Antioxidants: What are they and how do they protect us?
Learn the benefits and sources of antioxidants
Antioxidants can be man-made or natural molecules that limit or slow damage to your cells caused by free radicals. These free radicals cause oxidative stress, which may result in damage to your cells. Antioxidants therefore play an important role in maintaining health.1
Found naturally in fruits and vegetables, examples of antioxidants include Vitamin C, beta-carotene, selenium, lutein, and lycopene, which have all been shown to reduce oxidative stress in the body.1
Keep reading to learn:
- What antioxidants are
- How antioxidants protect us
- Foods high in antioxidants
- The benefits of antioxidants
Before making changes to your diet, nutrition, and exercise routine, consult your healthcare practitioner. Always discuss any vitamin and mineral supplements you are taking or plan to take, since these may interact differently with medications and health conditions.
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What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are man-made or natural molecules that limit or slow damage to your cells caused by free radicals. The vitamins and minerals in the foods you consume are antioxidants and your body creates antioxidants including glutathione and alpha lipoic acid.1,2
These antioxidants may play an essential role in protecting your body from damage caused by free radicals.1
What are free radicals?
Free radicals are atoms, ions, or molecules with one or more unpaired electrons. The missing electron makes them capable of reacting with cellular components, such as membranes and DNA.
Lifestyle and environmental factors including tobacco smoke, sun exposure, air pollution, and toxins may encourage the creation of free radicals and oxidative stress.3
Some free radical production is normal and healthy. As your cells create energy from the food you eat, free radicals are produced in small amounts as by-products. Their levels increase during exercise, immune system responses, and exposure to various environmental factors. Mild, temporary increases in oxidative stress during and after exercise supports beneficial changes in your body that help you recover and build fitness. Also, cells belonging to your immune system occasionally release free radicals as part of the body’s natural defense system.1-3
However, when there are too many free radicals in your body for too long, oxidative stress may be problematic. This is where antioxidants come in. They help promote balance by slowing or inhibiting cellular damage caused by oxidative stress.1
How do Antioxidants Protect Us?
Antioxidants protect us by combatting the effects of oxidative stress at the cellular level. The best way to obtain these protective compounds is through a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.1
The benefits of eating antioxidant-rich diets are supported by large-scale human studies. For instance, epidemiological and observational studies have shown positive connections between regular consumption of antioxidant-rich foods and cardiovascular health.1
Examples of antioxidants include:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Carotenoids such as lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin and beta-carotene
- Flavonoids like quercetin (found in apples and onions), catechins (found in green tea and fruits), and anthocyanins (occurring in berries and grapes)
- Phenolic acids found in coffee and fruits
Dietary antioxidants can help disarm free radicals through several different mechanisms. Often, they bind to the free electrons, ‘pairing up’ with them, creating an innocuous cellular compound that the body can eliminate as waste. Minerals like selenium and zinc work indirectly by supporting enzymes and other proteins that maintain antioxidant defenses.‡
Foods Rich in Antioxidants
Foods rich in antioxidants include:4
- Good sources of Vitamin C: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, cauliflower, grapefruit, leafy greens, kale, lemon, orange, papaya, snow peas, strawberries, sweet potato, tomatoes, and bell peppers
- Good sources of Vitamin E: almonds, avocado, Swiss chard, leafy greens, peanuts, red peppers, boiled spinach, and sunflower seeds
- Good sources of beta-carotene and lycopene: apricots, asparagus, beets, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, bell peppers, kale, mangos, turnip and collard greens, oranges, peaches, pink grapefruit, pumpkin, spinach, sweet potatoes, tangerines, tomatoes, and watermelon
- Good sources of selenium: Brazil nuts, fish, shellfish, beef, poultry, barley, and brown rice
- Good sources of zinc: beef, poultry, oysters, shrimp, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, lentils, cashews, and fortified cereals
- Good sources of phenolic compounds: apples, red and white wine, onions, tea, cocoa, berries, grapes and nuts
Antioxidants and Your Health
Free radicals and oxidative stress are part of life for all living things including plants and animals. And while some free radical production is essential to physiology, it’s important to keep oxidative stress within healthy limits.1
Your body tries to keep this balance by making antioxidants on its own, but it also relies on the foods you eat for the antioxidants it cannot create. By eating a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, legumes, tea, and other plant-based foods, you can support your natural antioxidant defenses.4
Discuss any supplements, including antioxidants supplements with your healthcare practitioner.
Use our Purely For You personalized supplement plan to provide you with tailored wellness recommendations to meet your specific nutritional needs.
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1. Antioxidants: In Depth, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (Accessed January 10, 2022) https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/antioxidants-in-depth
2. Understanding Antioxidants (Accessed January 10, 2022) https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-antioxidants
3. Antioxidants Explained in Simple Terms, Healthline (Accessed January 10, 2022) https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/antioxidants-explained
4. Antioxidants, The Nutrition Source (Accessed January 10, 2022) https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/antioxidants/