What Are Antioxidants?

You’ve undoubtedly heard that you should consume certain foods like berries and wine because they contain antioxidants (as if you needed a reason). Maybe you’ve been persuaded to grab a bottle of pricy supplements off the shelf because of their big antioxidant claims. But what are antioxidants, and what do antioxidants actually do?  As long as you’re a living, breathing person moving through the world, your cells are fighting a constant battle against free radical damage. Free radicals are molecules like reactive oxygen species (ROS) and reactive nitrogen species (RNS) that cause oxidation, DNA damage, protein modification, and, worst case scenario, cell death. And they’re impossible to avoid. Free radicals are normal byproducts of cellular metabolism and exercise. You also accumulate free radicals from exposure to radiation, smoke, and everyday environmental pollutants.  If your body didn’t have a way to deal with these marauders, you’d be in a world of trouble. Luckily, though, nature has an answer: antioxidants.   What Do Antioxidants Do? Antioxidants serve as a powerful first line of defense against free radicals, preventing their formation and neutralizing their effects.  Free radicals are complicated little molecules. On the one hand, they cause oxidative damage, or oxidative stress, in the body. Too much oxidative stress contributes to aging and probably every chronic disease. That’s the bad news.  At the same time, oxidative stress is beneficial—necessary even—in the right amounts. In fact, the body is naturally happiest in a state of mild oxidative stress. Mild oxidative stress is hormetic, meaning it prompts beneficial adaptations that make you stronger, healthier, and more resilient to future stressors. The trick is to maintain the appropriate balance. That’s where antioxidants come in. Antioxidants are responsible for maintaining the right level of free radicals in the body (also known as redox homeostasis). For decades, scientists have believed that antioxidants work primarily by donating electrons to free radicals, which makes them less reactive and less destructive. More recently, researchers have also hypothesized that they could exert their effects in other ways, such as by acting on the microbiome or epigenome. Types of Antioxidants and Where to Find Them Your body makes some antioxidants on its own. Glutathione and uric acid are two endogenous antioxidants you’ve probably heard of. Melatonin, too, has powerful antioxidant properties. The majority, though, come from food. Colorful plant foods get the lion’s share of the credit for being antioxidant-rich, but as you’ll see, nutrient-dense animal foods also contribute here.   Antioxidants found in food include vitamins, minerals, and the various -noids detailed below.  Antioxidant vitamins and minerals Vitamin A (retinol), vitamin C (ascorbic acid, ascorbate), and vitamin E (tocopherols, tocotrienols) have all been identified as antioxidant nutrients. Animal products—eggs, fish, offal, dairy—are the best food sources of vitamin A. Fruits and vegetables, especially red bell pepper, citrus fruits, and guava, deliver the vitamin C you need, while nuts and seeds are best for vitamin E.  Certain minerals are also lauded for their antioxidant properties, acting directly as antioxidants or as cofactors for enzymatic reactions … Continue reading “What Are Antioxidants?”

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