidized vitamin C and beta-carotene.
Food Sources Of Antioxidants
The best way to increase our antioxidant levels is to eat a diet rich in antioxidants. The body better absorbs antioxidants in foods and there is very little risk of overdosing. The following are six antioxidant-rich food groups and the examples given are the ones with the most antioxidants in their respective food groups:
Fruits: Apple, apricot, avocado, berries (blackberry, blueberry, cherry, cranberry, date, strawberry, raspberry), red grape (seed and skin), grapefruit, kiwi, lemon, orange, pineapple, plum, pomegranate, prune.
Legumes: Black bean, pinto bean, red kidney bean.
Nuts and Seeds: Cocoa, hazelnut, peanut, pecan, sunflower seed, walnut.
Spices: Cinnamon, cloves, oregano, tumeric.
Tea: White tea has the most antioxidants, followed by green tea and black tea.
Vegetables: Artichoke, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, garlic, ginger, kale, onion, parsley, peppers, pumpkin, red beets, red cabbage, spinach, tomato.
Do We Need Supplements?
Although the ideal source of nutrients is your diet, in modern times, supplements have become increasingly important for three reasons:
- The American diet is high on processed foods and low on the nutrients available in natural, whole foods.
- Modern lifestyles, stress, and environmental pollutants have contributed to an increased need for supplemental nutrients.
- Intensive monoculture farming practices have depleted the soil of nutrients. Studies have shown that today’s produce contains fewer nutrients than the same fruits and vegetables 50 years ago, making supplements an essential component of a healthy diet.
However, when it comes to antioxidant supplements, it is not advisable to take a mega dose of only one or two antioxidants. The reason is that the combinations of antioxidants work together like a balanced symphony. For example, Vitamin C and glutathione recycle oxidized Vitamin E, whereas, Vitamin E recycles oxidized Vitamin C and beta-carotene. Therefore, the key is not the quantity, but the blend. The whole gamut of antioxidants works together in a cycle to protect against all types of free radicals. No one antioxidant can do all of these.
Although there is no solid evidence that mega doses of a single antioxidant supplement are really harmful, it is common sense not to take too much of any one on its own. For this reason, you should consult a trained healthcare professional for the appropriate combination of antioxidants if you do choose to use supplements.
Last but not least, there are now many so-called super foods available on the market. Some of these super foods are processed foods that claim to have certain health benefits or disease-preventing properties. Read the ingredient labels carefully and watch out for other unhealthy ingredients such as sugar and additives.
Remember, super food is not a substitute for “real” food. The best source of antioxidants is still a natural, wholesome diet consisting of a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds.