As long as you are a living, breathing person moving through the world, your cells are in a constant battle against free radical damage. Free radicals are molecules like reactive oxygen species (ROS) and reactive nitrogen species (RNS) that cause oxidation, DNA damage, protein modification and, in the worst case, case, cell death. And they are impossible to avoid. Free radicals are normal byproducts of cellular metabolism and exercise. You also accumulate free radicals from exposure to radiation, smoke, and everyday environmental pollutants.
If your body didn’t have a way to deal with these marauders, you’d be in for a world of trouble. Fortunately, nature has an answer: antioxidants.
What do antioxidants do?
Antioxidants are a powerful first line of defense against free radicals, preventing their formation and neutralizing their effects.
Free radicals are small, complicated molecules. On the one hand, they cause oxidative damage, or oxidative stress, in the body. Too much oxidative stress contributes to aging and probably all chronic diseases. That’s the bad news.
At the same time, oxidative stress is beneficial, even necessary, in the right amounts. In fact, the body is naturally happier in a state of mild oxidative stress. Mild oxidative stress is hormetic, meaning it causes beneficial adaptations that make you stronger, healthier, and more resilient to future stressors. The trick is to maintain the proper balance. This is where antioxidants come in.
Antioxidants are responsible for maintaining the proper level of free radicals in the body (also known as redox homeostasis). For decades, scientists have believed that antioxidants work primarily by donating electrons to free radicals, making them less reactive and less destructive. More recently, researchers have also hypothesized that they may exert their effects in other ways, for example by acting on the microbiota Or epigenome.
Types of Antioxidants and Where to Find Them
Your body makes antioxidants on its own. Glutathione and uric acid are two endogenous antioxidants you’ve probably heard of. Melatonin, too, has powerful antioxidant properties. The majority, however, comes from food. Colorful plant foods take the lion’s share for their antioxidant richness, but as you’ll see, nutrient-dense animal foods also contribute.
Antioxidants found in foods include vitamins, minerals and various -noids detailed below.
Antioxidant vitamins and minerals
Vitamin A (retinol), vitamin C (ascorbic acid, ascorbate) and vitamin E (tocopherols, tocotrienols) have all been identified as antioxidant nutrients. Animal products (eggs, fish, organ meats, dairy products) are the best dietary sources of vitamin A. Fruits and vegetables, especially red pepper, citrus fruits and guavaprovide the vitamin C you need, while nuts and seeds are best for vitamin E.
Certain minerals are also praised for their antioxidant properties, acting directly as antioxidants or as co-factors for enzymatic reactions that buffer free radical damage. They understand copper, zinc, selenium, iron and manganese. To get more of these trace minerals from your diet, focus on seafood, nuts and seeds, and organ meats.
Flavonoids (also called bioflavonoids) are polyphenolic pigments found in most flowering plants. They are usually grouped under anthocyanidins, proanthocyanins and phenolic compounds. Research links flavonoids to many important health benefits, including being anti-inflammatory and protecting against diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. These effects are likely due at least in part to their antioxidant effects and their ability to chelate (bind to) metals which can increase free radicals. Flavonoid antioxidants also provide a dual effect as they enhance the antioxidant capabilities of vitamin C.
Find flavonoids in fruits and vegetables, tea and cocoa (a good reason to eat more dark chocolate).
Carotenoids are another type of polyphenol pigment. Beta carotene is the most studied, but there are dozens more in the human diet, including lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene. Certain carotenoids, including beta-carotene, can also convert into vitamin A.
Colorful fruits and vegetables contain carotenoids, especially those in the red, yellow and orange persuasions. Avoid egg white omelets and also eat egg yolks for lutein.
Antioxidant enzymes are superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT) and glutathione peroxidase (GPx). (The latter is not the same as glutathione, although their activities are closely related. (Glutathione is also an important antioxidant, the so-called master antioxidant.)
Like other antioxidants, these enzymes are widely found in primary foods like dark leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables. Importantly, antioxidant enzymes work in tandem with the mineral cofactors listed above, so don’t overlook these trace minerals.
How many antioxidants do you need?
You can’t really measure the amount of antioxidants you get in a day. A better approach is to focus on eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods like oysters, organ meats, and egg yolks, plus dark green leaves And cruciferous vegetables. Throw in a Brazil nut or two for selenium (don’t go overboard). Add other products for color.
If I feel like describing the Primal Blueprint Food Pyramid, You’re right. And it is not a hazard. When you eat the way nature intended, you get the right balance of nutrients and enzymes without too much hassle. If you like food tracking, it certainly doesn’t hurt to watch your intake of the antioxidant vitamins and minerals discussed here. Make sure you hit the RDA more often than not.
Picky eaters may also consider supplement with antioxidants, although this strategy is surprisingly controversial. Either way, it’s best to get your nutrients packaged in their complete food matrices when you can. You can’t overdo the antioxidants from whole foods, and you get all the other good stuff – other nutrients, fermentable fiber for your gut microbes, amino acids and health fats– who accompany them.