Antioxidants have recently been shown to have a powerful part to play in improving your immunity and overall well-being. There has been a lot of news in the media over the last few years touting them as the biggest and best thing to include in your diet to ensure optimal health. But what are they, and how do they work?
What are Antioxidants?
Antioxidants are substances that are known to slow down or even prevent the damage caused to the body’s cells by free radicals – the unstable molecules produced by the body in reaction to environmental factors and other stresses.
They can come from either artificial or natural sources. Some plant-based foods are believed to be packed with antioxidants, and plant-based antioxidants are a form of phytonutrient.
Some antioxidants are produced by the body itself. These are known as endogenous antioxidants. Those that are derived from outside your body are called exogenous antioxidants. Antioxidants are known to protect against oxidative stress – the cell damage caused by free radicals in the body.
Some of the processes and activities that can cause oxidative stress include:
- Excessive exercise
- Mitochondrial activity
- Ischemia and reperfusion damage
- Tissue trauma because of injury or inflammation
- Consuming processed and refined foods, artificial sweeteners, trans fats and certain additives and dyes
- Environmental pollution
- Exposure to drugs, pesticides and chemicals
- Industrial solvents
When cell damage occurs, the result can be:
- Excess release of free copper or iron ions
- Activation of phagocytes, one of the white blood cell types that combat infection
- Disruption in the electron transport chains
- Increased enzymes that generate more free radicals These all cause oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress is linked to vision loss, atherosclerosis, and cancer due to cell changes caused by free radicals. Consuming more antioxidants can reduce these risks.
The Role of Free Radicals
Free radicals are waste substances created by cells when the body reacts to its environment and processes food. When your body can’t remove the free radicals efficiently, the result can be oxidative stress which harms the cells and impairs the function of your body.
Oxidative stress caused by free radicals is linked with a host of diseases including cancer, heart disease, strokes, arthritis, immune deficiency, respiratory diseases, Parkinson’s disease, emphysema, and other ischemic and inflammatory conditions. When you consume enough antioxidants, the free radicals are neutralized, boosting your overall health.
Which Foods Contain Antioxidants?
It’s believed there are hundreds or even thousands of antioxidants. Each one has its own role to play and interacts with others inside the body to keep it functioning properly. Some examples of antioxidants include:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
Flavonoids, catechins, flavones, phytoestrogens, and polyphenols are all forms of antioxidants found in plant-based food.
All antioxidants serve their own function and cannot be interchanged with others. This is why you need to eat a varied and balanced diet.
Some foods that are known to be rich sources of antioxidants include:
- Vitamin A – liver, eggs, and dairy products
- Vitamin C – vegetables and fruits including bell peppers, oranges, and berries
- Vitamin E – seeds and nuts, vegetable and sunflower oils, and leafy green vegetables
- Beta-carotene – vegetables and fruits in bright colors like peas, mangos, carrots, and spinach
- Lycopene – red and pink vegetables and fruits like watermelon and tomatoes
- Lutein – leafy green vegetables, oranges, papaya, and corn
- Selenium – corn, rice, wheat, nuts, wholegrains, legumes, cheese, and eggs
Other foods said to be good antioxidant sources include:
- Legumes like kidney beans and black beans
- Black and green teas
- Red grapes
- Dark chocolate
- Goji berries
It’s important to note that cooking certain foods may decrease or increase their level of antioxidants. For example, when tomatoes are cooked the lycopene inside them becomes easier for the body to use and process. Conversely, zucchini, peas, and cauliflower all lose some of their antioxidant potency when they’re cooked.
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