Antioxidants — Beyond the Hype

Hundreds of substances act as antioxidants, but not all antioxidants function the same. 

Key Takeaways

  • Antioxidants can neutralize free radicals and have unique functions and benefits.
  • The body produces antioxidant enzymes as part of the antioxidant defense system.
  • Antioxidants can be obtained through diet, particularly from fruits and vegetables.
  • Supplementing with antioxidants can support the body’s antioxidant defense system.
  • Quality and balance are important when choosing antioxidant supplements, and it’s advisable to consult a doctor before making significant changes to your diet or supplement routine.

Antioxidants: a Closer Look

We talked about free radicals and oxidation, now it’s time to talk about antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds that can neutralize free radicals. Hundreds of substances act as antioxidants and they all have unique functions and benefits. Some that eliminate free radicals directly and others that enhance your antioxidant defense system. Different antioxidants are especially helpful in specific areas of the body. Such as lutein for your eyes and lycopene for your prostate.

Your Antioxidant Defense System

As we learned, your body constantly creates free radicals as a normal part of metabolism. Your body also naturally produces antioxidant enzymes in your cells. The three main antioxidant enzymes are, Superoxide Dismutase (SOD), Glutathione Peroxidase (GPX), and Catalase (CAT). These enzymes make up your antioxidant defense system and help neutralize free radicals before they become dangerous. Superoxide Dismutase converts the free radical Superoxide Anion into the free radical Hydrogen Peroxide, while Catalase and Glutathione Peroxidase both neutralize Hydrogen Peroxide into water. Despite this system being in place, free radicals can overwhelm antioxidants and cause oxidative stress

Food Sources of Antioxidants

When we don’t produce enough antioxidants on our own, we can obtain them through diet. We need a daily minimum of 8-11,000 antioxidant units to be clear of oxidative debt. This minimum is usually not met, which explains why oxidative stress related disease is so prevalent. Consuming antioxidants through diet helps keep your system in balance. 

Most antioxidants come from food— specifically veggies and fruits. Plant foods are usually rich in antioxidants because they use sunlight to generate fuel. In order to protect themselves from constant exposure to UV rays from the sun, plants have evolved antioxidant defenses that survive against oxidative stress. These same antioxidants can be absorbed in your body by consuming these foods. The cool thing about antioxidants is that they work synergistically with the other nutrients in food to offer protection in your cells.

Here are some of the antioxidant rich foods you can incorporate in your diet:

  • Red Cabbage— This veggie adds a pop of color and boost in nutrition. Red cabbage is also a great source of vitamins C,K and A. 
  • Kale— This veggie is one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can consume. It is also a great source of minerals such as manganese, calcium, copper, potassium, and magnesium. 
  • Artichokes— They may look scary but don’t shy away from them.  Artichokes are packed with antioxidant substances such as polyphenols, flavonoids, and anthocyanins.
  • Blueberries— These berries are one of the strongest antioxidants out there. Blueberries have anti-inflammatory properties and can lower your risk of heart disease. Add them to your smoothies and salads!
  • Dark Chocolate— Dark chocolate is full of antioxidant compounds such as polyphenols, flavanols, and catechins. The higher the percentage of cocoa, the better. 
  • Pecans— Packed with unique antioxidants, pecans are a perfect snack to munch on. They are also a good source of calcium, magnesium, and potassium. 
  • Goji Berries— This dried fruit has been part of ancient Chinese Medicine— and for good reason. They are loaded with antioxidants, and come with all sorts of benefits such as blood sugar control and immune support. 
  • Coffee— Your morning cup of joe is actually full of antioxidants and is the most common source of antioxidants consumed by modern humans. If coffee isn’t your thing, consider green tea as a great alternative. 

Antioxidant Supplements

Not all plants are made the same. Sometimes the quality of fruits and veggies in supermarkets are questionable. Factory farming and GMO seeds produce crops that aren’t as nutritionally dense. Also, the pesticides used can produce more free radicals in your body. Although farmers markets are an option, it isn’t the most convenient option. Supplements are not a substitute for food, but they can be a helpful tool for supporting your antioxidant defense system. Here are some of the best antioxidants to look for in your supplements: 

Beta Carotene— Beta-Carotene is a type of carotenoid which are the yellow, orange, and red pigments found in fruits and vegetables (Think Carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes).

