Words by James Tonin
ou are made up of about one trillion cells. These basic structural units govern every bodily function you experience. You’re able to move because of muscle cells, you’re able to think because of brain cells and you’re able to thrive because of blood cells—but your cells, all of them, have enemies. These enemies are known as free radicals, and they can wreak all kinds of havoc on your body.
Free radicals are reactive substances which your body naturally produces as a by-product of converting food into energy. While some new studies seem to suggest their effects might not be wholly destructive, cell oxidation is the primary result of free radical activity. This oxidation weakens the chemical bonds that hold your cells together, causing them to degenerate. Free radicals have been linked to a long list of serious diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and many forms of cancer. Some researchers believe that free radicals are the primary agents that cause our bodies to physically age.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to fight back against the damaging effects of free radicals. Substances known as antioxidants neutralize free radical activity, thus inhibiting or even preventing cell damage. Many studies have shown that eating an antioxidant-rich diet can reduce your risk for diseases associated with free radical activity, all while helping you stay younger, stronger and healthier. Seems simple, right? Well, there’s a little more to it than that.
There are many different types of antioxidants, and each of them plays a very specific role in neutralizing free radical activity. To give your diet the proper boost, it’s important that you understand how each antioxidant works and which foods contain them.
Vitamins A, C and E all have antioxidant properties. Scientists believe that vitamin A protects skin cells from sun damage, vitamin C helps maintain strong bones, skin and connective tissues, and vitamin E protects lipids, which play a key role in the absorption and delivery of nutrients.
High levels of vitamin A are found in liver, paprika, cayenne pepper, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, carrots, squash and dark leafy greens. Boost your vitamin C intake by eating more citrus fruits, guavas, kiwifruit, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli and strawberries. Spinach, nuts, seeds, avocadoes, fish and plant oils are excellent sources of vitamin E.
Carotenoids are one of the most important classes of antioxidants. These plant pigments are found in a wide range of fruits and vegetables and play an important role in human health. Studies have linked carotenoids to better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of asthma, prostate cancer and breast cancer. They are also believed to protect your vision and help your body fight infections.
Brightly coloured produce is rich in carotenoids. The more colours you choose, the more carotenoids you’ll get, so in addition to dark green leafy vegetables, be sure to add some red and orange bell peppers, carrots, squash, kale, tomatoes, red cabbage, plums, berries and sweet potatoes to your shopping cart.
Flavonoids are an important type of polyphenol antioxidants, which are believed to regulate intracellular signaling mechanisms and the sensitivity of cell receptors. While these benefits are a boon to every major system in your body, one could argue that flavonoids have the most profound effect on your brain. Intracellular communication and cell receptor sensitivity are extremely important to optimal nervous system function.
Most berries are high in various flavonoid compounds, including strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, cherries and grapes. As a general rule, the darker the berry, the more flavonoids it contains. You can also find these brain boosting antioxidants in coffee and tea, so if you were looking for an excuse to pour yourself another cup of joe, now you’ve got one.
Phenolic acids are similar to flavonoids, in that they are also a type of polyphenol antioxidant mainly found in berries, coffee and tea. However, they’re also present in brown rice, whole grains, apples, oranges, tomatoes and plant derivatives like witch hazel, sumac, rosemary, oregano and sage.
In addition to their antioxidant properties, there is evidence that phenolic acids battle harmful bacteria, helping ward off infections and speed up healing. Phenolic acids also help regulate cholesterol levels and can provide a mild but natural dose of pain relief.
However, it is possible to get too much of a good thing. A recent study published in Science Daily found that excessive intake of resveratrol, a phenolic antioxidant found mainly in red grapes, can neutralize some of the beneficial effects of cardiovascular exercise.
Current research trends also seem to show that increasing your intake of any one single antioxidant does not provide clinically significant protection against diseases caused by free radicals. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States, there is no evidence to suggest that any single antioxidant or class of antioxidants reduces risk of heart disease, stroke or cancer.
While further studies are ongoing, the prevailing sentiment in the scientific community is that antioxidant benefits are maximized by increasing your intake of as many kinds of them as possible.
Antioxidant Supplements vs. Natural Sources
Virtually every antioxidant under the sun is available in supplement form at your local health food store. Even so, most experts believe that your body can absorb antioxidants from natural sources more easily. Prevailing wisdom holds that you should primarily get them from your diet and use supplements only as secondary supports.
To get the widest possible variety of antioxidants into your diet, keep these principles in mind: eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and add as many different colours of produce to your diet as you can. Choose whole grains whenever possible, and watch your intake of sugar, saturated fats, fried foods and empty calories. Unhealthy foods have been clinically proven to increase free radical activity, and without a balanced approach to nutrition, you risk doing yourself more harm than good even if you include plenty of antioxidant sources in your diet.
Finally, it’s important to note that while the majority of doctors and researchers believe that antioxidants have beneficial effects, they have not been conclusively proven to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, cancer or any other serious illness. Think of them as another arrow in your quiver of good health rather than a cure-all magic bullet.