Written by Dr. Laura Jones, Naturopathic Doctor
We often hear of the importance of antioxidant-rich nutrition or supplement plans but understanding why antioxidants play such a key role in our health may motivate each of us to make even wiser choices for our body. An antioxidant is a substance such as vitamin C or E that neutralizes potentially damaging free radicals, also known as oxidizing agents, in a living organism. A free radical is an uncharged molecule known for being highly reactive and short-lived, and it is capable of interrupting healthy biochemistry and damaging tissues through a process called oxidative stress.
Production of free radicals in the body is continuous and a normal part of our physiology that results from many of our metabolic processes. An example of a process that causes free radical accumulation and oxidation is the creation of ATP, our body’s fuel source. This is a process during which a cell uses oxygen to produce energy. Free radicals are formed as a byproduct of ATP production in the mitochondria. We cannot live without ATP, but free radicals occur because of its creation. Therefore, despite being essential for life, oxygen can damage our cells through oxidative events. Other processes resulting in free radical production include production of smooth muscle, platelets and white blood cells. Inflammation produces free radicals, so does mental/emotional stress, pollution, and certain foods such as alcohol, red meat, barbequed foods, sugar and unhealthy fats. Even something as beneficial as exercise is a major source of free radical production and oxidative stress.
The oxidative stress caused by free radicals is believed to be a central mechanism underlying several human cardiovascular, neurologic and other disorders including cancer. Antioxidants are our key defense against free radical induced damage and are necessary for maintaining optimum health. Better known antioxidants are vitamin C, E, A and beta-carotene. Many people have heard of and use other antioxidants as part of their supplement routine including CoQ10, alpha lipoic acid, and acetyl-l-carnitine. Certain essential oils are incredibly rich in antioxidants such as clove, myrrh, and frankincense. Research suggests that when it comes to longevity and aging gracefully, the benefits of consuming antioxidant-rich foods, herbs, teas and supplements are many. These benefits include:
- Slower signs of aging, including the brain, heart, skin, tissues and joints
- More youthful and healthier skin
- Reduction in risk of cancer
- Better supported detoxification pathways
- More longevity
- Reduction in heart disease and stroke
- Improved brain health and cognition, less dementia
An individual’s exposure to free radicals or oxidative stress dramatically impacts their risk for developing many diseases. This is compounded by unhealthy lifestyle, exposure of chemicals, pollution, cigarette smoking, drugs, illness, and stress. Internal use of antioxidants from plant, animal, and mineral sources are beneficial to human health and effective to reduce risk for developing many diseases.
Several studies reveal that low antioxidant consumption through food or supplementation or low blood levels of antioxidants increases the risk of different diseases. For example, the risk of certain cancers is doubled in those with low dietary intake of fruits and vegetables. Healthy lifestyles that include a nutrition plan rich in antioxidants and/or antioxidant supplementation are proven to protect us from oxidative stress.
A quality multivitamin/multimineral formulation, rich in easily absorbable nutrients is a reliable source of antioxidants. Some of our WHC favorites are sold in our online store. Certain antioxidants have an affinity for certain body systems. For example, CoQ10 is the cardiovascular system’s strongest antioxidant. Alpha lipoic acid and acetyl-l-carnitine are protective to the neurological system and aid in blood sugar balance for those diagnosed with or at risk for Diabetes.
Regarding diet, unlimited potential to improve health lies in the food we choose to put in our bodies. The food we eat has a dramatic impact on our antioxidant status. Some of the foods richest in protective antioxidants are gogi berries, wild blueberries, dark chocolate, pecans, artichoke, elderberries, cranberries, blackberries and cilantro. Herbs rich in antioxidants include clove, cinnamon, oregano, turmeric, cocoa, cumin, parsley, basil, ginger and thyme.
When assessing your own health, compare your sources of oxidative stress to your sources of antioxidants. This can be very helpful when deciding which lifestyle changes should be prioritized. Supplements are helpful, but diet likely holds the greatest potential for reducing risk of disease and improving health.