Clearly this is an important issue and everyone tosses around the word antioxidant like they know what’s going on, but what is an antioxidant really? To start, let’s look at the basics – like what is oxidation?
What is Oxidation?
If you’re taking ANTI-oxidants, then it seems safe to assume that oxidation is bad, right? Actually oxidation is an absolutely normal part of life – it happens constantly as a byproduct of using oxygen for so many functions in our body. Each and every cell in your body maintains a delicate balance between reactive oxygen species (free radicals) which cause oxidation and the antioxidants which neutralize oxidation. In the process of metabolizing oxygen, a tiny percentage of the cells and molecules involved will suffer some damage and become free radicals. When asking what is an antioxidant, we need to first know what a free radical is and why it’s important to neutralize them.
What is a Free Radical? Essentially it’s an Electron Thief.
Free radicals and other reactive oxygen species are by-products of many reactions in your cells including your most vital energy producer called “oxidative phosphorylation.” As you may have guessed by the word “oxidative” in the title, this reaction uses these reactive oxygen molecules to create the most potent energy source for your cells. In addition to normal metabolism, free radicals can also be created by some disease processes and by your immune cells to help kill invading bacteria and viruses. Free radicals are substances that are missing a critical molecule (an electron, to be precise) so they are always looking to steal electrons from other things. Problems arise when they start stealing electrons from things like DNA, thereby creating the seed for disease.
What is an Antioxidant and How Does It Help?
Very simply, antioxidants are electron donors. They can replace the electrons on your cells that are stolen by free radicals or donate electrons to help neutralize free radicals. They are the Mother Theresa of your internal world – always giving, giving, giving. As a part of the grand design (what I like to call the Great Mystery) there are literally thousands of different antioxidants in natural foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts and legumes. Antioxidants include the usual vitamins – vitamin A, C, E, D and K but also all of the flavenoids, pigments, and complex molecules that come from whole foods. Remarkably, different antioxidants seem to have an affinity for different tissues of your body so the bigger variety, the better.
What Happens If You Don’t Have Enough Antioxidants?
When this system gets out of balance is when we start to see harmful changes that can lead to disease. For example, when LDL (“bad” cholesterol) becomes oxidized, meaning a free radical stole one of it’s electrons, then it starts to form plaques in our arteries, which can lead to atherosclerosis and heart disease. LDL itself doesn’t do anything to form plaque, but when a free radical steals an electron from it then it begins to cause harm. Oxidative stress is also thought to be a factor in diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Lou Gherig’s disease, and Huntington’s as well as chronic fatigue syndrome and potentially even the genetic damage that can cause a cell to become cancerous. Not only that, but oxidative stress is thought to be one of the major factors in aging, or at least that is one theory.
In general your body keeps balance really well – you have lots of overlapping systems to counteract this oxidative stress. In a natural diet you get lots of antioxidants from the plant-based foods you eat, so that’s one more layer of protection. The system becomes overwhelmed when your diet starts to get over-processed or when the stressor pile up including: toxins, alcohol, tobacco, mental and emotional stress, sleep deprivation and chronic infections. Taking a look at the real world, it’s easy to see we’re all exposed to toxins constantly – after all, we all breathe dirty air and drink polluted water. Most people drink some alcohol or come in contact with tobacco occasionally and I don’t know anyone with a perfectly clean diet (myself included). Also, realistically, I don’t know any living human who doesn’t have a high level of mental and emotional stress – that seems to be a condition of modern life. This is when lifestyle changes and possibly antioxidants can help to maintain that balance.
Antioxidants to the Rescue?
It is clear that balance needs to be maintained, but it isn’t totally clear how to best maintain that balance – simply because it has to be a balance. Too much of a good thing, in this case, can cause harm too. Essentially, when there are too many antioxidants floating around, we get the opposite to oxidative stress, which is “reductive stress” (nothing is ever simple with our bodies – nothing.) So that means that there are all kinds of molecules with extra electrons floating around and nothing to do with them, so they start giving them to other molecules that are better off without them. Keep in mind this is the ridiculously oversimplified version of this problem, but it’s the easiest way to make it understandable.
To Take Antioxidants or Not To Take Antioxidants?
Step one is always diet. Add in colorful fruits and veggies with each meal and take out some of the processed foods and you’ve got a great start to regulating your oxidative balance. You’ll get plenty of vitamin C and flavenoids from citrus fruits, vitamin E from whole grains and nuts and Vitamin A from liver, cod liver oils and fatty fish and beta carotene from carrots and orange veggies. Orange and red veggies also provide the potent antioxidants lycopene and lutein. Dark berries and fruits like blueberries, pomegranate, raspberries and black cherries are rich in flavenoids and dark green leafy veggies pack and antioxidant punch. For many people a good diet is enough. Take a look at the antioxidant infographic for specifics:
Antioxidants can be helpful to take as a supplement when you have specific conditions or know you’re exposed to undue levels of toxins, stress, or have some other factor coming into play like a chronic virus, sleep deprivation or a genetic tendency towards some illness. In this case the best strategy is to take a variety of antioxidants, either in a combination product or in a concentrated fruit and berry extract or both. Always boosting dietary sources is the best strategy, and if that is not feasible in your life then the next best idea is to diversify in the form of a supplement that has many different types of antioxidants in it. Now, the next time you’re at a dinner party, you can answer everyone’s question What is an Antioxidant? Wait, is that not how dinner parties go? 🙂