We’re all familiar with the term “antioxidant,” as it’s thrown around quite often in the world of health and nutrition. However, most people aren’t necessarily aware of what antioxidants are, and the important role they play in the human body. And this is understandable, because it’s actually pretty complicated.
You might even take a daily supplement that boasts antioxidant support, or buy products that tout their “free-radical fighting benefits.” Read on to break down what an antioxidant actually is, and learn about some of the key players.
What is an Antioxidant?
All matter is made up of atoms, which consist of neutrons, protons and electrons. When atoms join together, they form molecules. The human body is formed of many substances such as proteins, genes and DNA, all of which are essentially molecules with thousands of atoms linked together. Chemical reactions occur when molecules are either built up or broken down, and this is our metabolism.
If a molecule in the process of changing loses an electron that it shouldn’t lose, this molecule can potentially become a free radical. Another term you are probably familiar with, it refers to an unstable, electrically charged molecule that can react and damage other molecules, such as DNA.
Antioxidants react to these free radicals by taking the place of the missing electron, neutralizing its charge and keeping it from causing harm to the body. Pretty amazing, right?
What Causes Free Radicals Damage?
Free radicals are actually normal and there for a reason, but when we have them in excess and too few antioxidants, this is where we can get into trouble. This trouble is called oxidative stress, and it can be brought on by many common environmental and lifestyle factors, such as the following:
- Cigarette smoke
- Air pollution
- Toxins in our food and water supply
- Excessive alcohol intake
- Antioxidant deficiency
- High blood sugar
- Consumption of rancid oils/fats (mainly polyunsaturated fats from vegetable oils)
Important Antioxidants to Include in Your Diet
Lutein is a powerful antioxidant found especially in eggs, and studies show that it plays a key role in protection against various degenerative eye conditions. This antioxidant is especially important if you have poor night vision (1).
This key player is part of the carotenoid family of antioxidants, and has some potent health benefits. Astaxanthin is the compound that gives salmon its bright, pink color, and it has been proven to lower your risk of heart disease, mainly by reducing the oxidation of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
Resveratrol is most well known as the healthy component of red wine, but it can also be found in blueberries, grapes and peanuts. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory antioxidant, and can be hugely beneficial for those with heart disease and other conditions (2). Don’t over-do it on the wine, though, as too much alcohol can definitely undermine resveratrol’s health benefits.
Pycnogenol is also known as pine bar extract, and can be an excellent hormonal support for women during menopause. Studies show it supports menopausal symptoms and can reduce stress, and might even be helpful with PMS symptoms throughout a woman’s life (3). This important antioxidant has also been linked to healthy blood circulation and blood pressure.
Alpha Lipoic Acid
Alpha Lipoic Acid is actually a fatty acid made by your body, and it is hugely important for energy production and metabolism. Studies have shown that this antioxidant is critical for reduced inflammation (4), which is heavily linked to diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes (among others).
Vitamin C is another key antioxidant that produces collagen in the skin. A deficiency can result in scurvy, which (thankfully) isn’t much of an issue in today’s world. Vitamin C is also concentrated in our immune cells and used to fight infections (5).
This vitamin is another powerful antioxidant that protects your cells against premature aging and free radical damage (6).
Flavonoids includes a huge list of over 6,000 compounds, and includes the well known antioxidants quercetin, kaempferol, catechins, and anthocyanidins (7). This group of antioxidants is most known for giving fruits and vegetables their bright, vibrant colors and for reducing inflammation.
Keep in mind that these are just some of the key players, and you can learn more by checking out this more complete list of antioxidants and antioxidant rich foods. Make sure to reap the important benefits of antioxidants by eating a diet rich in dark green and bright colored vegetables and fruits, and supplement as necessary.