Have you heard about the antioxidants in blueberries and green tea? Wait, that’s a silly question because I know you have. The better question is: Do you have any idea what an antioxidant is and why it matters? If yes, do you know that too many antioxidants can cause damage, so finding the right balance is important? Let me explain…
What is a Free Radical?
Free radicals are atoms or molecules that are missing an electron. You may remember from chemistry class that all molecules like to have their electrons in pairs (after all who doesn’t want a friend to do things with?!). When an atom or molecule is missing an electron, it is oxidized, or more simply, unbalanced and unhappy. These unstable molecules bounce around causing damage by stealing electrons from other molecules.
If it is not controlled, this damage leads to oxidative stress, which can result in:
- Chronic conditions that affect the heart, brain, lungs, kidneys, digestive system, joints and/or eyes
- DNA mutations
- Degenerative conditions like degenerative disc disease
- Premature aging
- Pregnancy concerns such as stunted fetal growth and pre-eclampsia
Although it sounds extreme that a molecule missing an electron can lead to all this, it’s because there is never just one free radical. The initial steal often leads to a cascade of electron stealing because the molecule that was forced to give up an electron is now a free radical and needs to find an electron to steal, as illustrated by this simple diagram:
Where do Free Radicals Come From?
There are many things that can cause a molecule to become oxidized. Essentially anything internal or external to the body that steals or removes an electron creates a reactive molecule. The sources of free radicals include:
- Exposure to air pollution, cigarette smoke, pesticides, solvents, and radiation (x-rays and UV light)
- Phase 1 detoxification
- Normal physiological processes like:
- Defending against microbes
- Breaking down fats
- Creation of energy in the mitochondria
As you can see, the creation of free radicals is done by our bodies as part of normal life. The problem arises when we create a lot of free radicals due to toxin exposure. Taking care of these extra free radicals is why antioxidants are really important!
What is an Antioxidant?
Antioxidants are substances that deliberately donate an electron in order to bring a free radical into balance. This reduction makes the free radical balanced and happy and prevents it from stealing an electron from another source, which would create a new instability.
Sounds great, right? Lots of helpful antioxidants going around stabilizing the free radicals? So what’s the problem? An antioxidant that has given up its electron is now oxidized, and that means it needs an electron from somewhere else! Fortunately, many antioxidants work together to keep the giving and receiving within the family (so to speak), which prevents other molecules from having to get involved. This diagram gives you an example of how these inter-antioxidant relationships work:
Because of these relationships, we need to have the right amount and the right balance of antioxidants to keep ourselves healthy right down to the cellular level.
Where Can You Get Antioxidants?
Finally, we are down to the whole point of this post! The best way to be sure you are getting enough antioxidants to combat oxidative stress, without introducing problems by having too many of them, is to eat a variety of antioxidant-containing foods. For many people, getting antioxidants from food rather than supplements is the best approach. However, if you’re someone who thinks you need more antioxidants due to your environment or lifestyle, I recommend working with a qualified healthcare professional so you don’t over-supplement and create issues for yourself.
To safely and effectively boost your intake, the following is the list of antioxidants and the best food sources for them. Include several of these foods every day and you’ll be well on your way to protecting your cells and keeping them healthy, without the risk of overdosing on antioxidants:
- A / carotenoids: apricots, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, dark green leafy vegetables, romaine lettuce, peas, sweet peppers, sweet potato and winter squash
- C: bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, dark green leafy vegetables, guava, kiwi, orange, papaya, pineapple, strawberries
- E (aka tocopherols): almonds, asparagus, avocado, dark green leafy vegetables, olive oil, peanuts, shrimp, spinach, sunflower seeds, trout
- Copper: cashews, chickpeas, lentils, lima beans, mushrooms, oysters, sesame seeds, soybeans, sunflower seeds, walnuts
- Iron: liver, beef, poultry, pork, oysters, clams, shrimp, eggs, beans / legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, molasses
- Manganese: bass, brown rice, chickpeas, cloves, hazelnuts, mussels, pineapple, pumpkin seeds, soybeans, spinach
- Selenium: beef, brazil nuts (especially!), fish, lamb, mushrooms, oysters, pork, poultry, sunflower seeds, trout
- Zinc: beef, cashews, cocoa, crab, lobster, oysters (especially!), pork, poultry, spinach, wheat germ
- Thiols (aka sulfur-containing compounds), which are found primarily in the onion family and in cruciferous vegetables. There are also two super high-powered antioxidants that contain thiols:
- Glutathione: whey protein and milk thistle
- Alpha lipoic acid: organ meats, spinach, tomatoes, peas
- Plant polyphenols (like resveratrol and catechins): colorful fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, green tea, herbal teas
- Ubiquinol (aka coenzyme Q10): broccoli, cauliflower, chicken, fatty fish, meat organ meat, peanuts, pistachios, sesame seeds, spinach, soybeans
One final note: many antioxidants are somewhat specific, in that they can only give their electron to certain free radicals. As well, some of them are water soluble, others are fat soluble, and a few are both, so you really do need all of them.
The good news is that by eating a diet made up of a wide variety of whole foods with lots of different colors, you can be sure you are getting all of the antioxidants your body needs to keep your cells healthy.
To see this article as it appears on the Nutrition QED website, click here.
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