You’ve probably heard the terms “antioxidants” and “free radicals” a lot lately in the media. It’s hard not to have come across those terms at some point, as they’ve become the new buzzwords in everyday conversations.
Almost everywhere you look you’ll see some type of superfood or skincare product boasting the antioxidant banner.
The truth is, much like the term “gluten,” many people don’t know exactly what they are, where they come from, and why there are so important. This is likely because the concept of antioxidants and the role they play is rather complex.
In order to understand what they are and how they benefit our well-being, we’ll need to take it down to a molecular level and become familiar with free radical formation.
Every cell in our body is made up of little minute compounds called molecules, and each molecule carries its own set of electrons.
In a nutshell, a free radical is an atom or a group of atoms with an odd number of electrons. When the body is under attack – which it constantly is – oxidative stress occurs. And when oxidative stress occurs an oxygen molecule splits into single atoms. These single atoms are called free radicals.
Let’s imagine that each cell is like a salsa dance school with a performance formation group. The only requirement for each member of the group is to have a partner.
And let me tell you, for the sake of a strong performance, the teacher of this school has very strict requirements for every member to have a partner or else they can’t be part of the group.
When a member of the team finds himself without a partner, they’ll try to interfere with another couple, steal a partner, only creating yet another single member.
You can imagine how this situation will continue to play out – utter chaos and confusion!
At the risk of losing the performance team, the dance teacher has to step in and find a partner for the single member. Only then will peace be restored and the performance group can continue to exist.
These single members are what we’ll call “free radicals,” and free radicals will go to great lengths to find an electron (partner) no matter what the cost. They’ll begin to sabotage other groups, leaving a domino effect and creating more and more free radicals.
Is there a solution to this problem? Yes! They’re called antioxidants.
The Role of Antioxidants
Sadly, it’s impossible to be free from free radicals as they can be caused by things we consider to be healthy, like exercise. Their simple existence and formation in the body are inevitable.
But certain molecules have the ability to set those harmful free radicals straight, and this is where antioxidants come into play.
The role of antioxidant is the peacekeeper, the free radical bounty hunter, or the electron donor. And they work hard to neutralize free radicals and restore order to the cells in our body.
Now the good news is that our body is a highly intelligent machine that knows how to fix itself through our natural processing system. In this case, we’re talking about the production of antioxidants.
Our body is capable to create most of them internally except for a few such as Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and Vitamin E. These must be sourced from our diet.
Numerous studies have confirmed the benefits of antioxidants, and the role they play in repairing damaged molecules, slowing down the aging process, and reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease.
The Risk of Oxidative Stress
We know that free radicals are the bad guys, and they are formed by oxidative stress. This means an imbalance of pro-oxidants and anti-oxidants, or in simple terms mentioned earlier – a lack of an electron (partner).
Oxidative stress can be caused by alcohol, medicine, toxins, poor diet, infections, or environmental factors such air pollution, cigarette smoke, and sunlight. They can attack just about any molecule in the body such as fats, proteins, and even your DNA.
And the damage inflicted can be serious to where it causes your cells to be unable to perform vital functions.
Sources of Antioxidants
Taking into consideration that there are several antioxidants that the body is unable to produce on its own, it’s important to know which foods they can easily be sourced from.
You’ll find you can get most of them simply by eating a healthy diet which includes a colorful mix of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, seeds, and nuts.
Here is a short list of some common antioxidants and what food sources you’ll find them in:
- Vitamin A – found in eggs, milk, butter, liver.
- Vitamin C – berries, oranges, kiwis, broccoli, tomatoes, bell peppers, kale.
- Vitamin E – sunflower seeds, almonds, kale, spinach, peanuts, avocado’s, seed and nut oils.
- Selenium – pasta, bread, corn, chicken, nuts, eggs, legumes, cheese, fish, beef, turkey.
- Lutein – spinach, peas, orange, broccoli.
- Lycopene – tomato’s, strawberries, watermelon, grapefruit.
- Beta-carotene – orange vegetables and fruits such as carrots, peaches, sweet potatoes, squash, apricots, papayas.
While you can find these antioxidants in the supplement form too, the best sources come from food as they are easier for the body to process, and offer a more balanced intake with the additional benefits of minerals, fiber, and other vitamins.
Also read: 40 Foods High In Antioxidants