Everything You Need to Know About Antioxidants

Dr. Christopher McGowan
July 21, 2022

Nutritional science—the study of how nutrients affect the maintenance and growth of the body—is a relatively new discipline in the sciences. Prior to the last 40-50 years, it mainly focused on the effects of the deficiency of certain vitamins and how macronutrients like fats and carbohydrates impacted weight and energy. As more research has been done, the view of nutrition has expanded considerably and now encompasses the understanding of a wide range of processes and biochemicals. One of the greatest discoveries over this period of time has been antioxidants, compounds that have remarkable health benefits.   

What Are Antioxidants?   

An antioxidant is defined as any compound that inhibits oxidation, a kind of chemical reaction that causes a molecule to lose electrons. When this happens, the molecule with an unpaired electron becomes known as a free radical; this means that the molecule is then highly reactive and capable of causing damage to other cells when present in sufficient numbers. The accumulation of free radicals in the body creates an imbalance that is referred to as oxidative stress, and it can lead to numerous health problems.    

Our bodies naturally produce free radicals through oxidation as a byproduct of transforming food into energy, but it can also occur because of exposure to air pollution, cigarette smoke, radiation, ultraviolet light, and even some types of medication. Free radicals aren’t necessarily harmful, however; for example, the immune system uses free radicals from oxygen molecules in part to fight viruses and bacteria. There is also evidence that they can be beneficial during exercise by allowing the muscles to utilize glucose unlocked by insulin. 

In healthy people, the body balances the production of free radicals by producing antioxidants that essentially neutralize them. Antioxidant molecules give up some of their electrons to bind to the molecules of free radicals, rendering them inert. Yet antioxidants aren’t singular substances that all act the same way; some substances that act as antioxidants in one way may act as pro-oxidants in another way (meaning they take away electrons rather than giving them). In other words, there are no generic antioxidants that are broadly beneficial to the body.  

What Is the Danger of Free Radicals?

When the balance between free radicals and antioxidants is disturbed, that is when the body can enter a state of oxidative stress. The excess free radicals can attack cell membranes and even damage or modify the cell’s DNA; they can also adversely affect lipids and proteins and make it more likely for LDL cholesterol to become trapped in an artery wall. Below are some of the ways that oxidative stress and free radicals can negatively affect health: 

  • heart disease 
  • lung disease 
  • some types of cancer like lung cancer and prostate cancer
  • neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s 
  • age-related macular degeneration 
  • type 2 diabetes
  • atherosclerosis 
  • hypertension 
  • stroke
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • accelerated aging
  • cataracts 

How Do You Increase Antioxidants in the Body?  

The human body has evolved over human history to deal with the presence of free radicals by producing natural antioxidants like alpha lipoic acid and glutathione. As noted, though, sometimes environmental factors that are out of our control can create a situation where the body doesn’t make enough. In order to maintain the balance that can prevent illness, disease, and premature aging, it is important to find additional sources of antioxidants through the foods we eat. Listed below are some common antioxidants and the foods that contain them: 

  • Vitamin C: Also known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that is involved with tissue repair, collagen formation, and the production of some neurotransmitters. While many mammals synthesize their own vitamin C, humans must acquire it from food sources like citrus fruits, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, leafy greens, strawberries, tomatoes, and cauliflower.   
  • Vitamin E: Vitamin E is actually a group of eight different fat-soluble compounds that is thought to be beneficial in protecting cell membranes from free radicals. Studies have shown that sufficient dietary vitamin E is linked with lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and dementia. Sources include almonds, avocado, red peppers, spinach, and sunflower seeds.  
  • Selenium: Selenium is a chemical element that is stored in muscle tissue and is useful for humans in trace amounts when present in food. In addition to being a valuable component of many enzymes and proteins, selenium helps protect cellular DNA from free radical damage. Sources include Brazil nuts, shellfish, fish, beef, poultry, and brown rice.    
  • Beta-carotene: Beta-carotene is a natural pigment found in plants that have an orange or yellow color. Beyond being a source of pigmentation, beta-carotene is valuable in humans because the body can convert it to vitamin A when needed and also provide the related antioxidant benefits. Sources include carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, and winter squash.  
  • Lycopene: Similar to beta-carotene, lycopene is a carotenoid food pigment that has a deep red color and is found mainly in tomatoes. Recent studies have shown that lycopene can reduce both blood lipids and blood pressure as well as being an antioxidant. In addition to tomatoes, lycopene can be found in watermelon, pink grapefruit, and papayas.
  • Lutein: Lutein is another type of pigment that is distinctly yellow and is sometimes known as the “eye vitamin” because of its apparent benefits for the human eye; studies have shown that lutein helps protect tissues in the eyes from sunlight damage. Sources include egg yolks, corn, orange bell peppers, zucchini, and squash. 
  • Zeaxanthin: Zeaxanthin is another type of yellow pigment that is one of the most common kinds of pigment in nature. Zeaxanthin can also be found in the human eye and is beneficial for eye health. Sources include oranges, eggs, mango, and grapes. 
  • Zinc: The chemical element zinc is beneficial for immune function, metabolic function, the healing of wounds, and improving the senses of taste and smell. Sources include poultry, beef, shrimp, oysters, sesame seeds, fortified cereals, and lentils.   
  • Polyphenols: Polyphenols are a group of micronutrients that are naturally found in many kinds of plants. There are more than 8,000 types of polyphenols, including common examples like flavonoids, capsaicinoids, lignans, anthocyanins, and ellagic acid. There are numerous sources of polyphenols in food, including apples, red wine, blueberries, peanuts, onions, green tea, and dark chocolate.    

In recent years, there have also been attempts to create antioxidant dietary supplements that are intended to provide the benefits without the specific foods. To date, there is essentially no solid evidence that such supplements provide protection from disease in the way that dietary sources do. The preponderance of evidence is that antioxidants found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are the most reliable source of health benefits. 

Antioxidants: The Bottom Line

Based on ongoing research from places like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute, there is no question that antioxidant-rich foods are an incredibly important part of a healthy diet. It has been well established that antioxidants are highly effective at reducing cancer risk, preventing chronic diseases, and inhibiting the kind of oxidation that leads to cell damage. The bottom line is that everyone should add these kinds of foods to their regular diet as a boon for overall health and wellbeing. 

Beyond the clear value of antioxidants, there is also a link between healthy eating and weight management techniques. Unfortunately, though, most people who look solely to dieting as a means of weight loss are not successful over the long term. At True You Weight Loss, our goal is to pair our non-surgical weight loss solutions with traditional methods in order to help you lose weight and keep it off. If you would like to learn more about how we can help, including through True You Rx, our comprehensive weight loss program, please contact us today to request a consultation. We are eager to speak with you and find the right solution for you.

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan
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