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The body needs essential vitamins and minerals to function at its best. Every bodily system requires different levels of these vital nutrients to assist in its job. When all systems are running smoothly and every organ has the right tools to do its job, the body is healthy and happy.
A lack of these nutrients can contribute to chronic disease, widespread inflammation, and even grave and irreversible conditions. Antioxidants are an essential part of the proper processes that the body needs to accomplish in order to function optimally. So what are antioxidants? And where can we find antioxidants in everyday nutrition?
What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants fight free radicals within the body. Free radicals are a type of incomplete molecule. They need antioxidants to donate an electron so that they are no longer wandering around the body looking for cells to steal one from. When antioxidant levels are depleted, free radicals can build up, damaging cells, contributing to chronic disease and leading to other detrimental health defects such as oxidative stress.
Free radicals are either reactive oxygen species (ROS) or reactive nitrogen species (RNS). Both the ROS and RNS are reactive, but they contain oxygen and nitrogen, respectively. They search the body for other cells to steal their electrons to help complete themselves, and cause damage to cells in the process which can ultimately result in a chain reaction.
What role do antioxidants play in the body?
Antioxidants are designed to help limit the amount of damage caused by free radicals. For example, they can give electrons to both ROS and RNS molecules so that they don’t have to harm other cells on their hunt for completion and hence, protect other cells from the process called oxidation.
Antioxidants work mainly in three very distinct ways:
- Catch and curb. Antioxidants catch free radicals to complete the molecule, forming a less reactive radical that has less ability to damage other cells.
- Regenerations. Some antioxidants replenish the stores of the antioxidants that are designed to catch reactive radicals. They can also increase the efficacy of already existing antioxidants so that they have more power against free radicals.
- Oxidation. Some antioxidants are more likely to be oxidised, thus leading to less oxidation of other cells and compounds.
What are the most common antioxidants?
Antioxidants can either be produced by our bodies (endogenous antioxidants) or need to be taken up with the diet (exogenous antioxidants). Examples of endogenous antioxidants include:
- Enzymes such as the superoxide dismutase
Exogenous antioxidants are both natural and synthetic, but are created outside the body and then consumed. Their role is to stimulate the regeneration of cells. Examples of exogenous antioxidants include:
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Carotenoids such as lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin
While both sources of antioxidants are important to the overall removal and management of free radicals, they play different roles and come from different sources. Other examples of chemical compounds that can act as antioxidants include bromelain and oligomeric proanthocyanidins.
What are the foods highest in antioxidants?
Many foods contain antioxidants, but some are far superior when it comes to getting the most bang for your buck, so to speak. Fruits and vegetables will contain the highest level of antioxidants, but the type of antioxidant will range from food to food.
The foods that contain the highest overall level of antioxidants include:
- Nuts like walnuts and pecans
- Berries like bilberries, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, blackberries, goji berries, etc.
- Cinnamon sticks
- Fresh herbs like dill, estragon (tarragon), basil, mint, etc.
- Dark chocolate
This is not an exhaustive list; however, the foods mentioned above are among those with high levels of antioxidants measured. Generally speaking, a diet rich in whole foods and colourful fresh vegetables and fruit gives you the best supply of antioxidants.
How can I increase antioxidants in my body?
From the list above, it’s safe to assume that one of the best ways to get antioxidants every day is simply by adding a little spice to your dishes. Seasoning vegetables with various spices will also bring out a whole new flavour profile while increasing the level of exogenous antioxidants you have.
There are also ways to increase the levels of your endogenous antioxidants, specifically glutathione. Eating foods rich in sulphur, such as beef or poultry, will help build stores of glutathione.
Other foods that are beneficial and can possibly aid glutathione production include:
- Brussels sprouts
You can also help boost glutathione levels by increasing other vitamin and supplement intake such as N-acetylcysteine, a cysteine donor or glutathione itself.
What else can antioxidants do?
Aside from ensuring that the number of free radicals within the body doesn’t get out of control, some recent research has suggested that antioxidants and oxidative stress can potentially influence neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Although more research needs to be done on the potential role that antioxidants play in the role of an overall level of health, it’s clear that they are a much-needed part of everyday nutrition.