As healthy eating continues to take centre stage, antioxidants are always mentioned, but what are they? Why are they good for us and what different types are there? So many questions…
Well luckily for us all, our expert nutritionist, Lucy-Ann is here to help us out!
So what exactly are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are substances that work interactively inside and outside of the body’s cells, protecting cell membranes from the damaging effects of highly reactive molecules called free radicals.
Wait, what - Free radicals?
Free radicals are “charged” molecules that, if not counteracted by an antioxidant, run riot throughout the body, causing irreparable damage to cell membranes and cell structures (including our DNA or genetic blueprint), driving diseases such as cancer and heart disease, and also accelerating ageing. In fact, free radicals are implicated in over 60 diseases.
Another less serious sign of reduced antioxidant protection is ageing, or what we visibly see as lines, wrinkles, looser and blemished skin. Joint stiffness, and chronic aches and pains may also be a sign of heightened levels of free radicals, and reduced antioxidant protection. It is antioxidants that protect us, and literally “break the chain” of potential chemical destruction within the body.
How can we fight free radicals?
So where are free radicals coming from? They are coming from outside sources such as cigarette smoke, pollutants, radiation and even sunlight. Free radical molecules are also the end-product of normal breathing and energy production within the body’s cells. Whilst oxygen is of course, necessary for life, too much of it can damage our tissues. Oxidative damage is a sort of biological “rusting”, and exactly why we have a sophisticated in-built antioxidant defence system working on our behalf.
The body produces certain vital antioxidants, and it’s this internal antioxidant defence system that enables us to thrive in an ever-increasing challenging and toxic world. However, the body also needs, and effectively uses a multitude of antioxidant substances found readily in the diet – in natural wholefoods.
Where can we get antioxidants from?
“Antioxidant substances are either made by the body, or are obtained via the diet or nutritional supplements. Examples of antioxidants we find in food include vitamins A, C and E, & the trace minerals manganese, copper, zinc and selenium. There are also other less well known, but still as powerful antioxidants found in plant-based foods, which include antioxidant phenolic compounds, natural organic acids, flavonoids, tannins and sulphur-containing compounds.”
Let’s take a look at some important antioxidants…
Antioxidants are either water-soluble or fat-soluble, and we need both water and fat-soluble antioxidants to effectively protect cells. Water-soluble antioxidants include vitamin C, plant polyphenols, astaxanthin (found in water melon) and glutathione, whilst vitamin E, vitamin A and carotenoids form part of the fat-soluble army of antioxidants.
Antioxidants are then further categorised into non-enzymatic (found in foods), and enzymatic (produced in the body). Although enzymatic antioxidants are produced in the body (they cannot be supplemented orally), they do require co-factors in the form of trace minerals (e.g. copper, selenium, zinc, magnesium, manganese, iron) which are, of course, obtained via the diet. The non-enzymatic antioxidants we find in foods, supplement our internal antioxidant defence system, preventing a possible depletion and onset of disease.
- Glutathione is produced in the body and is known as the “master antioxidant”. It is found in every single cell of your body, and maximises the actions of all other antioxidants. Glutathione is a substance that together with the mineral selenium makes the antioxidant enzyme glutathione peroxidase, important for healthy liver function, and longevity.
- Superoxide dismutase, or SOD as its commonly called, is another major antioxidant produced in the body. It is assisted again by trace minerals such as zinc, copper and manganese, and is present in aerobic cells and extracellular fluids.
- N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), is another antioxidant that is believed to enhance immune function and maintain healthy lung function. It also boosts levels of glutathione.
- Alpha-lipoic acid is one of the newer generation of antioxidants. We make some of our own lipoic acid, but we still need to get it from food, or supplements. Alpha-lipoic acid draws on the cells own ability to “protect” and increases the effectiveness of other antioxidants, such as vitamin E and glutathione. Unlike any other antioxidant, it dissolves and works in both water and fats, helping to recycle both vitamin C (a water-soluble antioxidant) and vitamin E (a fat-soluble antioxidant). Incidentally, vitamin C recycles vitamin E and highlights the way in which all the antioxidants rely on each other to control the free radical chain reactions and minimise cell damage.
- CoQ10 is probably the most powerful antioxidant used by the body, being particularly effective in protecting the heart, arteries and blood vessels, as well as slowing down premature ageing.
- Vitamin E is the major “lipid” or fat-soluble antioxidant in the body, and is the antioxidant that comes to the rescue when a free radical attacks the fatty acids in the cell’s lining. Vitamin E is also important for diabetics, enabling insulin to reach “healthy” cell receptor sites that have not been damaged by free radicals.
- Vitamin C is undoubtedly one of the most researched nutrients, and its role as an antioxidant is well understood. Numerous studies have clearly shown its ability to help lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol, as well as reduce risk of developing chronic disease, such as heart disease and lung cancer in smokers. Smoking just one cigarette can deplete blood levels of vitamin C by 50%!
We should not forget that selenium is an important antioxidant in its own right, having been well studied and documented as the essential cancer-protecting nutrient.
Do I need to take antioxidant supplements?
One important point to remember about antioxidants (and all nutritional compounds) is that they work in synergy with one another. Vegetables such as broccoli, sprouts and bok choy for example contain over 70 different antioxidant substances - an amount, concentration, and natural structure that is simply not possible to achieve in a synthetic supplement.
Eating a natural wholefood diet with a wide variety of foods really is the key to obtaining all the antioxidant protection you need. The antioxidant support on offer in a plant-based diet extends way beyond the conventional antioxidants found in many supplements. Different types of antioxidants in foods function in different ways.
While all types are helpful in preventing unwanted oxygen damage to our cells and bodily systems, different types of antioxidants go about this vital task in different ways. It is therefore the combination of antioxidants found in fresh plant-based foods that make them so valuable, and a key reason why fruits and vegetables for example provide benefits that supplements cannot.
So how do we know how many antioxidants are in a food?
By using the ORAC scoring system. Stay tuned for the second part of our antioxidant series to find out more...