You have probably heard something about the health benefits of antioxidants and the importance of getting enough of them in your diet. So you know that antioxidants are good for you, but that might not be enough, especially as eating too many of them could be bad for you. So what exactly are antioxidants, and what do they do?
What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are a group of chemicals found in many fruits, vegetables, and grains that reduce oxidation in your body and its negative effects. Many common vitamins and minerals are antioxidants, such as vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E.
Some antioxidants are also produced naturally by the body. However, your body only produces a small range of antioxidants compared to the range that can be found in food, and your body’s production of those endogenous antioxidants can slow down with age.
What are Free Radicals?
Antioxidants prevent oxidation by eliminating free radicals in your body. Free radicals are molecules that are missing an electron. This makes them attract electrons from other molecules they come into contact with, reacting with and changing important components of the cells in your body, affecting their function.
Free radicals occur naturally in the body, and they can actually be useful. Your immune system uses them to fight infection, among other uses. The problems start when there are too many free radicals in your body, and they outnumber the antioxidants.
There are many causes for excessive free radical formation, including:
high blood sugar levels
high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids
exposure to too much ultraviolet radiation, often from sunbathing or using sunbeds.
bacterial, fungal, or viral infections
excessive intake of iron, magnesium, copper, or zinc in your diet
too much or too little oxygen in your body
intense and prolonged exercise, which causes excessive tissue damage
excessive intake of certain antioxidants, such as vitamin C and vitamin E
What is Oxidative Stress?
Oxidative stress harms the cells in your body and their ability to perform many vital functions. In the skin, it can cause many of the visible signs of aging, such as a loss of elasticity due to a reduction in collagen levels. Some scientists believe that oxidative stress is one of the key biological processes responsible for aging.3 Oxidative stress can also contribute to a hardening of blood vessel linings along with other cardiovascular problems and can reduce the function of most of the organs in your body. 2
Do antioxidants help prevent cancer?
Free radicals can also damage and alter the DNA in your cells. When your cells replicate themselves, the damaged DNA can cause cells to be replicated inaccurately, potentially resulting in several types of cancer.
This often leads to claims that consuming antioxidants can reduce your risk of cancer. However, there have only been limited clinical trials to investigate whether consuming antioxidants will help to prevent cancer. No one has found any conclusive evidence to prove this yet. Most studies found that increasing consumption of antioxidants in isolation had no noticeable effect on participants’ likelihood of developing cancer. Some trials even found that overconsumption of some types of antioxidant actually increase the growth of tumors, although this effect has only been found in mice so far.1
Anything that can provide an extra electron to free radicals, making them unable to react with and damage your cells, is technically an antioxidant. Many nutrients have effective antioxidant properties and are used in antioxidant supplements and other products.
Where Can you Find Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are not hard to incorporate into a regular diet for most people, and you can add an even wider range of antioxidant nutrients to your diet by taking vitamin and antioxidant supplements to cover any gaps in your intake, although this may be less effective than getting them from your food.4
Nutrients that act as antioxidants are commonly found in many plant foods, especially fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains. A smaller number of antioxidants are found primarily in meat and dairy products, although meat-free alternative sources for most of these are available.
Vitamins and minerals that offer antioxidant properties include:
Allium sulfur compounds
These are found in leeks, onions, and garlic.
Eggplant, grapes, and berries are great sources of these.
Beta-carotene is commonly found in red and orange plants such as pumpkin, mangoes, apricots, carrots, and green leafy vegetables like spinach and parsley.
Most people get their catechin intake from tea and red wine.
Copper is found in seafood, lean meat, milk, and nuts.
These are also found in red-colored plant foods such as red capsicum, pumpkin, and mangoes.
Flavonoids are compounds found in tea, green tea, citrus fruits, red wine, onion, and apples.
Indoles exist in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower.
This group of nutrients is found in soybeans, tofu, lentils, peas, and milk.
Sesame seeds, bran, whole grains, and vegetables can all provide good quantities of lignans.
Green, leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, and also corn, are great sources of lutein.
Lycopene is found in tomatoes, pink grapefruit, and watermelon.
