By now we have all [hopefully] heard of antioxidants, how we NEED antioxidants for health, and maybe even how the protect us from things like the sun or even from aging. Though this is all true, most of us do not really understand what they are, how they work, or where to get them. Let me take a second to explain.
Antioxidants are substances that protect our cells from free radicals or oxidative stress. Okay, so what are free radicals and/or oxidative stress and why do we need protection from them?
To define free radicals and oxidative stress we need to get into chemistry and metabolism in the body. Metabolism is the sum of [chemical] processes in the body that produce energy for us; metabolic processes can help the body build up (called anabolism, think “anabolic steroids”) and they can help the body break down its old/dying tissues (called catabolism, think “CATAstrophy” or destruction). These metabolic processes have chemical byproducts that often times are oxygen molecules, which can be damaging to our tissues; hence “oxidative” stress or “oxygen induced” stress. These oxygen molecules, also called reactive oxygen species (ROS) or free radicals, do just that, they REACT with surrounding tissues causing damage. The more free radicals, the more damage.
The unfortunate thing is that free radicals are all around us. They are in the air we breathe; which has now been labeled as a carcinogen (cancer causer) by the World Health Organization. They are in our water, and depending on the area of the world you live in, your water might be especially hazardous. You can rate your local air and water at scorecard.org to find out more specific information. Free radicals are also abundant in much of the food we choose to ingest. Thankfully, we can ALSO choose to ingest antioxidants (against oxidation) to protect our body from the free radical damage.
Fruits and veggies are loaded with antioxidants! In general, the darker the color, the more antioxidants present. For example, organic dark berries are extremely rich with antioxidants. Also, the fresher the produce item, the more antioxidants. Shelf and travel time of produce items depletes their antioxidants. Cooking and preserving fruits and veggies tends to leach out some of the antioxidant supplying nutrients. For instance, though steamed broccoli is very good for you, it is even better to also consume the water left in the pan after steaming as it contains many of the nutrients that have leached out.
In addition to whole food items, individual nutrients can be supplemented to boost someone's antioxidant status. Vitamin C, A, and E are well researched as potent antioxidants. Other supplements such as alpha lipoic acid (ALA), liposomal glutathione, CoQ10, and green tea are also known to protect the body from free radical damage. Though I generally recommend getting as much nutrition from whole food as possible, there are several arguments to support the use of supplementing antioxidants.
1. Our food today contains way less nutrients than it did 50 years ago.
We have over-farmed our soils, leaving them nutrient deficient, which then produces a nutrient deficient plant. Many times food has traveled a LONG way to get to your table, which renders it less nutrient rich due to timing and exposure to travel exhaust, fumes, sprays, etc. Processing food strips it of nutrients, and since the USA is known for convenience foods, be warned that the convenience comes at a cost of nutrition. This is also a probable culprit in the obesity rate in the US, our bodies are nutrition starved and we will continue to crave calories until the body gets the nutrition it is looking for. For example, you might have to eat two apples today to get the nutrition that one apple gave you 50 years ago - though apples can be a healthy choice, that is still twice the calories for the same amount of nutrition!
2. We have more exposures to chemicals and other pollutants than generations past. There are currently over 80,000 chemicals known to be used in this world! Therefore, we most likely have more toxicity and could potentially benefit from additional protection.
3. If free radical damage has already affected the body tissues, taking in more whole foods may decrease the rate at which the damage is happening, but it might not be enough to reverse the damage that has already occurred.
For all those reasons (and a multitude of others) I do recommended adding supplements of antioxidants to someone’s routine. Vitamin C is easy and relatively cheap to purchase. It is safe to take, though can cause loose stools when taken in high amounts all at once. The FDA recommends 60mg of vitamin C daily - this happens to be enough to keep someone from scurvy (a condition where you don’t have enough vitamin C to keep your skin on), but is no way enough to provide optimal health. Below are a few easy antioxidant rich ideas to get you started:
Living in Phoenix, I typically recommend around 2000-4000mg of vitamin C (in divided doses) daily just as maintenance. However, on a day when I’m out hiking (more air pollution + more sun exposure = more free radicals), that amount might increase to 4000-8000mg or higher. Green tea is also a go-to item for antioxidant status, and is also antiviral, anticancer, and anti-obesity! Another option (or in addition to), is to add a cup of organic dark berries to your day, delicious and loaded with antioxidants! Why not start protecting your cells now!
Stay tuned for more healthy tips!
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