Antioxidants protect our body from damage caused by free radicals. Cells in our body are being constantly attacked by viruses, bacteria, and various infections. Chemicals in our body that constantly attack us are called free radicals and they may damage our genetic material and our cells. Unfortunately, we are constantly exposed to free radicals as our own body produces them when in turns food we eat into energy or when we exercise. Free radicals are also in the air we breathe due to pollution, cigarette smoke, food we eat, and even in the sunlight when it touches our skin. We cannot escape it.
Free radicals have various chemical compositions, and they are in many different sizes and shapes. They eat electrons in our body, and because of that they can radically change the way we function or how we are structured. Free radicals damage our cells and can change our DNA.
While the free radicals appear to be the biggest threat to health of human kind, our body has found a way to fight them. We fight them through the food we eat by producing electrons so that free radicals can eat them, without damaging our body in the process. To explain better how this works, there are certain types of food that are considered free radicals fighters. There are many different types of these food fighters and we call all of them together antioxidants. These antioxidants are all different, each type of food providing a different type of protection than the other one. Antioxidants produce additional electrons in our body and free radicals eat them, and in turn our body and DNA structure remain intact. In order to remain intact, we need to eat plenty of antioxidant foods on daily basis.
Free radicals cause so called “oxidative stress” and have a role in development of many diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, eye diseases such as cataracts, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, and thalassemia.
To make matter more interesting, there are about thousands different ingredients in the food that may act as antioxidants or free radicals fighters. We all know about Vitamin C, beta-carotene and other carotenoids, and Vitamin E. Also there are some minerals that are considered antioxidants such as selenium and manganese, along with coenzyme Q10, flavonoids, phytoestrogens, glutathione, lipoic acid, phenols and polyphenols.
Antioxidants are donating electrons to our body so that free radicals can eat them, in hope that they wouldn’t attack our cells instead. Math is very simple here; we should eat a lot of antioxidants daily in order to supply enough of electrons through food so free radicals would have something else to eat but our own body’s electrons.
While most research didn’t find that that there were benefits of taking antioxidants supplements, everyone could agree that eating antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables has great benefits to protect against heart disease, cancer, and cognitive decline associated with aging. However, it is not that only antioxidants have major role in protection of our cells, it is rather whole combination of antioxidants, fibers, minerals, vitamins that are found naturally in fruits and vegetables that are producing a full benefit of preventing or fighting off lots of illnesses. Keep in mind that if you opt for antioxidant supplements instead, they may interfere with some medicines. It is best to talk to your doctor or medical provider if you plan on using supplements.
While some research supports use of antioxidants in disease prevention, there are some studies that have found little supportive evidence in use of antioxidant supplements. You can read more on Antioxidants: Beyond the hype and Antioxidants: In Depth
We cannot conclusively say that if you eat antioxidant rich food you will not get certain illnesses, but they will certainly help you in the long run to maintain better health. Evidence is not supporting use of supplements only eating the food.
Here’s a list of foods that are considered rich in antioxidants and are therefore labelled in the media as super foods:
- Purple, red and blue grapes
- Wild blueberries, blackberries
- Red berries such as raspberries, cranberries, and strawberries
- Nuts such as walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews, pecans, hazelnuts. You can also eat sunflower, flaxseed or sesame seeds.
- Dark green vegetables such as kale, spinach, broccoli, collard greens, leeks, artichokes, bell peppers, beets, red cabbage, tomatoes and lettuce
- Sweet potatoes and orange vegetables, white and sweet potatoes, carrots
- Tea, particularly green tea. Black tea, coffee, pomegranate juice and glass of red wine
- Beans such as lentils, black-eyed peas, green soybeans (edamame), black and kidney beans
- Whole grains such as whole grain bread, or wild or brown rice
- Fish, such as tuna, mackerel, salmon, sardines, wild rainbow trout, herring, oysters
- Dark chocolate
More on addition of antioxidants to your diet can be found here: Add antioxidants to your diet
Antioxidants have shown to reverse cognitive decline in people, increase levels of serotonin in the brain and gut and hence fight depression symptoms. As per various studies, it appears that people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and major depression have significantly lower levels of Vitamins A, C and E. It appears when body is under the stress, it depletes its reservoirs of Vitamins A, C, and E, beta-carotene, along with potassium, magnesium, selenium, zinc and micronutrients. When we are under stress, our body speeds up our metabolism and faster processes proteins, fats and carbohydrates which in turn try to compensate for stress by producing energy quickly.
Studies have shown that people who suffer from depression and anxiety have lower levels of antioxidants in the body. Therefore, it is logical to assume that by consuming foods rich in antioxidants will reverse signs of depression and anxiety. We are not promoting use of antioxidant supplements but having a diet rich in antioxidant foods.