Antioxidants – Their Role in the Body and Why They Matter So Much
It seems like every time someone markets a healthy food or supplement, they highlight one particular quality, “Antioxidant Power!” Now, that’s all well and good, but for some of us it’s a little vague. What does “antioxidant” mean, and why should we care?
We Know You’re A Smart Cookie
At Wholesome Story, we know that our clients are intelligent, discerning people who care about what they put in their bodies. We’re glad you take the time to learn about product labels, biochemical terminology, and holistic health; you’re joining us in our mission to help make the world more wholesome and healthier. So, let’s dive in to the nitty gritty about antioxidants. We’ll discuss their role, function, and places you can get more of them.
Chemical Mumbo Jumbo
First off, let’s get one thing straight, in the world of chemistry, the word “antioxidant” is an adjective, not a noun, meaning it describes the activity of certain compounds, but it’s not their name/title/nom de plume/etc. This is because it describes an action, not a state of being. For example, Vitamin-C is a powerful antioxidant, but its primary name is Vitamin-C, not Antioxidant-C, see? So, there’s that, but for the remainder of this blog, we’ll use the noun form of the word, just to keep things simple. Just know you won’t have to learn the names of a bunch of unknown chemical compounds when you learn about antioxidants, they will likely be things you’ve already heard of.
Next, let’s discuss the arch enemy of our cells, and the thing which antioxidants fight, Free Radicals, cool name, not-so-cool things. Free Radicals are electrons without proton buddies to keep their negativity at bay. Think of them as unpaired magnets seeking other magnets to stick to. Once they’ve stuck, they’re happy and no longer a threat. However, they are willing and able to steal their life partners from your body’s cells, wreaking physical damage on an atomic scale. Another good analogy for Free Radicals is that they’re thieves in search of building materials. They steal what they want from the buildings in your village/town. Once the thieves have their what they want, they don’t need anything else from the village, but the buildings in the village are left unstable and sometimes they crumble to dust. So, Free Radicals = Thieves, Cells = Buildings, Body = Village.
Where do Free Radicals Come From?
Safe to say, we don’t want our cells to be exploited and left in shambles, so we need to know where Free Radicals come from right? Main sources are our environment and lifestyle. Exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, toxic household cleaners, and some medications are all big sources. Free Radicals also run rampant in cigarette smoke, air pollutants, processed foods, fried foods, and cured meats such as deli meats and sausages. Another common source of free radicals is actually sunlight; it may be good for vitamin D, but it can also give you lots of Free Radicals.1 Limiting your exposure to these things can help reduce the Free Radical load on your body. However, there’s no escaping them entirely, even if you live in a bubble.
It’s also important to know that prolonged, excessive exposure to Free Radicals can contribute to diseases like cancer and heart disease, as well as accelerate the aging process.1 This is because in essence, Free Radicals blow holes in the structure of your cells and leave gaping wounds on a microscopic scale.
Yikes! Tell Me About the Hero of This Story
Introducing….daa da da daaaaahhhh. Antioxidants! Molecules with antioxidant powers, like Vitamin-C, have extra building materials that they can donate to Free Radicals to keep them happy and away from your body’s beautiful cells. In actuality, they have extra protons (+) that they can donate to lone-wolf electrons (-), aka Free Radicals, that will neutralize them. It’s really that simple. Once the Free Radical Electrons are paired with the donated electrons, they are harmless, and your body simply cleans them up along with other bodily waste products. Voila! They are no more.
Where Can I Get More of These Amazing Antioxidants?
As you may have guessed, since our featured antioxidant is Vitamin-C, vitamin-rich foods are a great source of antioxidants, aka plants. A diet filled with fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, peas, and whole grains, will provide you with antioxidants. You may know these antioxidants by names such as: glutathione, Vitamin-E, lycopene and other carotenoids, CoEnzyme Q10, Ellagic Acid (that stuff in pomegranates), and selenium among others.1
Don’t worry if you didn’t recognize some of those names, we’ll tell you where you can find them so that you can increase the amount of antioxidant power in your body.
Glutathione is a chemical compound found in a few types of plant foods such as avocados, asparagus, green beans, cucumber, and spinach. If you don’t like those foods very much though, don’t worry; you can help your body to support healthy glutathione levels by eating cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, and kale, by drinking green tea, and by including seasonings such as rosemary and turmeric in your diet. The latter foods may not contain glutathione, but they have what your body needs in order to make its own.2 Chow down.
