While you probably think of it as a means to satisfy hunger, the food you eat plays a critical role in keeping you healthy. From breakfast to a midnight snack, everything you consume provides your body with the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients it needs to function properly.
Of course, some foods are more nutritious than others – a bowl of sugary cereal may be a tasty way to start the day, but it isn’t going to give your body much to work with compared to good old-fashioned porridge.
Just as foods vary in terms of nutrition, some of the compounds within these foods pack more of a wallop than others when it comes to supporting your health. Of these compounds, one of the most important for powering your body is the antioxidant.
What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are substances found in food (or synthesised in a laboratory) that inhibit oxidation, a chemical reaction that can produce unstable molecules known as free radicals. Free radicals are naturally produced when your body breaks down food, and other common triggers include intense physical exertion as well as exposure to ultraviolet radiation and cigarette smoke. The instability of free radicals can lead to a process called oxidative stress that may cause damage to cells. Antioxidants work to protect your cells from this damage.
How do antioxidants work?
Antioxidants protect cells from damage is by neutralising free radicals, thereby reducing oxidative stress. The instability of free radical molecules is the result of a missing electron. Antioxidant molecules possess the ability to give free radical molecules an electron, thereby neutralising the free radical.
There are many types of antioxidants. Although they share certain commonalities, each antioxidant works differently based on its unique chemical structure. Some of the many antioxidants are:
- Glutathione, which is generated internally by the body
- Vitamin E, a fat-soluble antioxidant that is crucial for preventing oxidative damage to cell membranes
- Vitamin C, a water-soluble antioxidant that is also an essential dietary nutrient
- Flavonoids, which are found in plant foods
- CoQ10, another antioxidant produced by your body that is used by every one of your cells
- Carotenoids, compounds that are responsible for the bright colours of certain foods
- Resveratrol, which is sometimes called ‘the fountain of youth’ for its ability to protect against age-related illnesses
What are the health benefits of antioxidants?
Research suggests that oxidative stress caused by free radicals may be associated with the development of conditions like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and more. The damage done to cells by free radicals may also ‘speed up’ the ageing process.
When antioxidants neutralise free radicals, they minimise the damage these unstable molecules do to your cells – and potentially lower your risk of developing certain diseases in the process. Antioxidants may also help support healthy ageing.
Which foods are high in antioxidants?
While your body produces some antioxidants (like glutathione and CoQ10), others can only be obtained from food. Since each antioxidant possesses unique benefits, eating a variety of antioxidant-rich foods helps ensure that you’re providing your body with the support it needs to fight free radicals. Here are some foods high in antioxidants:
Blueberries are one of the healthiest foods you can eat because they’re exceptionally high in antioxidants and other beneficial nutrients, but low in calories.
Cocoa in dark chocolate contains antioxidants that may possess anti-inflammatory and cardioprotective properties.
This leafy green is packed with antioxidants and a number of other nutrients.
Many nuts contain antioxidants, but walnuts are almost twice as high in antioxidants compared to other commonly consumed nuts.
Strawberries contain antioxidants called anthocyanins that give them their vibrant red hue.
Red and purple cabbage also contains anthocyanins, as well as vitamin C.
Along with lentils and other legumes, beans are a good source of both antioxidants and dietary fibre.
Artichokes are one of the most antioxidant-rich vegetables, and boiling or steaming them increases their antioxidant content.
This bright yellow spice that is often used to flavour curries contains antioxidants as well as an anti-inflammatory compound called curcumin.
Used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine, goji berries contain particularly potent antioxidants called Lycium barbarum polysaccharides.
Grapes and grape seed extract
Grapes' skin and seeds contain resveratrol, the ‘fountain of youth’ antioxidant.
How can antioxidants help patients with Lyme disease?
In patients with chronic Lyme disease, the immune system is challenged permanently. Inflammatory processes are triggered consistently and subconsciously, which leads to a pro-inflammatory environment and can cause many symptoms.
Antioxidants found in food have been shown to help lower cytokine levels (inflammatory messengers for inter-cell communication). A diet that features a variety of antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, nuts and spices also provides the body with the nutrition it needs to fight off Lyme infection.
When putting together a Lyme disease treatment plan, it’s a good idea to start with your plate. Focusing on healthy wholefoods that are high in antioxidants is a relatively simple way to support your body as it battles this complex condition.