What Are Antioxidants?

What Are Antioxidants?

Antioxidants are a big “buzz word” in today’s culture of health and wellness. These substances are chiefly found in fresh fruits and vegetables. We hear a lot about antioxidants, but what are they really? This blog post attempts to answer that question.

The Problem of Free Radicals

Every day, your body’s cells are exposed to oxygen. Obviously, oxygen is pretty important! But it also results in a negative affect known as oxidation in which the chemicals in your body are changed and become free radicals. Free radicals are unpaired electrons caused by the breakup of atoms due to oxidation. Other causes of the creation of free radicals include smoking cigarette, pollution, and alcohol.

As time passes, free radicals can have a damaging impact on your body. They affect your body’s chemicals, cells, and DNA. Some of this damage is permanent. The results of damage caused by free radicals may include serious illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, stroke, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, autoimmune diseases, vision problems, fibromyalgia, and heart disease. Free radicals can also speed the aging process.

Antioxidants May Stop Free Radical Damage

The answer to damage caused by free radicals may rest in the chemicals known as antioxidants. Antioxidants describe a behavior rather than a substance, meaning a compound that provides electrons and counters the damage caused by free radicals. By donating electrons, antioxidants may prevent cell damage since free radicals do not have to rob other cells. Any compound that can accomplish these actions can be said to have antioxidant properties.

Antioxidants can stabilize free radicals and keep them from causing harm to other cells in the body. Not only that, but antioxidants may actually be able to reverse oxidation damage, at least in a limited sense. Some doctors and researchers encourage caution when discussing the “magic” powers of antioxidants—of course there are limits to the positive effects these chemicals can have, and the science is not there to support the idea that antioxidants are a magic cure-all.

Where Can I Find Antioxidants?

Antioxidants can be natural or man-made. Some sources of antioxidants include:

  • Lutein, found in leafy greens such as spinach, kale, broccoli, and collards, as well as other vegetables and fruits including corn, oranges, and papayas
  • Beta-carotene, found in brightly colored vegetables and fruits as well as some leafy greens
  • Lycopene, found in vegetables and fruits that are pink or red in color, including grapefruit, apricots, watermelon, and tomatoes
  • Selenium, found in grains, nuts, legumes, and animal products
  • Vitamin A, found in dairy products, eggs, and liver
  • Vitamin C, found in almost all fruits and vegetables
  • Vitamin E, found in nuts, seeds, oils, and green leafy vegetables

Eating a diverse and well-rounded diet with healthy portions of the major food groups is the best way to ensure that you are getting enough antioxidants. Your diet should include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially dark leafy greens. Be sure to eat plenty of whole grains, dairy products, seeds, and nuts, as well.

Should I Take a Vitamin Supplement?

There is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.” According to the United States Preventive Services Task Force as well as the American Academy of Family Physicians, vitamin E and beta-carotene supplements are not recommended for preventing cancer. In fact, some individuals—including smokers and others with high risks for lung cancer—can actually increase their lung cancer risk by taking supplemental beta-carotene.

Talk with your doctor before starting any supplements. In most cases, eating the right foods is sufficient—you shouldn’t need to take any supplements. Schedule an appointment and be sure to ask your healthcare provider any questions you may have about your nutritional needs.

This article contains general information about medical conditions and treatments. The information is not advice and should not be treated as such. The information is not intended to replace the advice or diagnosis of a physician.

If you have any specific questions about any medical matter you should consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider.