Firstly, is it even necessary to consider taking antioxidant supplements? Before we can answer this question, let’s take a look at what antioxidants are and their role in the body.
You may have heard that antioxidants are compounds in the body which neutralise free radicals. So let’s start with a quick look at free radicals.
What Are Free Radicals
In essence, free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules which have lost an electron. This is what is responsible for their highly reactive nature – free radicals do whatever it takes to secure themselves a replacement electron. In the process, they scavenge electrons from other molecules, creating more free radicals in the process. Ultimately, free radicals may cause damage to the cells of the body.
However it’s important to realize that free radicals are normal and found in everyone. They are formed as a byproduct of metabolism. It is believed that up to 5 percent of the oxygen that each cell uses is converted into free radicals. In other words, just being alive will cause free radicals to form!
So Why Worry?
As I explain below, free radical damage can have very serious effects in the body. In someone living a very healthy lifestyle, this may not be an issue as the body does have compensatory mechanisms to cope with these rebellious molecules.
But many people today live in less than pure environment. Smoking, pollution and various environmental factors can increase the concentration of free radicals in the body. As the number of free radicals increases, so does the potential for free radical related disease. Therefore, in today’s modern world, many researchers suggest it might be a good idea to limit these dangerous molecules.
Free Radical Damage
So, what sort of damage can these reactive molecules do? Well, it is thought that they may play a role in many chronic disease conditions. For example, free radical damage may be involved in the development of atheroscelrosis, which contributes to heart disease.
Many people have heard that free radicals can damage the cell’s DNA, leading to genetic mutations. This potentially weakens the cell, or in the worst cases, can lead to cancer or birth defects.
Free radicals can also cause damage to the micro fine capillaries in the body. If this happens in a sensitive place, such as the retina of the eye, it can lead to macular degeneration. Free radical reactions with the molecules in the lens of the eye can lead to cataracts.
Many researchers believe that free radical damage may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, and many scientists believe that free radicals are the primary force behind aging itself.
You can see that free radical damage can be devastating. So. how does the body protect itself from these scavengers? Yep, here’s where antioxidants fit in.
What Are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are compounds in the body that are capable of neutralising free radicals by offering up their own electrons to the unstable molecules. In doing so, antioxidants do not themselves become free radicals, so they effectively block the iterative process.
Like free radicals, antioxidants are produced naturally. And as mentioned above, when living an ideal lifestyle, that may be all that’s necessary. But when subject to environmental stress, the concentration of free radicals may exceed the neutralising ability of these native antioxidants. When this happens there will be an accumulation of free radical damage to otherwise healthy tissues. This is where supplementing our reserves of antioxidants becomes a good idea!
So, what are the best antioxidant supplements?
Many, many natural foods contain compounds which act as powerful antioxidants. It’s therefore very easy to supplement our reserves of antioxidants. And doing it by consuming natural foodstuffs is a safe and easy way to do it!
Three very active antioxidant compounds include the vitamins C and E, and the vitamin precursors known as carotenoids.
Vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid) is a powerful antioxidant found throughout the entire body. Increasing the amount of vitamin C in your diet may help protect against free radical damage.
Vitamin C is believed to play an important role in protecting against heart disease. In a major study, researchers analyzed a national survey of vitamin C intake and death rate in 11,348 people ages 25 to 74 during a 10-year span. They found that men and women with high intakes of vitamin C (about 300 milligrams a day) from both food and supplements had much lower death rates from heart disease than those with low intakes.
Vitamin C may also help protect against certain forms of cancer. Research has found that a diet high in vitamin C is related to a lower risk of stomach cancer. Vitamin C-rich foods may also help protect you from cancer of the mouth, larynx, and esophagus.
Another benefit of viramin C is that it is known to work extremely quickly. Vitamin C will be blocking free radicals before other antioxidants even arrive at the scene!
It’s really simple to increase the amount of vitamin C in your diet. Just eat more citrus fruit, red peppers and broccoli. Yummy!
Vitamin E (also known as alpha-tocopherol) is a fat soluble vitamin primarily involved in protecting your fat tissues from free radical invasion (vitamin C is water soluble).
This means that vitamin E is particularly effective in fighting heart disease by preventing the bad LDL cholesterol from being oxidised by free radicals and contributing to atherosclerosis.
There have been several studies linking vitamin E to a reduced incidence of heart disease. In one study of 80,000 nurses, researchers found that women with the highest vitamin E intake – about 200 IU a day – were one-third less likely to suffer from heart disease than their counterparts who were only getting about 3 IU a day.
Of particular significance to women, vitamin E has also been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer. A study at the State University of New York at Buffalo found that women who maintained high levels of vitamin E had significantly lower risks for the disease than women who had low levels. The benefits were most pronounced among younger women, although those past menopause were also protected.
Vitamin E seems to work more efficiently in the presence of vitamin C. It appears that vitamin C plays a part in reactivating the vitamin E molecule after it has reacted with a free radical.
Rich sources of vitamin E include wheat germ, kale, sweet potato, and sunflower seeds.
The most studied member of this group of antioxidant compounds is beta-carotene.
There was initially great excitement when beta-carotene was linked to reduced levels of heart disease and cancer. However, subsequent studies found that taking high doses of beta-carotene through the use of supplements could actually increase the risk of some of these diseases! Yet another lesson from Mother Nature on the virtues of moderation.
It is an indisputable fact that beta-carotene has established benefits when taken in appropriate doses. In one study researchers found that people with the highest levels of carotenoids had one-third to one-half the risk of macular degeneration than those with lower levels.
Another study, from the National Eye Institute, found that taking high doses of vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and zinc may cut the risk of advanced macular degeneration by about 25 percent.
The amounts of beta-carotene that people need can typically be obtained from eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
Food sources of beta carotene are believed to be superior to supplements. Scientists still aren’t sure why , but it may be that the carotenoid group of compounds comprises over 600 different substances. It’s possible that observed benefits are not only due to beta-carotene but the combination of beta-carotene plus its less-recognized kin.
The vitamins C and E and beta-carotene are extremely powerful antioxidants which are easy to supplement through the diet. In some cases, dietary supplementation has been proven superior to pharmaceutical supplements.
These compounds however form only a tiny portion of the huge antioxidant arsenal your body is able to muster. For example, the mineral selenium is needed for its role in supporting your natural antioxidant enzymes.
Similarly, flavonoids and other types of phenolics in green tea, chocolate, and red wine also act as potent antioxidants.
To maximise your opportunity for good health, ditch the pills and make sure you eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. This will truly help to ensure that you get healthy amounts of all of these antioxidants.
The above is just a brief introduction to the topic of antioxidants. If you’re interested in finding out more about the health benefits of these amazing compounds there are many excellent books available. I’ve listed a few below.
Any thoughts on the above? If have any questions or comments to share please leave a message below. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can 🙂