This important vitamin is found in fatty plant foods like nuts and seeds, as well as in certain plant oils such as wheat germ oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil. On a low-fat diet? Never fear, leafy greens and some fruits and vegetables are high in Vitamin-E as well. Try noshing on broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, kiwis, or mangoes, which are all good sources.3
• Lycopene and other carotenoids
As you may already know, or have guessed, carotenoids can be found in orange/red foods like carrots. Shocker. What you may not know is that one of the most important carotenoids, lycopene, is actually most abundant in processed tomato products such as canned tomato paste and ketchup. This is because carotenoids are more easily absorbed once they’ve been cooked, blended, smashed, and otherwise released from the cellular matrix they were born in. Not a fan of tomatoes or carrots? Any orange/red fruits and vegetable will do the trick: red bell peppers, pumpkin, winter squashes, watermelon, pink grapefruits, guava, papaya, etc.4-5
• Co Enzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
You’re probably most used to seeing this on the labels of protein powders that are marketed to gym junkies, but it’s important for everyone. Our bodies naturally synthesize this molecule, but that doesn’t mean we always have as much as we need. Getting CoQ10 from your diet can be as simple as enjoying some fatty, cold-water fish, or some chicken for dinner. Don’t eat foods with faces? Pile your plate with roasted peanuts, sesame seeds, and pistachios. Lighter food sources include broccoli, cauliflower, and oranges.6
• Ellagic Acid
I may have spoiled one source of this exotic-sounding antioxidant earlier, pomegranate, but you can get it from other foods as well. Some sources will be familiar to you such as raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, walnuts, and pecans. However, here are some more exotic foods to try if you want to include more ellagic acid in your diet: cloudberries, ox tongue mushrooms, cambuci fruit, and Suriname cherries (regular varieties of cherries do not have ellagic acid).7
Seafood is famous for having high amounts of this mineral and good sources include tuna, clams, and shrimp. However, the most abundant dietary source of selenium is actually Brazil nuts; just 1 oz of these incredible nuts contains nearly six times as much selenium as 3 oz of tuna, which is the next-best source. Brazil nuts win. You can also get this selenium from pork, beef, chicken, brown rice, sunflower seeds, and whole wheat bread.8
You’ve Got What It Takes
Now that you know why Antioxidants are important and where to get more of them, (though it’s hardly a comprehensive list, I don’t think we even mentioned blueberries) you’re sufficiently prepared to ward off Free Radicals. Go forth, purge toxic sources of Free Radicals from your life, embrace foods rich in Antioxidants, and reap the health benefits!
In parting, remember that eating healthy, whole foods, and lots of plants foods is one of the simplest, safest, and most effective things we can do to promote good health in our bodies. As with every preventative/restorative measure though, sometimes these changes alone are not enough to help our bodies function the way we want or need them to. If you are struggling with health problems, please contact your doctor or other healthcare provider such a Naturopath, Dietitian, or Mental Health Professional to see if they can offer appropriate guidance and care. We at Wholesome Story believe that healthy communities require community effort, so we advise you to keep your healthcare community aware and involved in your journey as you pursue better health.
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- Saljoughian PD. Natural powerful antioxidants. U.S. Pharmacist – The Leading Journal in Pharmacy. https://www.uspharmacist.com/article/natural-powerful-antioxidants. Published January 23, 2007. Accessed December 23, 2021.
- Minich DM, Brown BI. A review of dietary (phyto)nutrients for glutathione support. Nutrients. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6770193/. Published September 3, 2019. Accessed December 23, 2021.
- Office of dietary supplements - vitamin E. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-HealthProfessional/. Published March 2021. Accessed December 23, 2021.
- Webster A. What is lycopene? Food Insight. https://foodinsight.org/what-is-lycopene-antioxidant-carotenoid-health-nutrition/. Published February 20, 2019. Accessed December 23, 2021.
- Higdon J, Drake VJ, Delage B, Johnson EJ. Carotenoids. Linus Pauling Institute. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/dietary-factors/phytochemicals/carotenoids#food-sources. Published January 1, 2021. Accessed December 23, 2021.
- Higdon J, Drake VJ, Delage B, Stocker R. Coenzyme Q10. Linus Pauling Institute. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/dietary-factors/coenzyme-Q10#food-sources. Published January 1, 2021. Accessed December 23, 2021.
- org. 10 Foods That Contain Ellagic Acid in Significant Amounts. 10 foods that contain ellagic acid in significant amounts. https://www.healwithfood.org/foods-that-contain/ellagic-acid-high-amounts.php. Published 2011. Accessed December 23, 2021.
- Higdon J, Drake VJ, Delage B, Tsuji PA. Selenium. Linus Pauling Institute. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/selenium#food-sources. Published January 1, 2021. Accessed December 23, 2021.