Many foods are advertised as being high in antioxidants. We know antioxidants are supposed to be good for us, but what exactly are they?
As chemical compounds, antioxidants are found in your body, in food and in dietary supplements. They can help reduce cell damage, bolster your immune system and even protect you against certain diseases. Since your health is a priority to you, here is everything you should know about how antioxidants work and how to get enough of them.
What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are chemical compounds that both occur naturally in your body and are found in many foods that make up a healthy diet. Fruits and vegetables, in particular, are great sources of antioxidants, as is green tea.
There are many different types of antioxidants, including vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and carotenoids such as beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin. Research has shown that eating a healthy diet rich in antioxidants (which basically means consuming a lot of fruits and vegetables) can help protect you against a variety of diseases.
What do antioxidants do for your health?
Antioxidants are believed to prevent or reduce some kinds of cell damage in your body. They do this by defending your body’s cells from harmful, unstable molecules called free radicals.
Free radicals are formed when a molecule or atom gains or loses an electron. They occur naturally in the body when you exercise and when your body produces energy, and they play a role in regular cell processes. However, free radicals can be extremely harmful to your body’s cells when they accumulate in high concentrations. This can occur when you’re exposed to environmental toxins like cigarette smoke, air pollution and even sunlight. At high enough concentrations, free radicals can cause oxidative stress, which is a process that triggers cell damage.
When unchecked, free radicals and oxidative stress can play a role in the development of cancer and other diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart disease and eye problems including cataracts. They do this by damaging DNA as well as proteins and cell membranes throughout your body.
Antioxidants are the antidote to these unstable molecules, which is why they’re often called “free radical scavengers.” The antioxidants produced by your body to neutralize free radicals are called endogenous antioxidants. Those that come from outside sources, like food and supplements, are called exogenous antioxidants. Both interact with unstable free radicals and can neutralize them, preventing or decreasing the damage they do to your healthy cells.
The best way to get antioxidants
A healthy diet is the very best way to ensure that you are getting enough antioxidants. People who eat a healthy diet that is based primarily in vegetables and fruit have a lower risk of developing many diseases and health problems. Many berries, like blueberries, goji berries, strawberries and raspberries as well as leafy greens like kale and spinach are known to provide a high amount of antioxidants. Beans, beets, artichokes and even dark chocolate can give you plenty of antioxidants, as well, to help defend you against free radicals and the diseases they cause.
Because antioxidants are constantly fighting the free radicals formed every single day, you need to eat them on a regular basis to maintain good health. Committing to a healthy, plant-based diet comes with many health benefits related to antioxidants as well as many other benefits.
What about antioxidant supplements?
If you have dietary restrictions or are having trouble developing a healthy lifestyle that incorporates a diet heavy in vegetables and fruits, you might consider incorporating antioxidant supplements into your daily routine. These can be an effective way to get antioxidants you might be missing and enjoy better health. If you do, be sure to do your research when selecting and determining the doses of any antioxidant supplements.
Even seemingly innocuous supplements like vitamin E and beta-carotene can become dangerous when consumed in high doses. Some antioxidant supplements might also interact with certain medications you’re taking. If you’re on a blood thinner, for example, you should avoid taking vitamin E supplements because they may increase the risk of bleeding. If you are suffering from cancer and are interested in taking an antioxidant supplement, the National Cancer Institute recommends discussing your options with your doctor before taking any supplements.
Your health is a priority, so you should be sure to combine a healthy diet rich with vegetables and fruit with regular exercise. When taken properly and combined with a healthy diet, antioxidant supplements can also help you attain all the health benefits that a healthy lifestyle promises.