What Are Antioxidants And Why Do They Matter?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, chances are you’ve at least heard of antioxidants.
And whether it was your doctor casually recommending a diet high in antioxidants, or some fancy new supplement promising to deliver “the most antioxidant-rich, powerfully detoxifying, mega awesome, might turn you into a superhero formula, EVER”…
You’ve probably gathered that they have something to do with your health.
But if you’re one of those wacky folks who actually likes to know what something is and what it does BEFORE you start pumping it into your body in high quantities (I know, crazy concept)… Strap in!
Because in this article, we’re diving into what antioxidants are, what they do, and the best sources to get them, so you can make more informed decisions about your health and wellness.
Why are antioxidants important?
To really understand what antioxidants are and why they’re important, it’s easiest to learn about what they do in your body… So let’s start there.
Every moment, your body is undergoing an untold number of chemical reactions as a result of your daily activities, environmental stressors, and natural metabolic processes. Some of these chemical reactions create byproducts known as free radicals.
Free radicals get their name because they contain unpaired electrons in their outer shell, meaning they are unstable and often highly reactive. In order to achieve stability, a free radical will search throughout the body to find another molecule to bind to and steal one of its electrons.
Through this process the initial free radical is able to balance itself, but actually destabilizes the second molecule, creating a new free radical and starting a chain reaction.
When this chain reaction is left unchecked and free radicals become too abundant in the body, oxidative stress begins to occur and can cause structural damage to lipids, proteins, and DNA.
That’s where antioxidants come into play.
They’re uniquely able to give one of their electrons to a free radical without becoming too unstable and reactive themselves, essentially “breaking the chain” of free radical damage.
However, though an antioxidant can lose an electron without being immediately detrimental, it’s still unbalanced and requires an additional electron from a different antioxidant to avoid becoming a pro-oxidant.
This is why it’s so important to ensure you maintain a healthy level of antioxidants in your system, and leads me to our next point…
How to get more antioxidants
As mentioned above, free radical formation is happening all the time, and is actually a part of normal metabolism.
Your body can even use free radicals to its advantage, which it does when you’re sick and inflammation is triggered as part of an immune response to help neutralize pathogens, or during exercise where free radicals act as signaling molecules to stimulate muscle and training adaptations.
In general, once the free radicals have served their purpose, the body will reduce the molecules by increasing production of endogenous (produced inside the body) antioxidants, like glutathione or alpha-lipoic acid.
It’s kind of like a built-in system of checks and balances.
However, where problems like oxidative stress start to occur is when the amount of free radicals in your body outnumbers the amount of endogenous antioxidants it’s able to produce. This is what happens when you’re overexposed to toxins like air pollution, cigarette smoke, alcohol, and inflammatory foods.
When this is the case, it’s important to find other means to increase the number of exogenous (produced outside the body) antioxidants in your system to combat the additional free radical production.
Here are some of the best ways to increase your antioxidant levels:
When it comes to boosting antioxidant levels naturally, there’s no substitute for a good diet.
The best sources of antioxidants are usually fruits, vegetables, and other brightly-colored foods, as their color often indicates a heavy presence of phytonutrients. For example, blueberries get their deep blue color from a phytonutrient known as anthocyanin.
Other foods that tend to be high in antioxidants include:
- Strawberries, raspberries, & blackberries
- Wild-caught salmon
- Dark chocolate
- Red cabbage
- Black grapes
- Red peppers
- Red apples
- Green tea
While a diet full of antioxidant-rich foods is the best way to ensure you maintain healthy levels of antioxidants, some supplements can provide an extra boost when you need it.
For instance, vitamins A, C, and E, along with minerals zinc and selenium, have all been shown to have antioxidant properties, and can regularly be found in a quality multivitamin or as individual supplements.
Beyond that, some compounds within the hemp plant, such as CBG, CBN, CBD, terpenes, and flavonoids, can also support healthy antioxidant activity.†
Just remember, some products may contain way higher amounts of substances than what’s recommended, so take time to research products that better fit your specific needs.
Prioritizing brands that conduct third-party testing offers more transparency into the quality and safety of the products you’re reviewing.
AND always talk to your doctor before adding a new supplement to your health routine.
Minimize Free Radicals
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” - Benjamin Franklin
When Franklin originally coined this phrase, he was referring to fire prevention and the fact that it’s much easier to prevent fires than to put them out once they’ve started.
The same logic rings true when referring to your body.
While boosting antioxidants through your diet and supplements can be effective in limiting free radical damage, you can do yourself a lot of good by avoiding the lifestyle and environmental stressors that cause them to rapidly produce.
Some of the stressors have already been mentioned above, such as cigarette smoke, air pollution, and inflammatory foods… which makes sense as all are typically associated with poor health outcomes.
However, others aren’t as obvious and may even surprise you.
For instance, exercise is generally seen as a positive behavior when performed at a healthy duration and intensity level. But when you exercise until exhaustion it causes an increase in free radicals, which can result in DNA and muscle damage.
Similarly, regular exposure to an appropriate amount of sunlight is one of the healthiest things you can do for your sleep, immunity, and overall health. Yet, overexposure leads to significant solar radiation, potentially resulting in sunburn and increased inflammation within the body.
Essentially, the devil is in the dose, so use common sense when evaluating your daily routine.
There you have it friends! We’ve finished our deep dive on what antioxidants are, where they come from, and why you need them. Let’s take a little time to review.
- Your body creates free radicals as a result of normal metabolic processes and when it’s exposed to stressors like cigarette smoke, air pollution, and unhealthy foods.
- While they’re an inevitable part of life, free radicals must be stabilized before they result in oxidative stress.
- Antioxidants are molecules that can safely give up an electron to free radicals without becoming too unstable.
- Certain levels of antioxidants are made inside the body, and you can also increase the amount of antioxidants in your system through healthy diet and supplementation.