  • Converted to Vitamin A in the body and is known to strengthen the immune system and promote healthy cell growth. 
  • Potent antioxidant that gives a particular benefit to the immune system and lungs.
  • Helps asthma patients improve their quality of life
  • Synthetic versions of this antioxidant are made from acetylene gas.

Curcumin— Curcumin gives turmeric its yellow color and is a potent anti-inflammatory agent. 

Green tea extract— Green tea extract contains catechins, the most powerful of which is Epigallocatechin Gallate (EGCG).  

  • Prevents tumors from generating blood vessels that divert nutrients from healthy cells.
  • Inhibits metastasis
  • Natural telomerase inhibitor eliminating immortality of cancer cells 
  • Particularly effective against leukemia, prostate and breast cancer

Lutein— A carotenoid vitamin related to beta-carotene and Vitamin A. Lutein is absorbed best when taken with a high-fat meal. Found in green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, yellow carrots, egg yolk and animal fats).

Lycopene— A bright red carotene pigment found in tomatoes and many other red fruits and vegetables (guavas, watermelon, tomatoes, and papayas).

  • Cooking enhances bioavailability in fruits and vegetables
  • Fights prostate and bladder cancer
  • Combined with green tea extract, inhibits prostate cancer proliferation by 90% 

N-Acetyl-Cysteine (NAC)— Comes from an amino acid L-Cysteine and is one of the keys to a healthy immune system and maintaining high levels of the endogenous antioxidant enzyme glutathione peroxidase. and spinach to name a few.

Quercetin— A flavanoid antioxidant that’s found in fruits and vegetables. One of the most abundant antioxidants in the human diet. 

Resveratrol— Resveratrol is concentrated in the skin of grapes. Resveratrol was assumed to be the reason for the French Paradox, that people who drank red wine are unaffected by high fat/high cholesterol diets. There’s actually very little resveratrol in wine and grapes are no longer used for extracts. Instead Japanese and Chinese knotweed are extracted due to their high resveratrol content. 

Selenium—  A trace mineral that is a component of glutathione peroxidase. Organic forms of selenium or found in amino acids. 

  • Synergistic with glutathione and catalase in helping protect cell membranes
  • Protects the liver and important for thyroid and immune function
  • Recommended daily allowance is 55mcg due to concern for toxicity. 
  • Low selenium levels have been connected to death from heart diseases to cancer

Vitamin C— Vitamin C is the most well-known antioxidant, found in papaya, guava, kale, red peppers, broccoli and citrus fruits among others. 

  • Helps repair and regenerate tissues
  • Protects against heart disease
  • Decreases bad cholesterol
  • Supports healthy immune function

To be Noted:

Like with food, not all supplements are created the same. Here are some things to keep in mind: 

Quality— There’s a huge difference between natural Vitamin E from aloe and synthetic vitamin E. Natural Vitamin E contains other phytochemicals (natural plant chemicals) that help it work better as an antioxidant. Whereas synthetic Vitamin E doesn’t provide the whole package of nutrients. 

Double Edged Nature— There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, so it’s important to be particular about the supplements you choose to take. Most antioxidants don’t discriminate between helpful and harmful free radicals. Overconsumption of such supplements may break the balance needed to operate metabolic reactions leading to what’s called antioxidative stress. This is why it’s important to:

  1. Take a wide spectrum of antioxidants that work in different areas of your body. 
  2. Utilize antioxidants that complement one another
  3. Use natural antioxidant supplements rather than synthetic ones 
  4. Use antioxidant complexes (that are research-based) to get a good variety
  5. Consider Molecular Hydrogen based products like PrimoH2 that are safe even at higher dosages.
  6. As always, consult your doctor before making major diet changes and ask for advice on supplements you’re considering.