This metal is found in most seafood, lean meat, milk, and nuts.
Polyphenols are in some herbs such as thyme and oregano, as well as some types of tea.
This element is found in seafood, offal, lean meat, and whole grains.
Liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, milk, and egg yolks all provide vitamin A.
Vitamin C is found in many fruits and a few vegetables. These include oranges, blackcurrants, kiwifruit, mangoes, broccoli, spinach, capsicum, and strawberries.
Vegetable oils such as wheat germ oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, and whole grains act as sources of vitamin E.
Zinc is a metal found in seafood, lean meat, milk, and nuts.
Zoochemicals are various compounds found in red meat, offal, and fish. They can also be found in plant foods but not in sufficient quantities to benefit from eating them. People who do not eat meat can often benefit from using supplements to get more concentrated doses of zoochemicals derived from plant sources.
How Many Antioxidants Should I be Getting Per Day?
It is possible to consume too many antioxidants. If you exceed the recommended daily dose of an antioxidant, it can actually have the reverse effect and work as a pro-oxidant. 5
This is because antioxidants are trying to offload an extra electron, unlike the free radicals they eliminate, which are trying to attract electrons from other molecules they come into contact with. If there are too many antioxidants in your system, not all of them will find free radicals and dump their extra electron on a molecule within your cells. This can have effects that are just as damaging to the cell as having an electron taken away by a free radical and can also cause chain reactions that create free radicals.
As many antioxidant nutrients also affect your body, the recommended daily intake is different for each antioxidant. This can make it hard to tell whether you are getting enough antioxidants overall.
However, there is another way to measure your antioxidant intake. Antioxidant content can be measured on an Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity scale. The foods that are highest in antioxidants, such as berries and spices, score highly on the scale at tens of thousands of units, whereas foods that contain fewer antioxidants can score much lower, at hundreds of units or less.6
The average man with a caloric intake of around 2,500 calories should consume around 11,000 OREC units a day. The average woman with a caloric intake of around 1,800 calories a day should consume around 8,000 OREC units. People who have more body mass need to consume more antioxidants, and your antioxidant intake should increase with your caloric intake. So if you eat a high-calorie diet to maintain a lot of body muscle, you should also make sure to increase the number of OREC units in your diet.
How Should you Work Antioxidants Into your Diet?
Some research suggests that antioxidants may be more effective when they are included in our diet in the form of whole foods rather than extracted into supplements. Whole foods often contain other compounds that help the body absorb the key nutrients and get their antioxidant effects.
As a result, according to the current research, it seems that it is better to get your antioxidants from your food instead of supplements where possible, although some other studies suggest no difference between whole food and supplement sources.
Try these tips to help adjust your diet to get the full range of nutrient sources:
Make whole bread or grains part of at least two meals most days
Buy fruits and vegetables of a wide range of colors, as color can be an indicator of different vitamins in the food
Include vegetables in at least two meals a day
Make vegetables at least a third of each meal
Include lean meat or a meat alternative as part of at least one meal a day
Add fruit to at least two meals as a dessert, or replace snacks with fruit
Include milk, yogurt or cheese as a significant part of at least two meals or snacks a week
Eat fish or seafood meals at least once a week
Eat meals made with legumes every week
Eating as broad a mixture of fruits, vegetables, whole-grain foods, meat, and dairy, is the best way to get the widest range of antioxidants into your system. Although many people only think about addressing potential dietary deficiencies such as antioxidants when they have a health issue they want to address, antioxidants are even better for your health when used proactively.
Regularly eating fruits, vegetables, and other foods that contain antioxidants minimizes the build-up of free radicals in your body, helping prevent oxidation and oxidative stress before they occur. While oxidation and oxidative stress only tend to make their effects known in later life, the cumulative benefits of consuming antioxidants can start from early childhood, making an antioxidant diet important from the beginning of a person’s life.
Antioxidants are an important part of a healthy diet. However, it is important to remember that a healthy diet is only one part of a healthy lifestyle. Regular exercise and managing your stress levels are equally important to maintaining the health of your immune system, cardiovascular system, metabolism, and overall wellbeing.
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