Antioxidants and free radicals
The air we breathe...
Everyone knows that oxygen is essential for all life - the body uses it as it breaks down food and creates energy for cells.
But did you know that, as well as being an absolute necessity for good health, its use in the body can also result in the production of certain unwanted by-products, called oxidants.
These particles are free radicals - unstable molecules that can damage DNA and cell structure. They cause harm because they are constantly trying to stabilise by attempting to 'steal' electrons from nearby molecules. This, in turn, damages those molecules and makes them unstable too, causing them to also seek out other electrons. And so, a vicious circle is created.
Free radicals and oxidants
Free radicals are produced as a result of both internal (endogenous) and external (exogenous) factors.
Endogenous free radicals are produced as a result of normal biological processes, like aerobic respiration, metabolism and inflammation.
In contrast, exogenous free radicals are produced as a result of environmental factors. For example, pollution, sunlight, stress, UV rays, poor diet, alcohol intake, smoking, strenuous exercise and X-rays.
Unfortunately, in this modern age of pollutants and toxins, both in the environment and in our food chain, levels of free radicals in our bodies are higher than ever before.
It is impossible to avoid damage from free radicals, and our body's own defences against it are not foolproof. When our levels of free radicals exceed the protective capabilities of those defences, what is referred to as "oxidative stress" occurs.
This means that the system is no longer able to readily detoxify or to repair the resulting damage. As time goes on, cell parts damaged by oxidation accumulate, contributing to toxic load, ageing, a strained immune system and illness.
Our natural defences
The human body is pretty amazing and, for the most part, its complex processes run smoothly. However, like everything else, it eventually comes under strain and can even break down, especially as we age, and physical ailments can start to crop up.
The key is to provide our bodies with as much nutritional support as we can, so that it can fuel its own natural defences.
The body's primary defence against free radical damage is antioxidants - substances that help counteract the damaging effects of oxidation in tissue.
"The key is to provide our bodies with as much nutritional support as we can, so that it can fuel its own natural defences."
Antioxidants are nutrients (vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, polyphenols and other phyto-chemicals), as well as enzymes (proteins in the body that assist in chemical reactions).
Antioxidants are molecules that fight free radicals in your body.
Free radicals are compounds that can cause harm if their levels become too high in your body. They’re linked to multiple illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Your body has its own antioxidant defences to keep free radicals in check.
Your body needs to maintain a certain balance between free radicals and antioxidants. When this equilibrium is disrupted, it can lead to oxidative stress.
However, antioxidants are also found in food, especially in fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based, whole foods.
Antioxidants are present in many natural, whole foods (such as fruit and vegetables). In many cases, it is possible to identify antioxidant-rich sources through their distinctively bright colours. For instance, the deep red of cherries; the deep purple of beetroot; the bright orange of carrots; the yellow of turmeric; and the blue-purple of blueberries, blackberries and grapes.
Vitamin C and vitamin E are two of the most potent antioxidants found in nature, present in high levels in foods such as parsley, rosehips, elderberries, blackcurrants, citrus fruits, broccoli, nuts and whole grains (oatmeal, rye, barley).
Foods that have exceptionally high levels of antioxidants are often referred to as "superfoods" or "superfruits", for that reason. For example, green tea, acai berries and wheatgrass.
The best sources of antioxidants are plant-based foods, especially fruits and vegetables.
Foods that are particularly high in antioxidants are often referred to as a “superfood” or “functional food.”
To contain more antioxidants, try to include the following in your diet:
Vitamin A: Dairy produce, eggs, and liver
Vitamin C: Most fruits and vegetables, especially berries, oranges, and bell peppers
Vitamin E: Nuts and seeds, sunflower and other vegetable oils, and green, leafy vegetables
Beta-carotene: Brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, such as mangoes, carrots, peas and spinach.
Lycopene: Pink and red fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes and watermelon
Lutein: Green, leafy vegetables, corn, oranges, and papaya.
Selenium: Rice, corn, wheat, and other whole grains, as well as nuts, eggs, cheese, and legumes
Other foods that are believed to be good sources of antioxidants include:
legumes such as black beans or kidney beans
green and black teas
Goji berries and many other food products that contain antioxidants are available to purchase online.
Foods with rich, vibrant colors often contain the most antioxidants.
The following foods are good sources of antioxidants. Click on each one to find out more about their health benefits and nutritional information:
Supporting your antioxidant levels
Our bodies produce metabolic enzymes that are extremely effective antioxidants. However the body's ability to produce these enzymes drops significantly in our late twenties.
Similarly, if your lifestyle is conducive to high levels of free radical production, it is a good idea to support your antioxidant levels through external (dietary) sources.
Eating a balanced diet, rich in a variety of seasonal (preferably organic) fruits, vegetables, green leafy plants and whole grains, is one of the best ways to support your body's antioxidant levels.
However, if you feel that you need additional support, a more concentrated intake, or a more convenient and reliable source, food-based antioxidant supplements can be the perfect solution.
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